Killing the Darlings: How to Edit Your Life

Killing the Darlings: How to Edit Your Life May 10, 2016

The Seattle Daily Times, 1900


Here’s a question: What needs to be edited out of your life?

Since I spend most of my time working with words, I do a lot of editing – cut here, trim there, sometime slash and burn. It’s not a bad metaphor for how to do life.

In the newsroom, we used to call it “killing your babies” or “killing the darlings” when our favorite parts of a story had to be cut.

The same thing happened when I became a minister and started speaking every Sunday. At first, I wanted to cram everything I knew into each talk!

I finally realized I would have years to spin out all my ideas about spirituality, and the talks were better if I focused tightly on a single topic each week.

Editing is done to smooth and streamline, to keep from going over the top, to provide enough information, but not so much that a reader’s or listener’s eyes glaze over.

Editing ranges from a little polish to a major restructuring. The same process is used in fashion design, artwork, song writing and movies. Not every single idea needs to be included in every piece.

But oh, it can hurt to cut! Do I really have to give up this cherished little idea, no matter how frivolous? Isn’t it cute?



So I ask again, what needs to be edited out of your life?

What is extraneous, superfluous, useless or even negative that – although you adore it – you’d be better off without?

Some of the ways you spend your time? Some of the words you say? Thoughts you think?

I tried to come up with a list of examples:

  • Gossip might be one – not necessarily trashing acquaintances; maybe you just enjoy getting worked up about celebrities or sports figures.
  • Crime stories might be one. A lot of us love a good murder mystery, but is it really healthy to see so much blood, even when it’s fake, and hear so much about the criminal mind?
  • How about obsessions or addictions? How much energy during the day goes into planning what you’re going to eat, wear, drink or watch?
  • What about obsession with a person – one you love, fear or resent?
  • Maybe relentless worry about people, money, health or nearly anything that crosses your mind?
  • Or the hours spent in front of a screen? Facebook, video games, television.

These might be enjoyable in the moment, but so is junk food.

Are they really necessary to the arc of your life story? Would you have a cleaner, more interesting, more productive tale to tell if you let go of some of the time sinks, fillers and fluff?



When the Pulitzer Prizes were announced last month, I noticed as always that the winning stories not only were interesting but had prompted action. Wrongs had been revealed, authorities stepped in, laws were passed, and changes were made as a result of the investigations.


Having been a reporter, I have an inkling of the massive amounts of information that were left out of those stories. (You can never use everything you know.)

Writers and editors spent weeks or months choosing just the right words and vignettes, just the right focus and balance, weeding out anything unnecessary and killing some darlings to create the most impactful report.

In life, that’s called transformation. A change for the better. A new, more uplifting storyline.

And it can’t happen if our thoughts, words and actions are bogged down in extraneous junk. Even if they’re fun and kinda interesting and feel good to include.

Editors can be ruthless, and writers often squawk about having their precious words deleted. Just as we might fight to keep old habits and less-than-stellar personality traits that feel like integral parts of us.

But if you really want to create a masterpiece with your life . . .

If you really want to have an impact on the world around you . . .

If you really want the most streamlined, useful and productive life experience you can have . . .

What can you edit out?


PS – Congratulations to my alma mater, the Tampa Bay Times, for winning not one but two Pulitzers this year! Both stories were edited by a man named Chris Davis. Editors’ names really should be included in the Pulitzer annals, but they’re not. Transformation happens behind the scenes.


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