Faulkner Said “Kill All Your Darlings,” But Here’s a Less Murderous Way to Edit Your Writing
The Shape Underneath
You’re a writer. You’ve done some serious time, keeping your nose to the proverbial grindstone, researching, assessing, assaulting blank pages with words. You’ve stepped back and looked at the hot mess of your first draft, hacked it to pieces, and glued it back together. But still, every time you reread it, you face-palm because you almost sent it out when it still needed more edits. How do you get to the point where you know your manuscript is truly done? If you want solid results, you need to get real with that writer’s chisel and start whittling the heck out of your work, until you can find the crisp and defined shape underneath. Here’s how to do that.
A Happy Medium
William Faulkner famously said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” While his point is a good one — that falling in love with your own words is writer suicide — that doesn’t mean you need to murder everything you love about your work. Writers often start doubting the quality of everything they’ve penned, and they hack their manuscript down until it’s unrecognizable and flat. They go too far. But it’s crucial to your writing that you take a hard, critical look at every word. You need to find that happy medium between overblown and oversimplified. Believe me, the balance is there. It might be buried under a mountain of similes or an abundance of exclamation points, but it’s there.
How to Chisel Your Writing
Even if you have brilliant Pulitzer material on your hands, you’re not off the hook when it comes to getting mechanical. Look at your manuscript again. Have you infused the story with any quirks that could be too distracting? Have you taken a magnifying glass to every sentence and eliminated what you don’t need? Have you overused adverbs? Below are 5 tips to chisel your writing and boost your narrative without sacrificing what makes your writing uniquely you.
- Remove Thats and There Ares. These words are everywhere. Look through your work for sentences like this: There are a ton of projects that I can do. “There are” has little meaning. It’s a throwaway phrase. And “that” is often overused and expendable. Scrap ’em both at every opportunity. If you chop out those unnecessary words from the above sentence, you could end up with: I have a ton of projects I can do instead. Doesn’t that sound better? It’s active, it’s concise, and it has the same meaning. And your reader will skim it with ease without stumbling over the extra words. This simple fix will lift your writing.
- Avoid Weasel Words. Lukewarm, intent-deflating words will poison your writing, and they’re easy to toss in without realizing it. “Maybe,” “basically,” “essentially,” “pretty,” and “really” are all weasel words. You’re telling your reader, “I’m uncertain about this, but you gotta believe me anyway.” Unless these words are a crucial part of your character’s dialogue, cut them out.
- Keep it Simple. In a New York Times interview, best-selling author John Grisham made a great point about word usage (you’ll have to excuse his two opening words). “There are three types of words: (1) words we know; (2) words we should know; (3) words nobody knows. Forget those in the third category and use restraint with those in the second.” You get what he’s saying: eschew obfuscation. But that’s not the only way to keep your writing simple. Avoid overusing adverbs. Limit or cut exclamation points. Don’t add semicolons unless they improve the sentence. Common mistakes like these can make your work sound over-inflated or amateurish, which will turn off your reader. Keep it simple, and let your writing speak for itself.
- Mind Your Dialogue. It can be tempting to get fancy with your characters’ voices. Infusing them with accents, stutters, or extra sibilants might seem unique, but your reader will get annoyed and your manuscript will land on an editor’s slush pile quicker than you can say “Gawsh dernit!” Be mindful of accents. It’s one thing to use phrases or word structures that show an accent or dialect, but purposefully goofing up or exaggerating spelling is distracting. It can also come across as racist if handled the wrong way.
- Minimalism. Being verbose isn’t always a bad thing, but if you want your writing to come alive, you must practice some degree of minimalism. As an experiment, take a descriptive paragraph from your work and read through it, deleting any unnecessary words as you go. Then read it again and chip out some more. Then do it a third time. Try to cut 30% of your paragraph without diminishing your point. Now reread your simplified paragraph. I guarantee it’ll be sharper.
Iron It Out
Above are the most common mistakes all writers make, not just beginners. But that’s what editing is for. To be a good writer, you must learn the mechanics of self-editing. You don’t have to kill all your darlings, as Faulkner suggested. Your darlings may be salvageable or even crucial to your work. But you do need to get real with that chisel. Pretend like your first draft is a wrinkled pair of pants. The more you iron it, the fresher it will look. Get serious, get critical, and the next thing you know, a publisher will be snatching up your work.