Kill Your Darlings, But How? A Simple Editing Algorithm

We hear it all the time: “Kill your darlings.” But what does it mean? How do we know which need to die, and how do we kill them? This article will provide an algorithm to guide you through the painful editing process to refine your writing.

Defining a Darling

For the purpose of this article, a ‘darling’ is defined as any chapter, scene, beat, paragraph, sentence, or word that the writer put effort into but isn’t working. So when we talk about killing your darlings, we’re talking about removing those parts, even after you labored over them and might feel attached.

How does an algorithm work for editing?

I was happy with my current WIP, but something wasn’t working, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. My instincts told me I needed to be brutal in my editing if I wanted to fix it, but where would I begin? I was struggling to even figure out where the problem was. I needed a way to simplify this overwhelming process.

An algorithm is just a set of instructions. It could take a straight path, or that path might fork at certain junctures using “if this, then that” logic. For our purposes, we can have as many forks as we need so long as it stays manageable and memorable.

This sort of thinking can reduce overwhelm. Rather than agonizing over where to begin, take the first step and use the algorithm as your guide.

Hunting your darlings

So here’s my editing algorithm for finding darlings to kill.

Question 1: What’s the point?

We start with the step I imagine many writers already take. As you edit, ask yourself the following:

  • Why is this important for the story?
  • How does this progress the story?
  • Why does this matter to the characters?
  • Why would this matter to the readers?

Of course, it’s hard to keep all those questions in your head at the same moment, so let’s condense it all into a single, simple question:

What’s the point?

If you have a good answer to that question, you can keep it. Move on to the next beat. But if it doesn’t progress the story, continue to question 2.

Question 2: Does this create the right atmosphere?

If you can’t immediately think of the point, then ask:

  • Does it evoke the feeling I’m going for?
  • Does it immerse the reader in the world?
  • Does it convey the right emotions?

Again, this is too many questions, so I condense them down to:

Does this create the right atmosphere?

Remember, not everything has to push the story forward. It’s also important to create a sense of space and evoke feelings.

If the answer to question 2 is yes, then maybe it’s worth keeping. You can move on to the next beat and start from the beginning. If the answer is no, continue to question 3.

Question 3: Do I like it?

If it’s not important to the plot, character development, or atmosphere, then ask one final question.

Do I like it?

If the answer is no, then it’s less than a darling. Kill it immediately. Just delete it. If it doesn’t serve the story, doesn’t create the right atmosphere, and you don’t find it particularly enjoyable, then it serves no purpose and can be safely removed.

Saving a darling

If you like it, then by all means, try to save it.

Ask yourself:

How can I make this matter?

In my experience, I usually can’t, and even when I can, it means a lot of rewriting—saving darlings is a lot of work. But if it means that much to you, and you can think of a way to make it matter by either helping progress the story and character development or by creating atmosphere, then great! You just enhanced your story. Just be careful not to fool yourself, and ask your beta readers about those scenes, specifically.

When you fail to save it, it’s time to kill it

You may love some piece of your story but discover that you just can’t make it work. Now it’s time to ask the final question:

Does the story work without it?

If the answer is yes, it’s time to bury it.

You can mourn its loss, but only after it’s dead. Delete it.

Save your sanity by preserving your darlings

One thing that makes this easier for me is to preserve those pieces of the story I’ve cut. I keep them in a folder in my notes app where they can live in perpetuity, unpublished but extant. I’ve rarely found a use for old, orphaned bits of writing, but knowing they’re available if I need them makes me feel better about removing them from my story.