Thursday, March 7, 2013

Avoid Flowery Language and Kill Your Darlings

For those of you who’ve moved on to polishing your novel, it’s time to do some butchering. It’s time to scrutinize that beautiful phrase you thought up in an earlier draft, or that description you conveyed as poetically as possible. You wrote these lines with high intentions, hoping your words would enhance your description or capture something profound about the moment.

Here’s the reality check: those beautiful phrases and poetic descriptions? You might be the only person who actually appreciates the subtle sweetness of your words. Most of your readers will cringe when they read those phrases. If they’re writers, they might even think to themselves that they’d never construct something so amateurish. They deserve a reality check too: they likely (and unknowingly) will, and they’ll put their words out there for someone else to read. And so the cycle continues.

Flowery Language and Darlings

Flowery Language
This hardly needs to be defined. We know what flowery language looks like; at some point or another we’ve been exposed to classical writings. It’s using big words and being poetic, and it’s writing that showcases the language rather than the story.

Darlings are those pieces of text that you happen to have a special attachment to. Darlings don’t have to be poetic lines. A darling can be a really good quip or an unnecessary scene you really want in the story.

Why Do We Write this Way to Begin with?
As students, we’ve been taught to think that the best writing is in the language, not the story. And the best writing is in the language. But this is where it gets nuanced. Writing is a tool used to convey the story, it is not the story itself. However, historically masters of the craft have been able to both write eloquently and utilize their words to create the best possible story. 

Because our English classes made us read at least a handful of these books, and because society reinforces the importance and impressiveness of these books, we’re expected to love the flowery language so popular a century or more ago. Worse, we assume that being a great writer primarily means manipulating language and painting beautiful pictures with it.

Where we write flowery language to appease our societal beliefs about good writing, we write darlings to appease our own beliefs about good writing. I’ll say that again. Flowery language and poetic descriptions are what writers think others will be impressed by, while darlings are those areas of text that the writer is impressed by. 

The Problem with Flowery Writing and Darlings
The most obvious problem is that flowery language and darlings are rarely pulled off well. The surrounding text has been edited and adjusted to make room for these lines.

Darlings, in particular, cause writers some distress, because these are their favorite lines (hence the name “darlings”). I’ll ease your minds by saying that darlings are not inherently bad. What I and many other editors mean when we say, “Kill your darlings,” is that a special fondness for a particular line or section of text is generally not a good idea.

Both flowery language and darlings tend to be less rigorously edited and tailored more to the writer’s tastes than they are the reader’s. Usually they stand out from the rest of the text, which can be a bad thing.

Great stories are not great because the writing stood out. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Great writers make writing look effortless. Their words fall away and instead what the reader is left with is a story that is in some ways more real than a movie.

Kill Your Darlings and Remove that Flowery Language
Now that we’ve identified what these are and why they are detrimental to your writing, it’s time to remove them.

To fix flowery language you should read your book out loud. Yes, this is a tedious process, but it does allow you to hear those areas that sound off, and to replace them with more straightforward writing. This will immensely help the flow of your book.

If, in particular, there are clumps of flowery language where you describe something like a sunset in detail, then I’d suggest thinning these sections of text on top of rephrasing the sentences.

In most cases it isn’t enough to rewrite your darlings. You have to kill them. These sections of text might not sound quite as out of place as flowery language, but they won’t fit nicely in with the rest of your text. Chances are, you or a critique partner has already paused and considered them, but so far you’ve managed to leave them in. It’s time to take these bits of text out. I promise you’ll be left with a stronger story if you do so.


  1. Hi Laura!

    Informative post, as always, thank you. I was just wondering, since you metioned being poetic ... what do you think about Allie Condie's writing ? It's the most poetic modern book I've read, and I hate flowery descriptions (most descriptions actually), yet I love love her writing.


    1. Hi Leila,

      I know what you mean about Condie’s writing. Flowery language in general can be distracting and annoying, but when pulled off well, it’s fantastic! Another author who does this well is Laini Taylor—I definitely recommend reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone if you haven’t yet. :) Great hearing from you!


  2. I was surprised at how easy it can be to kill the darlings. What I've found for me is that it's usually pretty evident upon review what needs to go--even those lines or entire scenes that seemed just so perfect when I wrote them.

    1. Hi Jeff,

      I agree, once you are able to identify when and where your darlings are, it’s fairly easy to remove them. But this is definitely a lesson that is learned through practice and distancing yourself from your writing. Thanks for commenting!


  3. Laura! Yes to Laini! Goose bumps all over again...