What The Walking Dead Can Teach You About Revision

If you have never watched The Walking Dead, hopefully you at least know the basic premise. For the last three of you living under a rock, in a cave, beneath the ocean, here it is. A team of live humans run around a post-apocalyptic Atlanta, trying to avoid being attacked by nearly dead humans, who have just enough brain stem activity left to walk (hence they are called “the walking dead” or “walkers”). In many episodes, friends and relatives of the live humans die and turn into walkers.  The only way to put down a walker is to shoot or stab it in the head. As you can imagine, this is very upsetting to the live humans, because they are attached emotionally to the person who the walker once was, even though they now have a decaying corpse trying to eat them. (Oh yeah, we forgot to say the walkers are trying not only to attack, but eat, the live humans. You gotta watch it, to get it.)

In writing, we have our own walkers that we have to kill. The common expression is “Kill your darlings.” Darlings are gorgeous, Faulkner/Hemingway/Joyce sentences that have been fortunate enough to come out of your pen. You emotionally attach to these sentences, to their perfect poetry, their carefree wit, their musicality and balance. You envision your Pulitzer speech, as you quote…yourself.

Four drafts later, you’ve revised the chapter beyond recognition. Fortunately, it’s now tighter, better organized and more compelling. But. You have carefully preserved your darling, revising all around it. You can’t bear to admit that it has now lost its purpose, and it’s decayed into a shell of what it once was, causing a funky smell in the middle of your revised passage. Once beautiful, perhaps, but now it’s killing the integrity of the revised work. A sentence that seems beautiful but serves no purpose is a walker.  Stab it in the head and live to fight another day.

You’d be surprised how easy it is to fall victim to this, and in college essays, real estate is limited so you have to be particularly ruthless.  But how can you even tell what is a darling? First of all, you love the sentence. This doesn’t mean that every sentence you love is a darling, but if you didn’t love the sentence, and it served no purpose you would have already mercilessly cut it. (Similarly, on The Walking Dead, the live humans don’t hesitate to kill the walkers that are strangers.) So if you love it, look carefully to make sure it’s still alive – moves forward action, reveals character, or at the least, builds purposeful, critical description. If not, you should smell the rotting stench of a dead sentence. Recognize that you just like how it sounds. It has dramatic flair. You sound smart, sensitive, eloquent. But it’s not doing a damn thing. Yeah, we’ve been there. Kill it.

Since darlings aren’t actually cannibalistic zombies (and since this metaphor has been stretched to the very limits of its usefulness), you can just cut it and paste it into a new document and save it. Unlike the walkers, perhaps you can bring it back to life in some other essay. Hey, if you don’t get into college this year, you’ve already got one line done of next year’s applications. So there’s that.

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