I’d wager that many writers hate editors almost as much as they need them.
Why? Well, editors frequently exhort writers to “murder their darlings.” That is, they make you take the passages you’ve crafted, even the ones you worked the hardest to perfect, and ruthlessly edit out anything extraneous.
Picture it like so.
For months you’ve been pouring yourself into a project, draining your blood, sweat, and tears in the hopes of bringing something new to life. Now your labor of love has left you dried-up and emotionally depleted. You’re exhausted. You’ve got nothing left to give.
So you sit back and gaze upon your creation like a proud parent. This book is your baby! It’s beautiful.
Then some reader comes along with a red pen, the equivalent of a doctor approaching your newborn with a scalpel and a nefarious gleam in her eye.
She says your adverbs aren’t really doing it for her. Slice! Or she doesn’t really like one of your characters. Carve!
Or—worst of all—the whole thing is just plain boring. It isn’t worth a reader’s time, which really means it isn’t worth anything at all. Why not just draw a deep gash across its throat and leave it to bleed out?
The idea of murdered darlings has been forefront in my mind this past week as my substantive editor tore into my manuscript with ideas for dramatic revisions. The writing is excellent, she said—great style, great voice. Great! Now let’s cut up the story and stitch it back together in dramatic new ways that will render it unrecognizable.
I had the urge to grab the manuscript back from her hands and cradle it close to my chest. Leave my baby alone, cruel and heartless surgeon!
But no—deep breath. Courage. Instead I forced myself to let down my guard and let it all in… and I realized she was right.
And then I realized something else.
What if this principle of darling-murdering applies not just to our prose but to the way we spend our days?
You may not think of yourself this way, but you too are a writer: you’re the author of your own life. So, what have you written thus far?
Maybe you have a job that’s stable but also stifling. It’s not what you dreamed you’d do, and now you’re whiling away your time there because you need the paycheck and you don’t know where else to turn.
Maybe you’re in a relationship that’s reliable but also crippling. It’s long since lost any love or mutual respect, but at least you’ve got someone to share takeout with and you’re not single at the holidays.
Are you settling for what you already have just because something is safer than nothing?
I know: it took so much effort to get what you have. The idea of cutting it all apart seems horribly self-defeating, even self-destructive.
But maybe the work you’ve done so far—the first job, the first apartment—has resulted in a good first draft that’s still open to revision. Maybe now you’re ready to edit the lifestyle you’ve written into something more artful, more meaningful. Cut a little dry exposition here. Add some subtext there. Revive your relationships with clearer motives and fresh dialogue.
Our instinct is to shield ourselves from the scalpel or the red pen. The thing is, scalpels and red pens are excellent tools. Surgery and editing are necessary. They hurt, yes. They cut into us and our babies, leaving wounds that need repair.
Ultimately, though, they rid us of malignancies and stitch together fresh flesh, freeing us to be healthier versions of ourselves—or to have stronger versions of our writing.
I stepped back and saw which (perfect!) passages needed to be reorganized or edited out of my manuscript. When you step back, what is it that you might want to revise or edit out of your life?
Of course, in the publishing world, writers and editors are separate professionals with distinct roles. Writers should never take responsibility for editing their own work; they’re too immersed in the creative process to reread anything with a critical eye and an open mind.
In life, alas, we writers-of-our-own-lives find there are no editors for hire. No one comes at us with that scalpel or pen, so we’re left to live out all our days holding comfortably to our first drafts… never knowing how much stronger our stories could’ve been with a bit of revision.
Unless we take on the role of self-editor. For writing, bad choice! For life, the only choice we have.
If we want to rework our personal plot and inner character into the best versions they can possibly be, we’ve got to reach for those painful-looking tools ourselves. Be brave. And, like the writer who resists the urge to recoil from her editor in self-defense, remind yourself how much you really need your editor, yourself.
We’re each the author of our own lives. And I think we’re each the editor of our own lives, too. Sometimes we need to step back from our work and face the blade that is the blood-red pen.
You may be wondering who first coined the phrase “murder your darlings” or its variations. The sentiment has been expressed so often by so many writers, I’ve concluded it no longer matters who said it first (unless Arthur Quiller-Couch is worried about his legacy, of course). I'll leave you with my favorite variation.
Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Have you ever felt the urge to be defensive in the face of criticism, even—or especially—self-criticism? How did you cope (or didn’t you)? If you have any advice on how to revisit and revise one’s life, I’d love to hear it in the comments below or on one of my social media pages...