Self Edits

On the Murder of Darlings

When I was a photographer, it could be torture going though the hundreds of photos I’d taken at a session and get rid of most of them. I tried to give clients around 30 images, but there were always so many more great photos than just 30! I would transfer them all from the memory card to a folder on my computer, then pull them up 10 or so at a time in Photoshop, edit the best ones, and delete the rest.

And that’s where my problem was.

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Instead of only keeping the best ones from the start, I let them all into the folder and then had to delete the ones I wasn’t keeping. Some of them were bad composition, out of focus, or too dark, but most of them were good photos—just not the very best. It was hard to get rid of them. They were my darlings. I’d made them; I liked them; and I wanted to keep them for always.

Then I started editing a different way. I would open up the memory card and go through them looking for the very best photos. The ones I’d want to put on my website. The ones I knew my clients would fall in love with. The ones that jumped out at me. Whittling it down to 30 was easy that way. The rest would stay on the card in case I ended up needing them, but only those best ones went into the folder to be edited. Instead of 25 fabulous ones and 15 more pretty good ones, my clients ended up with only the very best photos I’d taken. They were less overwhelmed and more satisfied that way.

William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” (Stephen King famously quoted this, as have other writers; in fact, Faulkner wasn’t even the first to say it, but that’s beside the point.) Most writers have to remind themselves of this maxim. Often. Because it’s hard. You made those precious words; you strung them together with thought and care and poured your soul into that beautiful scene. These words and sentences are your babies, your darlings.

But sometimes they don’t work. The sentence doesn’t work, the scene doesn’t work, or maybe the whole chapter doesn’t work. It doesn’t do its job of propelling the reader seamlessly through the story. It slows it down or doesn’t fit with the tone or sequence. Maybe it’s a little self-indulgent. Whatever the problem, it’s got to go.

When it comes to the killing of darlings, maybe it’s time to turn your thinking around. Don’t think of it as deleting parts you love; think of it as keeping the best parts. Make sure every little word and every character interaction does its job so well that those other words aren’t even necessary. Make it so that superfluous sentences have no place among the succinct, expressive prose you have created. Choose your words with care.

But have no fear. You don’t even have to delete those darlings for good. Just give them a new home, in a deleted scenes folder. Cut and paste them into a new document that can live on your computer forever, a testament to your diligence and wisdom as a growing author.

Write a book where every part is the best part.

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