Editing Principle 07: Kill Your Babies

You may have heard an editor use the phrase, "Kill your babies." Or as I’ve sometimes encouraged people, “If you really love a line, let it go,” probably thanks to my hearing the voice of Sting in my head as I think about this principle. In 1914 the author Arthur Quiller-Couch suggested, “Murder your darlings.” Faulkner is credited with the "Kill all your darlings“ variation.

What are we talking about? Basically that the sentences in their work that a writer loves the most often compromise the integrity of the whole. For the piece as a whole to work well, these sentences gotta go.

Sometimes they can be deleted outright, but as I often advise authors, if they find that too hard to do—after all, they love these sentences! these are their adorable baby sentences!—they can be cut and pasted into an OUTTAKES file that’s stored alongside the original document file

Before I go into why zapping your favorite sentences is a good idea let me explain what this advise does not amount to: It is not a recommendation to make yourself or your prose bland and beige.

What’s it aiming at is the idea that one’s favorite sentences tend to be those that contain shortcuts to a core component of their psyche. They are seeped in the way they think, often allude to memories and tangents that aren’t (yet) on the page, and so what the author “hears” when they’re read aloud is rarely what anyone else hears.

You could say these babies are dog whistles for an audience of one, that one person being the author themself.

Babies/darlings can also be full paragraphs, stories, even facts and research.

Here’s 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.

Megan Hustad