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


By: Marilyn L. Davis


Darling Quotes That Make Sense


 According to George Plimpton, or William Faulkner, or Stephen King,” “Murder your darlings.” Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch first coined this phrase in 1914. 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, phrases, paragraphs, or even whole chapters of a book that do not work at this time.

When do writers use darlings?

  • They’re suffering from writer’s block.
  • It’s easier to use a weak modifier.
  • They are trying 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 that do not add value, but the author likes themStephen King doesn’t mince words, either. “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

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 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 by including unnecessary words.  

What is a better sentence? “Succinct writing limits unnecessary words.” 

Now, I’ve used fewer 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 piece’s function, just as flowery, overly complicated words do nothing to enhance the article. 

These extra words embellish or modify other parts of speech; however, embellishing them is unnecessary if you’ve used the strongest terms possible.

Flaccus states in Ars Poetica: “If you can realistically render a cypress tree, would you include one when commissioned to paint a sailor amid 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 strayed)
  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 get in the way without enhancing the piece.


Dark and Stormy Night Is 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 writing, not in the reading. And it does take work to remove the unnecessary words. You can see all the darlings:

  • Adverbs
  • Adjectives
  • Abrupt side comments
  • The annoying parenthesis

Now, let’s start with the most common unnecessary words 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 with adjectives 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 good places 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). I have removed ten words without changing the meaning and written a stronger sentence.



Overused Adverbs 


The 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 add 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, like 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: 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 put in the equivalent of a one-liner simply because they are catchy and 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: Use Them Someday


Darlings are not always about poorly written passages. Sometimes, they are 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, but they are not complete on their own, or they are two degrees off from your article’s main point. 

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 waiting for a home.



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Bio: Marilyn L. Davis is the Editor-in-Chief at From Addict 2 Advocate and Two Drops of Ink. She is also the author of Finding North: A Journey from Addict to Advocate and Memories into Memoir: The Mindsets and Mechanics Workbook, available on Amazon, at Barnes and Noble, Indie Books, and Books A Million.  

For editing services, contact her at marilyndavisediting@yahoo.com. 






  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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