Why you must murder your darlings

murder your darlings

Word count: 600 words

Reading time: just over 2 minutes

I have a close friend, whose work I have helped edit for more than 20 years. He likes to say that my job is to review his writing, find the very best parts and then remove them. He is half joking. But only half.

In my defense, I will say that I am simply following the advice of British journalist, critic, and novelist Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who said: “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.”

Quiller-Couch formed his maxim while a professor of English at Cambridge University and he used it in series of lectures titled on the Art of Writing. (Anyone raised on sound-bite TV may have a hard time plowing through the original, but, go for it if you like.)

Sadly for Quiller-Couch, he seldom gets full credit for his sage advice. Kudos more often go to the better-remembered F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Mark Twain and Stephen King, who said the same thing. But it’s not surprising that other smart, successful writers would echo the professor’s suggestion. After all, they know the inevitability of getting a little blood on their hands.

Why? Glad you asked!

1) “Darling” writing – and by that I mean writing that is clever, self-conscious, inappropriately literary or writing that otherwise calls undue attention to itself — usually sounds forced and laboured. You can almost hear the writer panting and gasping for breath. Instead, really good writing should look like figure skating or ballet — graceful, elegant and effortless. (Even though it is the product of hard work.)

2) Focusing on bons mots and smart turns of phrase will slow down your writing. As I have said countless times, fast writing is the best writing — even if this means the writing eventually needs repair. I know I risk sounding contradictory, but my philosophy — write in haste, edit in leisure — hinges on the concept of “flow.” This delightful state, to which every writer should aspire, is one in which words come easily and effortlessly. You cannot achieve flow if you attempt to edit or otherwise fuss while writing. Keep the two processes separate!

3) Clever writing usually adds length — and in this time-pressed age, no reader wants to be faced with more words than absolutely necessary. Consider the 19th century novel versus the modern one. My copy of George Eliot’s Middlemarch is 880 pages. The novel I’m currently reading (Consumption by Kevin Patterson) is 400 pages. I’m not saying the latter is better because it’s shorter — I’m simply saying that modern sensibilities demand more restraint. Middlemarch is still well worth reading — but the jury is out on your long sales letter or e-zine article!

4) Polishing your little “jewels” of prose will subvert your own editing process. When you’re in love with what you’ve written you’re like the 16-year- old who can’t spot the flaws in her own boyfriend. He’s so smart! He’s so good-looking! He’s so perfect. Ummm, no.

5) Writing is about making a point. “Darling” phrases, if we’re honest, are usually about showing off a bit. Don’t distract readers with your clever phrasing — instead, persuade them with the merits of your argument. As James Carville might have said: “it’s about the content, stupid.”

Fiction writers are sometimes told, “Love the book, not the scene.” For non-fiction writers let me rephrase: Love the finished piece, not the paragraph.

(Thanks to Trish who suggested the idea for this column.)

Posted June 3rd, 2008 in Power Writing

  • Rebeccaji

    I feel sad about this piece of advice always. I edit others’ work and can see plenty of darlings in that which need editing out. But at the same time, I also read modern prose fiction and sob at its boringness in comparison with Dickens, Eliot, Lawrence, Durrell, etc. Those people wrote in convoluted sentences, with complex thoughts and lavish description, and where is the modern equivalent? We are dumbing down when we fail to write up to our readers, and I think we should remember that.

    • Hmm, I agree with your sentiment when you compare Dickens, Eliot et al to most modern writers, but I don’t think that has anything to do with “murdering darlings.” The “darling” phrases are ones that Dickens would never have permitted!

  • KSW

    Great and timely post, D. I love this phrase! I credit Faulkner with this wisdom. I try to write/edit using using this suggestion, and in my reading life — I prefer writers that follow this wisdom as well. An example for me is Interpreter of Maladies (Lahiri), a book of short stories; it reads as if it was written almost effortlessly (like you say, like a ballerina), and it reads at a high level (e.g., inclusive of symbolism, cross-cultural dynamics), but not a word more and not a word less should be included.