Monday Advice from Agents and Editors: Kill all the darling, puffy babies!

In his 1914 Cambridge lecture “On the Art of Writing,” Arthur Quiller-Couch said,

hatchet     “If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing… delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’”

In the 100 years since that lecture, his advice has been attributed to or repeated by such writers as Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty, G. K. Chesterton, Chekov and Hemingway. Even Stephen King, who was once told his writing was “puffy,” passed on the same advice in his {completely, totally wonderful} book “On Writing”—

     “…kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”


A magazine editor offered to edit Jonathan Goldstein’s WIP. But, to Jonathan’s dismay, X in circlethe pages came back with huge Xs on pretty much every page.

But here’s the important thing: the editor, Ken Sparling, didn’t hate Jonathan’s writing.

     “…what I saw in the best of his writing spoke to me in a powerful way. What I heard behind the best of [his] words was a beautiful innocence, an earnestness that shone through Jonathan’s intelligence, his well-developed sense of irony, and his cleverness. At his best, Jonathan was able to preserve this earnestness in the face of his own cleverness. At his best, he was able to rein in his cleverness and use it in the service of his earnestness.”

Somehow, Jonathan was able to process the well-meaning hit and use it effectively.

     “Seeing a big “X” through my most sincere and, what I thought, most beautiful thoughts, was one of the greatest learning experiences ever bestowed on me.”

In Jonathan’s words, “It was a lesson in… ‘killing your babies.’”


Yes, such harsh editing hurts like stitches on an open wound. But if you follow the diagnosis and prescription, you can heal a broken WIP.

On the blog site Canada Writes, Camilla Gibb recounts the toughest thing an editor ever told her and its effect on her writing. First the comment made about a particular chapter in Camilla’s manuscript:

     “It’s not the reader’s job to indulge you, Camilla…. gratuitous, fatty passages overstuff a manuscript. Better to isolate the tastiest bits than drown them all with gravy.”

Camilla says she had enjoyed writing that chapter more than any other. But she took the criticism to heart. She now trims the fat and throws away ninety per cent of what she writes, distilling her manuscript down to its essence.

She is now the author of four novels and has received the Trillium Book Award, the City of Toronto Book Award and the CBC Short Story Prize, AND has been shortlisted for the Giller Prize.

I think it worked.

Now pardon me while I cry for five more minutes over the Xs on my own WIP and then go kill some babies. A lot of babies.

About Donna Maloy, Author

Captivating romantic suspense. History, mystery, and sometimes... a little touch of fantasy.
This entry was posted in Editing, Taking out fluff and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Monday Advice from Agents and Editors: Kill all the darling, puffy babies!

  1. Pingback: Top Tips from Agents and Editors: An Editor’s Take on Criticism | Tangled Words

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