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Kill Your Darlings: Five Rules for Writers

by Rita J. King
 
 
I had lunch today with a couple of journalists who are also imaginative, adventurous creative writers. After 24 years as a CNN anchor and correspondent, Kitty Pilgrim is now the author of a series of romantic thrillers with science at the core. Jim Bruton, a journalist and inventor, is on a spiritual mission. The conversation soon turned to my favorite topic, writing, so I thought I’d share a few of the ideas that came up, or popped into my mind, with those of you who strive to write in a clear, communicative way.
 
Have fun

If you’re not having fun writing, chances are it won’t be fun for other people to read what you’ve written. Maybe you’re thinking, “I absolutely refuse to dumb down my ideas to make them fun!” Nobody’s asking you to dumb anything down. In fact, be as hardcore as you want. I’d love to walk away from your book with knowledge I didn’t have before, but I’d also like to enjoy the process of putting it into my brain. This doesn’t mean you need to be a comic genius (though it doesn’t hurt) or write in such small blocks that any busy person can read a bit between other activities (though it helps). 

Don’t have fun

Writing is often tedious. Any solitary activity that requires hours of focus without interruption tends to take a toll. If you think you’re a writer just because you’re capable of forming letters into words and shaping words into sentences and paragraphs, you’re wrong. You need to put the hours into finding your voice and style, and it helps to have something to say that’s simultaneously personal and universal. There’s a whole world of things out there that are far more fun than being alone with a notebook or keyboard. To be a writer, you need to find the discipline to make sure that the velvet on which you pin your butterflies is the right color, not wrinkled, fastened correctly to the background and ready for someone else to view. 

Kill Your Darlings

Then there’s the cold hard reality that you might have just spent your entire day’s session producing ten solid pages of worthless prose. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a novel, a dissertation, an article, or a letter to explain why you love someone. If it’s not good, let it go. If you can make a succinct or even a nuanced point in fewer, more concise words, do it. Take the few lines that sparkle or mean something, copy them out, and get rid of the rest. This crushing editorial process is known as “killing your babies,” or “killing your darlings.” If you want your writing to penetrate someone else’s imagination, you can’t expect them to manage the burden of your brood of unnecessary sentiments, tangents and words. 

Do the research

Once you have an audience, what are you going to give them? A poorly researched or thought out piece of writing (regardless of genre) is like feeding a cardboard turkey to Thanksgiving guests. No matter how wild your imagination is, it’s the little details that can’t be invented that make your writing worth the time it takes to read it. While it’s easy to get information about anything online, Wikipedia is not a substitute for the smell, taste, texture and feel of a place or industry. Writing about what you know is both a physical and emotional guideline. You can always learn, but you should never fake it. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine even getting up to run to the supermarket after sitting alone writing for hours on end, much less to plan a research trip. If you don’t have time to plan it, just wing it. Find another reason to be where you need to be. Find another assignment there, or make your own adventure. 

Ask Yourself: Why? 

There’s nothing more dull than an obvious morality tale. As a writer, trust your audience to draw their own conclusions, or like any relationship lacking trust, it will end poorly. Why are you writing on a particular subject? What passion catalyzed your obsession with a subject so intense that you’re willing to spend long hours alone, find your voice and your passion, kill your darlings and subject yourself to the powdery blackness of coal dust in order to write believably about a family living in a West Virginia town? It’s your passion, after all, that defines you, but it’s your discipline and curiosity that define you as a writer.  

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