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Live Encounter Magazine - Culling Your Darlings

Cull Your Darlings

  12+   In June 2016, I wrote a review of Jerome and His Women by Joan O'Hagan for Writing NSW. The book's publisher, Joan's daughter, Denise O'Hagan of Black Quill Press, liked it and we started corresponding. Recently Denise asked if I could edit the review for another online publication, Live Encounters. I had to cull it from 477 words to 300!

I'd enjoyed reading and reviewing Jerome and His Women. Set in Ancient Rome during an intense period of upheaval, the book tells the tale of St Jerome and the pious, wealthy women who help him translate the Bible from Greek to Latin.

There were three elements to my 477-word review:

  1. Background of the author, Joan O'Hagan
  2. A synopsis of the story
  3. My impression of it.

Could I condense this into 300 words? Even Denise, who is a publisher and editor, commented, "I know it's a pain, so if you don't have the time, I fully understand!"

An Editor's Magic Touch

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post about the experience of writing a review of another book for Writing NSW, Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills. I discussed how feedback from the Writing NSW editor had me rework the opening of my review and reword other parts that on re-reading sounded clunky. In closing, I observed:

I've found editors have a magic touch when it comes to reviewing a writer's work and suggesting edits.

So after editing my review of Jerome and his Women and successfully culling 177 words, I wasn't surprised (or offended!) when Denise responded with her recommendations:

You're definitely on the right track! All I would suggest is skipping the first paragraph (and maybe the second?). Go straight to the point on "O'Hagan's fifth novel..." to get the reader's attention right away.

Denise was right. I needed to cull the author background and get straight into the book review. However, I also wanted to keep those "darling paragraphs". They told Joan's story. How she drew on her classical studies, life in Rome, and work at the Australian Department of Immigration, to write internationally acclaimed contemporary and historical crime fiction. (And they plugged her other books!)

Rather than cull my darlings, I relocated them, to the end of the review. It proved a simple and effective edit. And all thanks to Denise-the-editor's magic touch!

Kill Your Darlings

Ruthanne Reid wrote a brilliant piece for The Write Practice blog on How to "Kill Your Darlings" and Survive the Process. In it, she revealed how the "Kill Your Darlings" quote by Stephen King was actually quoting the earlier American author, William Faulkner.

Reid defined "darlings" and their danger for writers: 

Darlings are those words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and even chapters that we are often most proud of. We love them, to the point that we almost don't care if those bits are clear to readers or not. We love them, and we want to keep them. The problem is they can get in the readers' point of view.

Reid went on to say, "Faulkner was right. King was right. The purpose of writing isn't just for the writer; it's for the reader, too."

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Sometimes, for the sake of our writing and our readers, we have to kill our darlings.

Or, as I did with my review of Jerome and His Women for Live Encounters, cull and move them around.

© 2020 Robert Fairhead

N.B. I've also reviewed another of Joan's books for Writing NSW, A Roman Death (March 2018). And I was honoured to write the foreword for Denise's Mini Style Guide (October 2018).


Robert Fairhead

A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert is a writer and editor at Tall And True and blogs on his eponymous website, He also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast, featuring his short stories, blog posts and other writing from Tall And True.

Robert's book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media. In 2020, he published his début collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story, and in 2021 Twelve Furious Months, twelve short stories written for the Furious Fiction writing competition.

Outside of writing, Robert's favourite pastimes include reading, walking his dog, and watching Aussie Rules Football with his son.

He has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.

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