Kill Your Darlings

In this multi-day writing and editing challenge, we’re putting your red pen to the test. Each day, 10% of your post gets the axe.

Being a good writer means knowing how to edit: taking what you’ve written and stripping out the dulling distractions so your ideas shine. It’s not always easy, but it is necessary.

In this multi-day writing challenge, we’re forcing your editorial hand. You’ll spend one day writing and three more editing before you publish.

In writing, you must kill your darlings.
– William Faulkner

They’re called “first drafts” for a reason.

I love Cheri’s excellent advice:

“A colleague applying to an artists’ program wrote a 2,000 word statement listing her hurdles and accomplishments, yet I came away not reading anything memorable.

I suggested: Describe something — a childhood encounter, a challenging exchange with a professor, a moment of enlightenment — I can picture. Make yourself a character: one that I can follow, that I can imagine when I close my eyes.”

Have you written a list, or a story?

First drafts are filled with nuggets of goodness scattered among thoughts that don’t actually move our ideas forward (but seemed brilliant when we wrote them). And that’s fine! It’s what a first draft is for: to throw all the things you think are important at the page.

Once they’re out of your brain and on the screen, though, it’s time to assess them with a critical eye. Which bits are the crux? Focus on them. Which add helpful detail or emotional color, but are not central? They get sprinkled in at key points. Which don’t contribute at all? Heave ho!

Sometimes, the extra baggage is obvious, and therefore easy to toss out. Sometimes, though, we grow attached to our words, and it’s painful — to kill our darlings. Still, if a beautifully-turned phrase doesn’t express something important for your post, it’s just a hanger-on. It hurts to cut — how can we deprive the reading public of this gorgeous sentiment? — but your piece will be better for it.

Time to trim the fat.

This week your darlings are getting the axe, like it or not. Here’s what you’ll do:

  • Today — whenever you’re reading this — start a new post. Write until you’ve said everything you want to say, then save your draft — but don’t publish.
  • Tomorrow, open the post and check the word count (hint: it appears at the bottom of the editing box). Edit your post down by 10%, then save it and forget it again.
  • Repeat on two more days, until you’ve done three days of editing.
  • After three days of editing, hit “Publish.”

If your original draft was 1,000 words, the piece you ultimately publish should be around 730; if you started with 500, you’ll end up with 365 or so. If you’re a flash fiction writer who starts with 50, you’ll need to get yourself down to 36. (If you have a bolt of searing editorial insight and want to cut it down more than 10% on any day, feel free.) Whether you’re a long-form or short-form blogger, learning to wield your red pen ruthlessly will improve your writing.

Feeling stuck for inspiration? Write a post, fiction or non, using these as your opening line: “The tea and toast were stone-cold, but I didn’t notice. How could I, when s/he was there?” or try a daily prompt you haven’t responded to yet.

Your post can be on anything you’d like; we’re not giving you a topic, just a process. If you’d like, add an author’s note to the end of your post (or publish a follow-up post) reflecting on what it was like to be forced to pare down something you’d written.

You can start this challenge whenever you’re reading this post; if it’s not Tuesday, no worries! Now, time to sit at the keyboard and let the ideas flow — but keep that red pen waiting in the wings!

Photo by Nic McPhee (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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  1. This is difficult for me, like anything new. I have a tendency to edit as I write, which annoys me but, I guess that’s a disadvantage to being a perfectionist. I do, on occasion go back to old posts and add or subtract from them depending on my mood, so it does work. I will have to force myself to do this, retrain myself. Ty for this post.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Lol, or maybe you are just spoiled:) I guess you could say I am, too. Like I said, I’m the first child of 7 kids, and first borns are almost always spoiled. I mean, I was born with my umbilical chord wrapped around my neck, and before I was one I had to have a surgery for a hernia…I think when a kid is born into that kinda situation you get a little spoiled. But then, my sister came a year later, and another the year after that so I had to become a big brother right away.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. After I write I go back and remove all my typos.
    Then I go back and correct my sentence structure.
    Then I correct my grammar.
    Then I throw out anything that’s frivolous or doesn’t make sense.
    At that point I have a blank page.

    Liked by 17 people

  3. What a wonderful exercise! I already have a lengthy post I started last night that would be a perfect victim for murdering all my darlings. I can’t wait to read what everyone has come up with.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I edit as I write but even so, I still go back over it a few times and check and double-check my grammar, typos etc. It’s a good tip though as sometimes I find Ido need to “trim the fat” a bit. 🙂 Good post.


    1. If you’re writing in the new post editor, it’s not there — the easiest way to get the word count is to cut-and-paste into a text editing program. If you’re using the classic post editor, you’ll see the word count in the post editing box itself, in the lower left-hand corner.


    1. Hey hi hello 🙂
      I am new to blogging and came across your post 🙂 ..
      Written well.. 🙂
      Would appreciate your feedback on my posts 🙂
      Thanks in advance 🙂 n keep in touch..!!!


  5. Okay, I read through the entire post so I’m going forward. Something really strange but surprisingly fruitful seems to be plunking onto my keyboard. I’ll let you know when I hit publish. I’m looking forward to reading all of your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “The difference between style and fashion is quality.” – Georgio Armani. It should always be quality over quantity. Of course, the hardest part is figuring out which are the words that say what you think and which words say what you mean.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is exactly how I function. In fact I edit for a week before I publish. Sometiems I’ve gone back to edit published posts.. Everytime I read my posts, I can see how something can be said differently or in lesser words.


  8. I totally agree! I am a manuscript editor by profession and I know how important the use of the right words and the correct use of punctuation is. What is the Oxford comma? How is an en dash different from an em dash and a hypen? Should the period come within quotation marks or outside it? These are just some of the things that keep me entertained through the day.


  9. I can’t say that in editing I always shorten my first draft. What I can honestly say is I’ve done things alternately, sometimes shortening and sometimes lengthening my posts.

    When I shorten them, I get rid of the extraneous details and accounts that deflect my entire work from its main point. Or even superfluity that mars the beauty of a post. When lengthening an article I sometimes feel like I’ve missed mentioning one or two very crucial details so I put them in and see a post that sounds more like me and less like somebody else.

    Thank you, Michelle for that timely reminder to be succinct. We all need that!


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