5 ways to kill your darlings

Sooner or later each thesis writer finds themselves holding the knife – the virtual one of course. I’m talking about the process of cutting words out of your thesis or dissertation text.

Many PhD students may have trouble imagining they can reach, let alone exceed, the magic 90,000 word count. Yet, by the end, almost everyone has war stories about having to lose large portions of text: “I got to 120,000 words and my supervisor told me to lose 40,000! That’s a whole Masters thesis!”

There are generally two reasons you have to cut:

To match a specified word count (our university sets it at 90,000 for a PhD – not counting appendixes) and/or
to cut out text that no longer ‘fits’ because the direction or focus of the PhD has changed.

Cutting words becomes more difficult as the thesis gets longer. This is because things you say in one place start to affect things you say in other places. You may set out with good intentions, determined to slash and burn your text in an attempt to reduce the overall word count, yet it is quite possible to increase that word count by the time you are done ‘fixing’.

Many professional writers say that developing an ability to know what has to be thrown away is necessary to becoming a good writer. The notorious sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison said that a writer should throw out the first million words – because it’s only after you have written this much that you start to get good. I don’t think thesis writers should take this seriously as it might lead to dark, nihilistic thoughts which are the enemy of done. Being an enemy of done is certainly not our purpose here – we are pragmatists. A good thesis is a finished thesis, but it still needs to be chock full of wordy goodness.

Sometimes it can be those sentences that we love the most that are hardest to do away with. For me it’s those sentences which exhibit a particularly nifty turn of phrase – usually some kind of pun. I cling to them tenaciously, despite the fact that they are making my writing “flippant” (as my PhD supervisor put it once. Ouch.)

When holding the proverbial knife, it is good to remind yourself that the text is better off without these words, or as Stephen King put it more colourfully:

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

(That quote is from King’s excellent “On Writing” by the way, which I probably should write a pocket review of soon – so don’t leave off your reading on global terrorism or particle physics for goodness sake).

On the premise that these successful writers should know a thing or two about the craft, here are 5 ways to kill your darlings:

1) Use that strike through tool. You know – the one that does this neat thing. Back in the day, way before word processors were invented, we used to be pretty good at the old strike through for dealing bits of text that weren’t quite right. Then someone invented liquid paper and it was all downhill from there. The strike through function enables you to keep the  text where it was and use it as a reference as you write around it. You can always un-strike through if you decide the original was better and you’re right back where you started, no harm no foul as they say.

2) Move the questionable text to the footnotes. This technique works on the principle of out of sight, out of mind. The footnotes give you a place to let the words go gently into that good night as the poet Dylan Thomas once said. By the time you come to your final polish you are usually in the position to pull the trigger and kill those darlings because the words clearly aren’t needed anymore.

3) Start a ‘maybe later’ folder. I got this tip from Dr Alex Selenitsch. When Alex was doing his PhD he kept having many ideas which weren’t right for his thesis, but were still good. He cut and paste them into a new document and stashed them in his ‘maybe later’ folder. I started one of these myself, but have yet to dip into it and resurrect any of the bits of writing stashed there. My ‘maybe later’ folder is a bit like the footnotes: an ideas graveyard where unwanted text can rest in peace.

4) Triage your text. Brent Allpress at RMIT gave me this idea when I was doing my masters degree. Go through your text and put a number against each paragraph: 1, 2 and 3. Keep all the 1’s, throw out all the 3s and try to cut the 2’s in half. I found this works only on short sections of text between subheads, but it is highly effective when preparing journal papers.

5) Preform bypass surgery: A good thesis is a highly integrated text – all  the various parts rely on each other to a greater or lesser extent. It’s a bit like your body: you will probably die if someone took out your lungs, whereas you can probably stand to lose your leg (no pun intended :-). Sometimes taking out a whole chapter or section makes more sense than trying to nip little bits out from all over the place. You can always think about moving the dead bit of text to the appendix (again – no pun intended. Maybe).

I hope this post has given you some ideas for next time you hold the knife. Happy cutting!

12 thoughts on “5 ways to kill your darlings

  1. Another useful thing can be to write the main point of your chapter on a large piece of paper, pin it up, then go through the chapter rating each paragraph on how they relate to that idea (eg Introduction, necessary background, exposition, supporting points 1-x, refutation, or (!) partially or even completely unrelated. As well as slashing those darlings, this can help you rearrange paragraphs into a more logical order.

  2. Love the 5 ways to kill your darlings article Inger – don’t have anything useful to add but the reminder to use track changes is a good one – have been doing some editting and wondering in the back of my mind whether I’m improving or not the text, so this is a great option -until it gets really messy! Susan

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  5. Great Post! I’m in the ‘editing’ zone right now too. I use the highlight tool instead of strike through – that way you can colour-code for different purposes. I use light and dark grey depending on how sure I am I want to cut a passage, yellow for missing refernces, blue to relocate, green when I need to cross reference and pink for utter nonsense… you get the picture.

  6. Thanks for these ideas! When I start any project, I make a file called “Project Outtakes” and save it in the same folder as my working draft. When I am editing, I often cut text from the original draft and paste it in outtakes so I never actually “kill my darlings.” I can save them in case I need them. Every time I make major changes to a draft, I save it as a newer version of itself (“Project.v1″, “Project.v2) so if I make serious changes to the direction of the writing, I don’t lose big sections of text I might bring back in later.

    • Yay, you posted the books you’re reiadng! I remember Jurassic Park. I liked the book series but they were a lot different from the movies. I suppose that’s a good thing. I loved the first movie as a kid but that’s about it. And oh boy, that’s a lot of good looking foods. :p

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  8. How can you tell the difference between darlings that are darling because they’re actually worth keeping and darlings that are silly darlings?

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