Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision


This multi-part blog series grew out of my presentation to the San Diego Writers & Editors Guild on May 20, 2019.

Drawing on my years of experience as an editor, I discuss structure, plot, content, narrative voice, characters, point of view, and how to “kill your darlings” as it applies to fiction as well as memoir and narrative nonfiction. By applying these principles and techniques, writers will move closer toward their goal of publishing short stories, novels, memoirs, and narrative non-fiction worthy of merit and recognition, if not financial reward.

Who will benefit: All writers, new and experienced. The eyes of new writers will be opened to the realities of the writing and publishing world, and the notion that writing is rewriting. For experienced writers, this will serve as a refresher, or offer new perspectives on the art of revision. It will also benefit those who participate in read-and-critique groups by providing specifics on what to look for in the work of others, as well as those who self-publish.

Primary Principles of the Presentation:

  • Clarity, not confusion.
  • What’s the story reason?
  • Kill your darlings.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Active voice.
  • You don’t know what you don’t know.
  • Kill your darlings.

Purpose: Clarity, not confusion. To provide principles and techniques for improving writers’ ability to edit themselves. This does not—and should not—preclude them from working with a professional editor to improve and polish their work. But this process will take writers farther along the journey toward their goal—publishing short stories, memoirs, and novels worthy of merit and recognition, if not financial reward.

What I cover: This is about self-editing, and I will touch on big-picture items: structure, content, plot, narrative voice, narrative mode, characters, point of view, and how to “kill your darlings.”

 Why? Isn’t my job as an editor to find typos and missing words, and correct your grammar, spelling, usage, punctuation, and capitalization? Yes, it is. However, almost every manuscript I see needs more than that: I find problems with the structure, plot holes, needless content, passive voice, head-hopping POV shifts, and author intrusion (the “darlings”).

That is the genesis of this presentation.

Keep in mind that what I present to you today are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules—all rules are arbitrary; however, these guidelines/rules are based established industry norms. If you go outside these norms, tread carefully. As the saying goes, if you’re going to break the rules, know the rules you are breaking. For beginning or unpublished authors seeking a traditional publishing deal, this is particularly true. Remember: You don’t know what you don’t know.

What I do not cover: Editorial style—the mechanics of writing and editing; i.e., the nit-picky stuff: grammar, spelling, usage, and punctuation. I have written a 10-part blog series called From the Editor’s Eye: The 10 Most Common Errors Made by Writers. It is available online, and it is self-explanatory, and self-guiding. I urge all of you to take a look at it, on your own time. The links to it and other material related to writing, editing, publishing, and marketing are on the Resources for Writers, Editors, and Indie Publishers page of my website.

Key Elements of the Art of Revision:

  1. Structure: How is your story organized, or not? Restructuring for clarity of story, character, and theme arcs.
  2. Content: Does the manuscript have needless or irrelevant content? If there is no story reason for including it, cut it.
  3. Narrative Voice: Are you telling, rather than showing/revealing?: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
  4. Narrative Mode: Are you switching modes midstream?
  5. Point of View (POV): Are you head-hopping among characters, especially minor characters, or giving needless POV to minor characters?
  6. Characters: Do you have cartoonish or two-dimensional characters?
  7. Plot: Is the conflict contrived, unbelievable? Beware of plot holes.
  8. Information Dumps: Do you have reader-feeder in dialogue and exposition?
  9. Kill Your Darlings: Do you fall in love with what you’ve written?
  10. Final Words:
    1. Time and Distance: Do you give yourself time away from your work—do you give yourself distance—before rereading, revising, and rewriting?
    2. Formatting: Do you despise Microsoft Word? So do I. But love it or hate it, it is the default word processor in the writing/publishing world.
    3. Recommended Reading

About Polishing Your Prose

Larry M Edwards is an award-winning investigative journalist, author, editor and publishing consultant. He is the author of three books, and has edited dozens of nonfiction and fiction book manuscripts. Under Wigeon Publishing, he has produced six books. As author, "Dare I Call It Murder? A Memoir of Violent Loss" won First Place in the San Diego Book Awards in 2012 (unpublished memoir) and 2014, Best Published Memoir. The book has also been nominated for a number of awards, including: Pulitzer Prize, Benjamin Franklin Award, Washington State Book Award, and One Book, One San Diego. As Editor, "Murder Survivor’s Handbook: Real-Life Stories, Tips & Resources" won the Gold Award in the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Book Awards, Self-Help. For a sample edit and cost estimate, contact Larry: larry [at] larryedwards [dot] com -- -- --
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11 Responses to Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision

  1. Pingback: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 1. Structure | Polishing Your Prose

  2. Pingback: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 2. Content | Polishing Your Prose

  3. Pingback: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 3. Narrative Voice | Polishing Your Prose

  4. Pingback: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 4. Narrative Mode | Polishing Your Prose

  5. Pingback: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 5. Point of View | Polishing Your Prose

  6. Pingback: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 6. Characters | Polishing Your Prose

  7. Pingback: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 7. Plot | Polishing Your Prose

  8. Pingback: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 8. Information Dumps | Polishing Your Prose

  9. Pingback: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 9. Kill Your Darlings | Polishing Your Prose

  10. Pingback: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 10. Final Words | Polishing Your Prose

  11. Pingback: Presentation: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision | Polishing Your Prose

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