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tl;dr; It recently occurred to me that I don't have a good smoke test for identifying those passages we might call "darlings". It can be hard enough to cull even the obvious darlings, but it can be another problem entirely to recognize them in the crowd.

What techniques can someone use to identify problem passages in order to give them the proper treatment?


I was contemplating a future conversation with an acquaintance where I attempt to convince him that his song lyrics reuse played-out alcohol motifs way too frequently. In addition to these, there are other passages that could benefit from small changes that (opinion alert #1!) I believe will resonate better with most listeners.

One listener in particular is the band's drummer, and my connection to this acquaintance, who kept telling me that he wanted to cut a song from their set because he found one particular lyric to be overly "cheesy", of all things. He couldn't not hear it, and he hates being on stage with it. After I reflected on this complaint, I started to notice the frequency of lyrics about beer, etc. This led to me imagining this conversation. Anticipating things, I worked out a handful of replacement lines that (opinion alert #2!) still fit the lyrical context of the tune, feel less cliché, and in some cases even fit the singing cadence better.

Aside: I've been in a lot of bands, written tons of music‒several albums worth‒and am definitely approaching this with more experience and at least some kind of a philosophy.

I would expect this to be a weird conversation that's more likely to end in failure. Once upon a time I was the target of such an ambush, myself, where an acquaintance told me something very similar: He thought I had a cool song, but one line ruined it, and he suggested I change the lyrics. At the time I told him why I used that line, like "why" really mattered to a befuddled audience with no access to the lyricist. Eventually, almost 20-years later, I reconsidered that advice, though, and made an attempt to fix the song. Guess what? It made it a better song! My replacement lyrics even worked better in the lyrical context, too. I ended up re-recording it, and while I like the current version of this song much better, I regret not taking that advice sooner. I also regret how that guy isn't aware that he (eventually) succeeded in convincing me.

So‒if I do end up having this conversation‒one of my goals is to approach gracefully, but effectively enough that whatever the outcome is, it somehow helps my acquaintance to write songs with an improved philosophy influencing his lyrics.

But none of that is really the point. This whole imagined scenario led me to a different question associated with the conventional wisdom of "kill your darlings". Specifically this: How does one identify their own darlings in the first place?

Looking back on the time where I was the target of similar criticism, I realize now that I defended one of my "darlings", rather than identify it thanks to some constructive criticism and slay it. I anticipate my acquaintance will likely defend his darlings, too. But, then I became irritated with myself when I wondered how many of my own darlings have managed to duck under the radar of awareness and continue to hang around and just ..stink. How can you fix a problem you're unaware of? How can someone identify their own darlings as a matter of practiced craftsmanship?

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  • My two cents, on this matter, would be that I see two kind-of force majeure factors playing in here: 1. Trust, which requires circumstances to have "fetched" a more solid relationship than just one between author and beta listener/reader, and 2. Time, because only time, and your very own progress(ion) through it -not as a mere writer or musician, but as a human- can tell whether your line is timeless, which is, ultimately, the finest of all criteria.
    – m.a.a.
    Nov 15, 2022 at 21:05

3 Answers 3

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If you work from the principle that a good line or a great line or even the perfect line in a story or a song that moves the narrative forward and gives it greater impact is not a darling, then you can identify your darlings by noting which lines you really like which don't move the narrative forward, which don't improve the impact of reading or listening to the piece, and even, possibly detract from the experience.

That said, kill your darlings only at the proper time and place. Like, don't try to strangle your darlings during conception. While our darlings might usually be things that feed our egos, they are also inspired insights into our own creativity. Whispered fragments of ideas, hopes, fears we can use to make our work the best we can make it.

Once a piece is finished, examine it as a whole. Understand what elements work together and which elements work at cross purposes for what you want the work to do. Then, fix the elements that aren't working, by understanding why it doesn't work and replacing it. If you really like it, but it doesn't work in one piece. Tell yourself you'll use it in another piece, and save it away before scratching it out of what you are currently working on.

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  • This is a pretty good answer. I especially like the tactic you provided, even if it's only a starting place. It's abstract and can be considered before approaching an audience: by noting which lines you really like which don't move the narrative forward
    – elrobis
    Nov 16, 2022 at 3:21
  • I'd forgot about asking this question, then ran across it while culling some tabs. Compared to the other answers, your first paragraph provides the best methods for identifying these problematic darlings, and could even be used to help frame a discussion with my acquaintance concerning his song, with specific weight given to "detract from the experience". Your description also does a good job of explaining how I solved similar problems in my own work, even though I struggled to explain what I was looking for or why I thought it was a problem when I finally identified it and accepted it.
    – elrobis
    Dec 13, 2022 at 14:03
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When I write a "darling", it is the best line I can write. It fits my mood and my purpose. It pushes the lyric forward. It is deeply personal.

There are some methods I use to address the tension between the love I have for the line (and the fond remembrance I have of writing it) and the fact that it doesn't work with the audience.

One is to have others read or listen, and to accept their criticism as valid. This is hard, and requires loosening the ego, sometimes a lot.

Another is to assume that everything can be better, and try to take a more distant view of the work. This is hard because I am pulled toward the beauty and balance I felt when I wrote it. I must constantly pull myself out of the glory pit and back to viewing the work as a whole.

The third is to let the lyric age. I put it in my drawer for a while, sometimes only hours. Somehow, over even a short time, the words that seemed polished will tarnish, and I can easily see the corrosion.

But, perhaps the greatest benefit of allowing a lyric to age is that I as the writer have shifted my perspective. I will have been changed by the intervening living -- a change of mood, or the resolution of a particular conflict or anxiety -- and will see the work more as others will.

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  • +1 for addressing the importance of managing the writer's ego and/or personal headspace with respect to the work, but this still seems to rely on outside criticism to identify most passages. It's these sneaky elements that we as writers don't initially detect ourselves I'm hoping to find a technique for catching sooner rather than later. Thinking of my own processes, ideally I'd like to eliminate these during the "rough-in" phase, before they've cemented in place. But anything to catch them that doesn't yet rely on outside eyes would be a slam dunk.
    – elrobis
    Nov 14, 2022 at 12:59
  • IMO, trying to do anything more during the, as you called it, rough-in phase is counterproductive. The most important part of the draft is that it is completed. Whatever process was happening has run to completion, and the full message is recorded. It is a process that, at least with me, is easily defeated or deflected. The secret of self-criticism -- rather than by others -- is to put yourself outside the process and become the other. I fear that is an impossible burden for the initial creative reach to overcome.
    – cmm
    Nov 14, 2022 at 14:51
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I define a Darling as something that you love and are eager to have in the text, but it doesn't work.

It could be a line, a character, a scene, an event, or pretty much anything. Even a conlang word or name (that upon googling turns out to be a Czech shoe brand... drat!)

For it to be a darling of the worst kind you also spend hours or days trying to make it fit in your text, even to the point where you risk ruining otherwise working things in order to get that damn thing in there.

Since it can sometimes be hard to know what works or not, I suggest using third parties to figure that one out (beta readers, editors, etc.)

The fact that you're heavily in love with some part of the text could be a sign it's a Darling, it could also be a sign that you're just intolerable and self-absorbed ;-)... It doesn't have to mean you're wrong though.

It's only a darling if it doesn't work and you don't want to get rid of it.

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