Dawn Colclasure's Blog

Author and poet Dawn Colclasure

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Killing my darlings

William Faulkner may have advised writers to “kill your darlings” during the revision process, but for any writer so attached to those precious words an editor isn’t all that crazy about, this advice can be painful. When I wrote in an article this week how I had “painfully said goodbye to the well-crafted ending I’d originally written,” I wasn’t kidding. I’d spent so much time over that ending, only to have the editor at the magazine accepting my essay axe it. Any writer who read those words might chuckle with familiarity over this predicament, but the process isn’t one I can take so lightly.

Of course I HAVE found a way to cope with this. In my TIPS book, I suggest to writers who can’t seem to part with their precious words to either use them in a later work or to save them instead of throwing them out. This way, chopping them from your work isn’t so permanent. In fact, the very act of saving those words for later use is akin to setting up a VERY SPECIAL place for them, besides in that lowly article or story they’re just too good for. (Catching on to this yet?)

Another way is one I was recently reminded of. This week, my editor at SIGNews said she’d try to fit a timely article into the next issue of the paper but there was one thing I had to do first: Chop it in half. Perform editing surgery. Kill my precious darlings. I nearly screamed when I’d read I’d have to whittle away over 700 words of my article, although this request has been made before. Still, it’s very rare an editor asks me to chop my article in half; it’s normally about 50 or 100 words, but not HALF! (And then sometimes, of course, there will be the request to add more.) So as I sat there grumbling “this is great stuff!” as I deleted paragraphs, sentences and rewrote passages, I soon remembered what I could do with that whole other topic my article touched on: Put it into a new article. Develop a new story and use these deleted passages for it. What I tried to do was allow my interviewee to share a story of how her father, who had been born deaf, had grown up in a home where signing was forbidden and how, during his last years, the impact it had on him (and his wife and children) to see sign language become more acceptable in families and society. I really wanted to give this story center stage (as well as emphasis on how my interviewee was holding fundraisers to raise money for housing for deaf senior citizens), but there just wasn’t room for it without wrecking good stuff for the article’s main topic. So I decided to turn it into another article I could do for SIGNews. I only hope I’m able to find other families with similar stories.

Revision is never easy. I have written and said this soo many times: Revising your work is TORTURE! You’ve got to rewrite sentences to make them look GOOD, rearrange paragraphs so that everything flows well, make sure there aren’t any loopholes, that you’ve written what you promised your readers at the very beginning, that your title/headline catches their eye and that everything – prose and dialogue – are balanced. You’ve got to make sure you support your arguments with quotes/citations, that everybody is quoted ACCURATELY, that you don’t have any tech or whatever jargon readers will stumble over (unless it’s called for) and that you’ve given this work your very best. But the big thing about revision is the very act of killing your darlings. Stripping away those precious, muse-inspired words that sent you into a state of euphoria. (Hey, there’s some of those darlings right there.) It’s torture, but it has to be done.

If you want your writing to shine, you’ve got to take the kid gloves off. You’ve got to cop an attitude, grab the red pencil and be prepared to commit some word murder. It’s the only way to give your readers your very best. If not a way to get a timely article into the next issue of a newspaper.


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