If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s the act of killing your darlings—otherwise known as extensive reworking or developmental editing. This is what happens when you’re a pantser—and you’ve been pantsing a book for over a decade. I’ve been killing darlings the entire time working on my 2nd draft and it’s been a lovely time.
This post will go step-by-step through my personal method of killing my darlings. It’s going to be more painful for you than it is for me, I promise.
But before we get to it, I want to remind you why this type of editing is worth trying. See, many say that you should cut out sentences, characters, or what have you to preserve the story, keep things clean or succinct, and to remain organized and unified. This isn’t “delete your novel and start over,” but rather “take out the old grit to make room for the better things.”
With this kind of mindset, you’re looking at your material with less bias; with the big picture in mind, you can go through each chapter and cut out the unnecessary clutter to let your good ideas have room to grow and play.
Ready to go?
Step 1—Read through the chapter.
Even if you don’t want to use any of it, it’s good to know what you wanted to do with these pages, especially if it reveals something important about the plot and doesn’t do the job anywhere else. Besides, it’s good to know what direction you originally intended so you have an idea of where it should go. So saddle up, and see what you have to work with. Here’s my model text; read at your own discretion.
Step 2—Highlight the text in a color of your choice to show items that need to go, be reworded, or moved around.
I do this instead of immediately cutting sentences out in order to preserve context. You can safely say that if the whole chapter has been colored, you can stop here because apparently the whole chapter isn’t necessary anymore.
In my case, a lot of this was just embarrassing writing that reflects my old writing style from late-high school/early college. I’ve hopefully learned more about my characters and good writing since then, so some of them need to change stylistically.
Step 3—Write an outline—as detailed or vague as you see fit.
This is to give yourself basic points you want this chapter to accomplish. Some make outlines so elaborate that they basically create a skeleton for the chapter and can fill in the gaps. Others just make a checklist of what they don’t want to forget. Pick something that works for you. Mine are usually situated at the top of the document so I can use it for constant reference. I also usually delete points I’ve already covered.
Step 4—Do some writing!
You can take this in a few different directions. You can rewrite from scratch and glance at the old chapter for reference, or you can edit the text you have and just fix the sentences you marked as you go. I like to make the new stuff look different by changing the font and color as I go to show my progress. Since I equate this process to Spring cleaning, I like to see the visual changes as I go.
Step 5—Make notes of any and all changes.
In your own way, remind yourself that you’ve added or taken away major changes to remain consistent with the rest of your content. It might be that you’ve added a new character, or you’ve redefined how a character looks. You’ll be surprised at how much will change when you put your work through the grinder.
I should also note that just because a sentence, idea, or character doesn’t fit the bill in this chapter, doesn’t mean they aren’t useful elsewhere; save these odds and ends in a document to refer to later for future scenes or novels. You gotta spread the wealth, right?
So here’s what my improved text looks like now:
It’s definitely not publish-ready (my writing group has to read this first!) but it’s a lot more satisfying for me as a writer.
What are your tactics for killing your darlings? We’d love to hear how you do it!