Self-editing: 4 reasons why you must kill your darlings

530973.stock.xchngI’m a big proponent of self-editing and teaching writers how to tackle revisions on their own. I’ve given talks to writers’ groups, presented at writers’ conferences, and blogged about it before (see below for further reading). Self-editing is the difference between a novice and and someone who has trained in their craft.

So many times I get asked “Should I hire an external editor?” And I always direct writers to teach themselves editing and revision skills before going elsewhere. It’s a life skill for a career author.

Here are my 4 Reasons Why You Must Kill Your Darlings:

1. There is only one chance to make a first impression

You want to make reading your manuscript a smooth and enjoyable experience for the reader. Edit and rewrite so that your novel begins in the right place, the stakes are high, and the plot moves quickly. When you send your manuscript to an agent we have to make judgments quite quickly about your novel and your writing.

2. It’s competitive out there

What agents hear a lot is: “Why do I need to edit my own manuscript? My editor will do that for me.” When actually, the competition is so fierce out there that you must have an edited manuscript long before you get an editor at a publishing house.

The competition for an agent is tough. The competition for a publishing deal is tough. And most importantly, the competition for readers is tough.

3. A first draft is not a final draft

Getting a first draft done commands a high-five and a large glass of wine. It’s a major accomplishment. However, that’s not where the work stops. You need to edit for consistency, rewrite dialogue so that it shows characters’ personality, and most importantly, show not tell.

4. Because you CAN continue to write great sentences

Killing your darlings and cutting phrases that might be well-written but don’t work at a certain juncture doesn’t mean your writing is bad. It means you can craft great writing, but it doesn’t work in this spot. If you wrote a great sentence once, you can do it again. Editing and rewriting is also part of writing. The work is never done.

Cut anything that is:

  • Overly wordy
  • Repetitive
  • Confusing to the reader
  • Not moving the plot forward
  • And obviously, grammatically incorrect

And an FYI: PSLA is taking #askagent questions on our Tumblr page. Ask a question today!

Further Reading:

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King

Self-Editing: Knowing How To Listen To Your Gut

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

9 thoughts on “Self-editing: 4 reasons why you must kill your darlings

  1. Don’t forget the simple things like copy editing. It can spot simple mistakes like homonyms (see the article’s point 2 hear/here). It’ll also spot words that have gone missing from the herd after aggressive sentence wrangling (see point 3, “first draft on the commands”).

    The best of us will still make these gaffes. They’ll just make sure to have them hunted, caught, and killed. Carly of course left them in as an exercise for her dear readers.


  2. Excellent tips!!! I love the simplicity of your advice. Learning to self edit is one of the best lessons for any writer to learn!


  3. Ironically, I am currently in the editing process, a process that I have been dreading for almost a year. However, I knew the time would come when I would as they say in the industry, “edit like a pit bull”, a task that conflicts with a writer’s reluctance to “kill their darling”. It was terrifying to start the editing process for fear of having to kill my darling, a term I hadn’t heard before then, that is until I began writing my first story. I was completely married and fully committed to parts of my story that I had to ultimately let go of. This was an excellent and timely article. Thanks Carly!


  4. This post is well timed for me. The idea of self editing has been coming up in my life frequently and I am beginning to accept that I just have to do it. I’ve never been much for self editing and I think it’s the fear that I’ll read back on my own work and make the discovery that I’m actually quite terrible at what I do. After all, many people are their own worst critic, myself included.

    There is a lot of appeal to hiring an external editor but I have to say that working through my own pieces has taught me a lot about myself, my mistakes, my strengths and weaknesses and I believe it has shown me how to be better at doing what I love.


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