Kill Your Darlings

‘Kill your darlings’ is one of those punchy expressions that on first hearing is shockingly violent but over time loses its impact and is understood only as a colloquialism. It refers to the painful process of editing your own writing. You may have spent hours, even days, creating the world’s most exquisite sentence, but as the rest of the text develops, that perfect wording may become superfluous and it has to go. Death and love – two of life’s biggies are brought together in ‘kill your darlings’, neatly encapsulating the agony and ecstasy of writing. The original quote, “in writing, you must kill all your darlings”, is attributed to author, William Faulkner, who is perhaps best known for his novel The Sound and the Fury (1929). Winner of two Pulitzers, as well as the Nobel Prize in Literature (1949), I think it’s fairly safe to say he knew how to string a sentence together.

I don’t usually think of good writing as an essential skill set for museum education, but it is something we’re required to do on a regular basis. We write teachers’ resources and support notes for collections and exhibitions, we create gallery trails for families, we provide marketing copy to promote our programmes, we submit funding applications, we draw up partnership agreements, we produce evaluation reports and annual summaries of our activity, and increasingly, we blog to demonstrate the human side of our organisations. In each of these cases, we are writing for a different audience, with a different purpose, and the tone must be modified accordingly. Often, we are writing within fairly tight parameters, having to comply with curriculum requirements, funder priorities, style guidelines, or just meeting deadlines. Fortunately, these constraints give our creativity something to push against. Editing might feel brutal at the time, but it will ultimately benefit the text.

I assume the first rule of blogging is, ‘don’t blog about blogging’, however… I have found blogging to be an incredibly useful process for figuring out my own thoughts. I’m finding that the process of writing is like a strange conversation, whereby most of the content is consciously and deliberately generated, but other aspects seemingly appear out of nowhere; I write stuff I didn’t even know I was thinking, and that then leads me to other thoughts and ideas. This revelation is not news to writers or diarists, but it’s been a happy discovery for me. Writing a weekly blogpost is an entirely self-imposed constraint, but it’s had many benefits, not least creating a handy record of my Churchill Fellowship experience.

The final and possibly largest hurdle that I need to clear to complete my Fellowship is the submission of a project report. The WCMT website hosts a library of reports from previous Fellows that provides fascinating insights into a huge range of experiences. The purpose of the report is to summarise my learning from the US, map this to the UK sector, and provide some recommendations for further action.  All of this needs to be shoehorned into a paltry 15,000 words, which is proving a challenge when I have enough content to merrily bang on for 150,000 words. The creative constraint in this instance is the word limit, and I have Faulkner’s phrase ringing in my ears every time I work on it.

I don’t have any problem producing 15,000 words, that’s easy; the difficulty lies in choosing the right 15,000 words and then arranging them in the correct order. I’m currently working my way through the repetitive cycle of write, then cut, then write, then cut. Some changes are made with a scalpel, slicing back sentences and excising poor turns of phrase; other changes are made with a cleaver, savagely amputating whole paragraphs and ideas. Either way, I’ve gone well beyond killing my darlings and this feels more like a full-blown massacre of the innocents. I mourn the loss of what I’ve had to cut out, but I can see the central argument becoming clearer and stronger as I’m forced to get to the point. You can judge for yourself when it’s up on the WCMT website, hopefully from March.
Image: By Kroton – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15333590

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4 thoughts on “Kill Your Darlings

  1. Hi Sarah,

    This is the second time I’ve heard ‘kill your darlings’ in as many days – both in relation to museum learning and to learning from outside the UK. On a study trip to Amsterdam last week we had a great discussion with one of the Learning Managers about programming in the Netherlands. There are 44 museums in Amsterdam and every month directors meet directors, marketing managers meet marketing managers, learning managers meet learning managers etc. At one meeting the learning managers realised that between 44 museums they had 500+ learning sessions for primary schools alone. Concluding that this was excessive they went about killing their darlings to reveal a reduced programme where every session is vital. Of course this isn’t quite what you’re discussing here, but an interesting parallel of how museums have used the same process and worked collectively to edit and cull to strengthen their learning offer as a whole.

    Laura

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    1. Fantastic example Laura, and a really interesting point. I think the principle can be applied to museum learning in lots of ways, and it’s great to hear about practice in the Netherlands. I love it when I hear a phrase for the first time then it keeps cropping up – the same thing happened to me with ‘moribund’…

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