When You Must Kill Your Darlings

How to Cook a Book: When You Must Kill Your Darlings

Kill your darlings.

Remove what you are most in love with. Remove any words the story no longer needs. It can be the most heart-wrenching thing to do, which is why editing is best left to the daylight hours, after you’ve spent some significant time away from the page.

The phrase “kill your darlings” is most widely attributed to William Faulkner (although there’s evidence to the contrary). Regardless, it’s sage writing advice. While working on the manuscript for Eat This Poem, I killed many, many darlings. It’s all part of the process, but I never thought I’d cut the very first thing I ever wrote.

Winter 2013.

Having already eaten lunch at my desk, I tucked my laptop under my arm and drove a few miles down the road to Starbucks. Surrounded by teenagers and business meetings, I took out my photocopied page of “The Orange,” a poem by Campbell McGrath, and scribbled notes in the margins.

Then I wrote one sentence that was followed by more sentences, that became an entire manuscript.

“This poem is not about an orange, not really. It’s about every moment you’ve ever been blindsided by happiness.”

I didn’t know where the poem would fit just then. I didn’t know it would open the second chapter, or which stories I would tell for the recipe pairings. I only knew what the poem made me feel in that moment.

This was in 2013, early enough to know the road ahead would be long. It was the first poem of 40 others I would include in my book proposal, that was eventually cut down to 25 poems. There would be many more lunch breaks spent underlining words, taking notes, and drafting, but this is one of the first moments I can remember of really knowing this would happen. A book would be born. I just felt it. And it wasn’t a light caffeine rush from my tea, either. I simply knew it to be true.

The story behind the story.

As is the custom, we begin with a first draft that must be refined. The original commentary I had for this poem was much longer, and told the story of a Habitat for Humanity trip I took to Poland. It was the summer after studying abroad in London, and I was itching to travel. I convinced a friend to join me, and we found ourselves on a flight filled with Polish grandmothers making their way back to the mother country from Chicago. The plane erupted with applause when we landed.

Every morning we ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant, then filed into a bus that drove us to the construction site across town, in a quiet suburban village. One morning, I looked across the square, and at the edge of the park was a red, London bus. It had no business being there, as far as I could tell. What was a double decker bus from the streets of London doing in downtown Wrocław. I never did find out.

But what was even more curious was the number: 38. It was the same bus I took to school every day when I was living in Clerkenwell and studying at King’s College. The very same bus number! No one else seemed to notice the bus, and if they did, I’m certain it meant nothing to them.

I never forgot this. It was some sort of strange sign, something I alone was meant to witness.

An illustration from inside the pages of  Eat This Poem , drawn by  Cat Grishaver.

An illustration from inside the pages of Eat This Poem, drawn by Cat Grishaver.


So when I read “The Orange,” where the speaker discovers an object where it is not meant to be—in this case, a heavy piece of citrus fallen far from its tree—I immediately thought of my London bus in Poland.

I wrote the story out and kept it there for a very long time. Years later, I realized it needed to be removed. The story simply didn’t fit, and wasn’t intimately tied into the recipes.

But it’s a special story, so I’m telling you. It’s a story behind a story. A layer. A fragment. Writing is full of these. When I’m editing, there’s a string, followed by a pause. I’ll come back here, I reason. I hope when I return, I’ll have figured out a way to keep what my gut knows should go.

Kill your darlings.

Writing is like this. A push and pull. An instinctual process, a grief in letting go of the words we may have fought hard to put down in the first place. A carving out.

Keep what you remove. Don’t discard it. You may find a new home for the words, the story, as I have here.

Tips for when you must kill your darlings

3 tips for editing your writing, when you're ready

1  Let it rest

When you pull a beautiful, seared steak off the grill, the first thing you should do is let it rest. Covered loosely with foil, juices redistribute and ensure they don’t run all over your cutting board. You also slice the steak against the grain. It’s like editing. First, give your words some time. Close your computer, put the pages in a drawer. When you’re ready to begin, you’ll be in a new state of mind, brimming with clarity. Have your red pen ready, and go against the grain.

2 You are not your words

Yes, you wrote them. Yes, the words are part of you. But once they’re on the page, detach yourself. Look for flaws. Look for repeated words… Look closely, as you would with someone else’s work. Try as best you can to leave emotion behind and focus on what you’re really looking at, seeing if it flows, where you have gaps, and what needs to be reworked.

Kill your darlings, if you must.

3 Read aloud

After you’ve done a round or two of editing, read your work aloud. You’ll catch things you didn’t notice before, and see how natural the words sound when strung together with the inflections in your voice.

Writing and editing are two distinct aspects of the creative process, and you’ll do well to separate them. Write first, edit later.

What are some of your favorite editing tips?