WriteCast Episode 66: Killing Your Darlings and Finding Your Gems
© Walden University Writing Center 2019
CLAIRE: Welcome to Write Cast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers, a monthly podcast by the Walden University Writing Center. I’m Claire Helakoski,
KACY: and I’m Kacy Walz. Today we’ll be talking about when revisions are difficult, and how to cope with “killing your darlings.” Hello, listeners! Before we get into today’s episode, I want to take a quick moment to welcome Claire back to the podcast!
CLAIRE: Hi all!
KACY: Claire’s been out on maternity leave, and we are so glad to have her back! So, welcome back, Claire!
CLAIRE: Thanks, Kacy. Hi everyone! I’m excited to be back here on the podcast. For this episode we’ll discuss the concept of “killing your darlings,” or removing pieces of your writing project that feel difficult to get rid of. This is a term that creative writers often use, because creative writers can become very attached to a scene or a character that just isn’t helping move the story along in a later draft. However, the concept applies to academic and other forms of writing as well. Do you have any experience with this in academic writing, Kacy?
KACY: Definitely. It used to be a lot harder for me to remove parts of my writing, but now I actually kind of enjoy it. It’s like, a competition I’m having with myself—exactly how direct and succinct I can make each point. So, I’ll ask myself if I need, for example, all or maybe any of the adjectives because I’ve noticed, in my own writing, I like to use a lot of adjectives. Could I use this space to develop a more important point? Or, to add a clearer connection? And knowing that I’m going to tackle this important step actually helps me out a lot when I’m writing my first draft. Because I’m not worried as much about making my sentences perfect, or crafting the most poetic transition...chances are I’m going to end up changing or cutting or moving sections around in my second draft anyways. And knowing that is just really freeing.
CLAIRE: That’s a really good point, too, being kind of prepared to kill your darlings helps you see them a little bit less as “darlings” and a little bit more as just part of the process. I know that Kacy and I are working on an article together and we recently workshopped part of it. And I had this section that I had felt really good about, but my co-writers kind of pointed out that it had a lot of research and that maybe it was too much research for the beginning paragraph of that section that I was working on. And, having kind of looked at it and talked with them about it, I definitely agreed and I went in with kind of this new excitement to make it better and stronger based on their feedback. But, I did pull the original and I have it saved in a draft, because I still did kind of have this proud feeling about it.
KACY: Well, and that’s a great additional, you know, suggestion here, is that you can always ask for additional help, for someone else to take a look and see, maybe, if you have certain sections you can cut out, and just, knowing that that reader is trying to help out they’re not trying to be mean. Claire, as we were workshopping I know you were really good about taking all of our comments and suggestions. And then, like you said, definitely still be proud of all that work that you’ve already crafted and completed.
CLAIRE: Yeah, and I think that that kind of pride is part of the reason that it feels difficult to kill our darlings, because we feel like, if we hit “delete” then it’s just gone, our work is evaporated, and it can make it feel hard to get rid of that sentence, that piece of evidence, or that idea that just isn’t working. But, Kacy and I have a few suggestions to help you kind of cope with this parting pain of deleting parts of your work.
KACY: Our first suggestion is exactly what Claire mentioned earlier. Which is, saving those parts that you might end up cutting from one version or one paper. That way whatever you ‘re deleting is still there, it’s just not in the current draft that you’re working on. And you might end up using that in a different project or later on in your paper. Claire mentioned that she ended up moving some of the information to a different section of the article we’ve been crafting, so that way you don’t feel like it’s gone forever. To do this, you might need to turn off Word’s auto-save feature, and then just make sure that you are saving new drafts with new dates, maybe, or different ways to differentiate between them. So that you can keep making that progress without feeling like you’ve deleted too much of your writing.
I mentioned that I really enjoy the task of cleaning up my drafts, and I’ve often found that providing myself with that overly-generative writing space often helps me make new connections and arguments. And, it’s always easier to start a new writing project when I’ve already got an idea brewing.
CLAIRE: That’s definitely helpful. And, especially with the work that students are doing at Walden, a lot of it is interconnected and related. And so, saving an idea or a source or a note that you had could actually be something that comes up in another paper or when you get a chance to have kind of more of a self-directed project later on in your coursework. I personally always have lots of drafts with lots of different titles. I do them by date or I’ve done them by number before. And, I find it helpful to never feel like I’ve truly lost my work.
Second option for when getting rid of something feel difficult is to tell yourself that just because it doesn’t make that final cut, doesn’t mean that you didn’t accomplish anything. Feeling like you don’t want to lose something that you’ve written is a really great sign. It means that you are aware that this is quality work. And even if that quality work doesn’t make the final cut for a variety of reasons, you’re feeling proud of what you’ve done. That’s a big accomplishment. You should feel great about that. It means that you’re producing things that you’re proud of and that you’re excited to have out in the world. And, it’s also motivational because if you created one sentence or paragraph or section that you feel proud of, then you have those skills and you can revise to make a stronger version a stronger draft. And just have those skills in place for the rest of your work. And as I mentioned before, sometimes I’ll save sentences or sections that I feel really proud of in their own document called “scraps” or “cut lines” or something like that. And you never know, because you could end up having a use for it later on. And sometimes I like to pull it out to feel really good and inspired about my writing and remember “that’s right, I did write this! And I felt really great about it!” And it’s nice to be able to revisit those sort of stand out moments.
KACY: Absolutely. And I just to want make one comment there, is that I have gotten myself into some trouble in the past by saving past drafts by continuously titling my next draft “New Draft” or “Previous Draft” so make sure when you’re doing that that you’re also very clear. I like your tip about numbering them or putting the date on them, Claire. I think that’s a very smart way of keeping track. And that point you made about being proud of what you’ve already written is such a really important reminder. It’s something that has really made it much easier for me to “kill my own darlings.” I know that I could never get to my second or third of whatever numbered draft I end up at, without that first version. I once read something that really stuck with me about writing, an author—and I can’t remember who it was that said this—but was talking about creating a writing habit. And the importance of writing something every single day. She said that the way she looks at is, if she wakes up one morning and writes 500 words and the next day deletes all 500 words as she revises, she’s still made the same amount of progress that she would have made without writing anything, but she’s still working that writers’ muscle. And ultimately that means she is left with a lot more than she started with. Even if the word count stays the same.
CLAIRE: That’s a good point. I really like that. I know there’s some adages out there, too, about needing to write something poorly to get to those great gems that you know are going to be buried in there. And I know some writer, too, once in a while, they’ll do kind of a practice where maybe they’ll cut half the word count off of something that they did to really boil it down to those essential ideas. Just as a practice. Just to, you know, remind themselves what they’re focus is and to work that writers’ muscle.
So there’s a lot of different exercises and approaches, too, keeping in mind that writing is a skill and so there’s lots of different ways to exercise it.
KACY: Yeah, one article I always used to have my intro-to-writing students read was by Anne Lamott. And I’m not going to say the title of the article, because there is a swear word in it, but it talks exactly about what you’re talking about, Claire. About having that kind messy, very rough draft to start out with.
So our third piece of advice is to just give yourself time. So when you finish drafting, or decide to move from writing a section to revising that section, which we mentioned in previous WriteCast episodes, should be two separate tasks- so you’re writing and then you’re revising—step away from your writing for a while. It can be easier to see what necessary to keep and what could be removed if you haven’t just finished writing it all. Then, take another break from your writing. I’d say, at least a day, before you start your next revision or your editing. Try to take some space after you make those difficult revisions before going back and deciding it was better the first time, and adding all those words back in. This will also help strengthen your objective writing eye.
CLAIRE: That space is really important. I agree. It’s been vital to my own editing process. So, next time you get feedback that suggests you remove something you instinctively want to protect, or you’re thinking on your own about taking out something that you feel proud of, try saving a copy for yourself, giving it some space, and remember to feel proud of your writing and accomplished that you have something that you want to protect. Which will give you the space to potentially move it around, change it, and make your writing and your drafts stronger overall.
KACY: And we’ll provide some resources on different revision strategies in our show notes for you today. Before we go, we wanted to give you a heads up about something new we’re going to be trying this summer. Our first book club episode! We’ll be discussing the book How to Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul Silvia. We’d like to encourage you to read along if you’re interested, and we wanted to make sure we gave you the opportunity to check out that book beforehand. If you have any questions about the book, or topics you’d like us to cover, we’d love it if you’d email us at writi[email protected] or get in touch through social media.
So, until next time, keep writing...
CLAIRE: Keep inspiring!
KACY: WriteCast is a monthly podcast produced by the Walden University Writing Center. Visit our online Writing Center at academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter. Find more WriteCast episodes on iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or your favorite podcast app. We would love to hear from you! Connect with us on our blog, Facebook, and Twitter, and at [email protected]. Thanks for listening!