Manuscraps: on partially killing one’s manuscript darlings

If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

– Arthur Quiller-Couch, “On Style”, 1914

“Murder your darlings” and its variants is common writing advice.* But what do you do if you’re not quite sure you’re ready to part with those darlings? My strategy is the same as Ethan White’s:

I suspect this is a common strategy (certainly the twitter responses suggest it is), though I don’t think it’s one that gets discussed much.

As a grad student, I remember Kay Gross telling a story about a manuscript she worked on as a grad student. She had a sentence in it that she was proud of—a darling—but that didn’t really fit in the manuscript anymore. Her advisor, Pat Werner, cut the sentence out of the manuscript—and this was in the days where cutting a sentence out of a paper involved a pair of scissors. Pat handed Kay the sentence and said, “This is a great sentence, but it doesn’t belong in this paper. So, save it and some day you’ll find a paper it should go in.” Kay hung it on a bulletin board over her desk for months, but never did find a paper it would fit in, and eventually threw it away.

What do we do if we are writing electronically and can’t hang those darlings on a bulletin board? I start a separate file that gets saved in the same folder as the manuscript file, but with “Rejects” as part of the name. That’s not the most creative name, but it’s clear, at least. In an earlier twitter discussion of this, someone (I can’t recall who) said they name theirs the graveyard so that, if they end up using the text, it becomes zombie text. My favorite twitter response to Ethan’s tweet was this one by AC Rooke saying the second file is called “manuscraps”, which inspired the title of this post!

Others don’t start a new file, but instead let the text accumulate at the bottom of the manuscript file—manuscript detritus, as it were. Some rely on version control, and presumably some others are brave enough to murder their darlings outright.

I agree with Ethan that I’m more likely to cut text that needs to be cut if I know that I might be able to get it back later if needed. I’ve written before about getting words on the page, and on the inelegantly named “barf and buff” approach we use in my lab, where people are encouraged to spew words on the page and tidy things up later. Part of that tidying involves cutting chunks that, in the end, don’t really work in the manuscript.

Do you use this approach when you write? If so, what name do you give your file?



*I found this quote most readily by consulting Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space, which I loved, and which argues, among other things, that writing does not need to be filled with acts of violence and sacrifice, and that we should invite more positive emotions into our writing practices.

10 thoughts on “Manuscraps: on partially killing one’s manuscript darlings

  1. I liked that tweet thread too 🙂 I haven’t used the term “manuscraps” but I certainly do save cut wording in files which read “Unused text – [date]”. I’ve also been known to save well-worded bits of emails and blog post comments for later use. My workshop is also full of bits of wood and metal and screws and nails that “may come in useful later”……

  2. I call mine “cuts_to_maybe_restore”, and I discuss Quiller-Couch and this strategy, in my book. (The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, pp 195-196) “Manuscraps” is way better though! That’s what I’ll call it from now on, and if there’s ever a second edition.

  3. Heh – I just use LaTeX, and comment out/in bits and pieces of prose as necessary. I find it quite handy to be able to easily peruse the six other ways I’ve previously thought about saying something right there in-line when editing. Or rather, maybe it’s that I find that if I don’t have everything I’ve attempted in front of me, I’m depressingly likely to unintentionally reinvent prose that I’ve previously invented and discarded.

  4. Good advice, but sometimes it’s best to break the rule and share a darling or two unless it becomes a reader’s speed bump. Darlings might just be part of your style from time to time. No hard and fast rules in writing, but I get what you’re saying’

  5. I also use the “graveyard” term, also store it at the end of the document, and also feel like I had to learn this on my own rather than be taught it as part of a writing class. I can not understate how much it reduces the stress and sorrow of aggressively editing and slimming my writing (or having someone else do that), which is definitely “barf and buff”. The feeling that you (or your coauthors/advisor/etc) are throwing out things you just spent a lot of brainpower creating is a bit demeaning. In the end, I rarely even use the graveyard bits, but having a waiting room for them to lay in limbo helps me forget about them with less sadness. That sounds morbid, but they’re just words!
    And it’s worth stating clearly from my experience on the receiving end: If you’re about to butcher a draft of one of your students or someone else who is looking to you for editing/writing assistance, establishing a bits/graveyard/manuscraps system can help soften the blow of all the scissor snipping!

  6. I put my manuscraps after a page break at the bottom of the file, and periodically begin a new file with the bits I want to keep brought over to it. If I haven’t killed my own darlings already, I have learned not to protest when the editor cuts them for me. Writing should be an excercise in serving your audience, not egotism.

  7. I don’t keep a separate file for my manuscraps. I just have chunks of text at the end of the relevant section of the draft ms headed with the boldfaced phrase “INSERT THIS BIT SOMEWHERE?:” They either get incorporated eventually, or get deleted.

    I dream of the day when I will write a sentence that is worth keeping for some hypothetical future ms, Kay Gross style. 🙂 Closest I ever came was back in high school, when I did creative writing and had a line of poetry I was very proud of. But I never did manage to come up with a poem in which that one good line would fit. (Which may be a good thing, because in reality it probably wasn’t a good line, even though 17 year old me thought it was…)

  8. Pingback: How much evidence is there that we should aim to write every day? And are their downsides to suggesting that people aim for that? | Dynamic Ecology

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