What Are Darlings and Why Do These Writers Want Them Killed?

_By: Marilyn L. Davis

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Stephen KingOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

A Popular Quote for a Reason

Darlings are those unnecessary words, phrases, paragraphs or even whole chapters of a book that just do not work at this time. “Murder your darlings” was a phrase first coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1914, or Chesterton according to George Plimpton, or William Faulkner or Stephen King. I will not quibble about who said it or when; however, I will note that several famous writers agree with the idea of removing all unnecessary words.
Part of the problem is that writers use unnecessary or imprecise words when they are stuck, when it is easier to use bad modifiers, or when they have to meet a deadline or word count. The other problem is that writers become enamored of some words. These darlings can be the words themselves, or the types of words that do not add value, but the author likes them.

How to Spot a Darling a Mile Away

In the sub-heading, I have a darling. Writing, “a mile away” is unnecessary. It adds nothing to the statement, sounds trite, and can annoy readers who will understand the message with, “How to Spot a Darling.”
Extra words are sometimes amateurish.
Many new writers add them thinking that they will clarify a passage. For instance, “You will avoid unnecessary, or repetitive, often used words, when you write tightly and succinctly.” That sentence also has darlings.
  • Tightly means strong, forcefully and compactly
  • Succinctly means briefly or in a few words
  • Repetitive means monotonous and boring words
Therefore, what I wrote in the initial sentence defeats the purpose when I include those words. What is a better sentence? “Succinct writing limits unnecessary words.” Now, I’ve used stronger and less words to convey the point.

Purple Prose – Overrun with Darlings and Cypress Trees

The Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus coined the term Purple Prose; comparing literature to sewing patches of purple-dyed cloth onto clothing to denote importance.  These clothing enhancements added nothing of value to the function of the piece, just as flowery, overly complicated words do nothing to enhance the article. These extra words are simply written to embellish or modify other parts of speech; however, if you’ve used the strongest words possible, embellishing them is unnecessary.
Flaccus states in Ars Poetica: “If you can realistically render a cypress tree, would you include one when commissioned to paint a sailor in the midst of a shipwreck?” While the example is obvious, how do you spot Purple Prose today? Look for writing that is:
  1. Too wordy
  2. Elaborate, extravagant, fancy, florid, or melodramatic
  3. Written with words that distract the reader
  4. Filled with words that do not add value
  5. Too trendy, friendly, or sly using the wink/wink/nod/nod approach
  6. Adding a distracting parenthesis (rewrite the sentence; you’ve already digressed)
  7. Referencing yourself: “In my opinion” or,“I thought I would write about”
Purple Prose tends to read as grammatically disconnected. When you try to qualify or explain more, the darlings tend to digress and often read as an afterthought. Sometimes, they just get in the way, without enhancing the piece.

Dark and Stormy Night Is Already Taken++

Since 1982, the English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored a contest named after the writer who gave us, “It was a dark and stormy night.” It is the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. As if dark and stormy night were not enough purple prose, here is the entire first sentence:

++“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”— Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)
Reading this sentence takes work, and work is done in the writing, not in the reading.
And it does take work to remove the unnecessary words. You can see all the darlings, those adverbs, adjectives, abrupt side comments, and that annoying parenthesis.So, let’s start with the most common unnecessary words ones and get that out of the way.
Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Since they have that much power, there are places that adverbs work.
If modifying the verb, adjective, or another adverb weakens the original intent, you have defeated your purpose in strong writing.
Adjectives and adverbs that only add words, not strength, or value are a good place to begin when you want to pare down the darlings. (25 words) That sentence is over-run with darlings.
The following is better: Take out adjectives and adverbs that do not add strength or value to your article. (15 words). This means I have removed ten words without changing the meaning and written a stronger sentence.

Overused Adverbs++ 

overly-used-adverbsThe most overused adverbs often end in “ly”. Check each article before you hit publish. Use your “search” or “find” function to isolate these “ly” adverbs and see if they add to the content.
The problem is that some of these adverbs weaken the verb rather than adding value. For instance, “John ran swiftly.” Running, by definition is swifter than walking, therefore, swiftly is redundant.
However, you could use modifiers to qualify what type of walking, such as leisurely, slow-paced, or purposeful. It is not just adjectives and adverbs that writers use poorly. It is also nouns and weak verbs. Better writers avoid:
  1. Words that are cumbersome or scholarly if you do not usually use them in other writing
  2. Flowery, overly vivid, dramatic, flamboyant, or just too wordy sentences
  3. Cliched writing: Just remember: “It was a dark and stormy night…..”
  4. Words that attract attention and disrupt the sentence flow

All of the words should complement and add to the context of the article.

Some writers make the mistake of putting in the equivalent of one-liners simply because they are catchy when they do not add worth to the entire article. If you find that you get excited about a particular group of words, or think to yourself, “Wow, I nailed that one”, it might be time to see if that is just an ego driven darling. Learn to edit the darlings, revise your article, and have a better writing experience. But what if you can’t bring yourself to kill the darlings? Then save them for the proverbial rainy day.

 Orphaned Darlings: I Will Use Them Someday

Darlings are not always about poorly written passages. They are sometimes great paragraphs without a home; therefore, I call them my orphaned darlings, not to be confused with orphans and widows from typesetting, where part of a sentence continues on the following page.
There is nothing wrong with the orphaned darlings, in fact, sometimes there is a lot right with them, they just are not complete on their own, or they are two degrees off from the main point of your article. 
Each writer has some passages that will work in a different piece. Put these orphaned darlings in their file and review them periodically.
Just a word of caution: If the first sentence begins with a dark and stormy night, that one may have to go. However, if the writing is tight, you might have the beginnings of your next article just waiting for a home.

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  1. Thank you for this timely & succinct information. The way you wrote it reminded me of my grandpa–a newspaper man with a quick wit. You made me laugh 🙂

    • Hi, Jen. Glad I could make you laugh. Humor is so subjective that I think a lot of writers are afraid of inserting something funny, satirical, or off the wall for fear of falling flat when a reader doesn’t “get it”. While I’m not ready to write an entire humorous post yet, I’m willing to sprinkle a few passages that strike me as funny. Thanks for getting me, and in equal measure – thank you for a comparison to a newspaper man.

      Hope you visit us again.

  2. Thank you for the reminder. I love my darlings but you are right, they must go. I like your approach on saving the favorite darlings for another article. This will help me get rid of more darlings because it allows the flexibility to save them for later, instead of outright murdering them.

    • Hi, ourweirdlives – with a name like that, I’m sure even your darlings are interesting! Don’t murder them, save them to the Darling file and review them periodically.

      Thank you for commenting and I hope you visit again, and find other tips that help your writing.

  3. What a riotously fun subject – attractive for its near universal hounding even of non-fiction writers.

    Personally, I have found that nights are not so dark and stormy if one does not procrastinate in writing.

    And I cannot resist – here’s my rewrite of that infamous beginning:

    All was calm that night, except for the gale and the soaking rain.

    heh heh. I think that intrigues, honestly. There is a contradiction to be resolved…but, another time.

    • Good morning, Tom; good to hear from you again. So, when will you resolve that contradiction? She waits for further notice.

    • What a fun take on dark and stormy. When you have it resolved, let me know. Thanks

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