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Editing Principle 07: If You Really Love a Line, Let It Go

montevideoEditors sometimes use the phrase “Kill your babies.” By which they mean that the sentences the writer him- or herself loves the most often compromise the integrity of the whole piece. In order for the piece to survive (and accomplish its goal of actually communicating an idea), these sentences need to go. As in not leave your computer.

If “Kill your babies” sounds harsh, try “Murder your darlings,” which is how the author Arthur Quiller-Couch put it in 1914.

Why has this idea persisted? Our experience suggests it’s actually not so sinister. Nor is it a recommendation to blend in or reach for the widest possible audience. (That never works, anyway.)

Our theory is that one’s favorite sentences tend to be those that present shortcuts to a core component of your being. They are seeped in the way you think, and testify to the twisted, idiosyncratic pathways of your brain more than anything else. These sentences are invariably somewhat inscrutable. Only people who know you well can discern from them what, exactly, you intend to say.

Others won’t see the shortcut, or they’ll misread you and so read the remainder of the piece both uncomprehending and agitated.

Point being: You murder your darlings for the sake of clarity and influence.

UPDATE: More on the subject from the writer Mike Dash: “You will find yourself struggling to shoehorn in a favorite story, piece of information, or anecdote. You will find yourself realizing that it doesn’t really fit, but you will love it so much that you keep it in the book anyway. And if you are honest with yourself, when it comes to doing the [revision], you will find yourself admitting that it doesn’t work and that it has to come out. With experience, you will learn to spot these dangerous interlopers, and recognize that you will save yourself a heap of trouble by excluding them from the get-go. Of course, this is just another take on Faulkner’s “Kill all your darlings,” but I hadn’t heard that quote until after I’d made precisely this mistake at least two or three times.”