Why you must murder your darlings

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Arthur Quiller-Couch developed his famous maxim — murder your darlings — while working as a professor of English at Cambridge University near the turn of the last century. Here’s why his advice still applies to writers today….

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 a 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? I’m so 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 your writing process. 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 writing and editing 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 book versus the modern one. My copy of George Eliot’s Middlemarch is 864 pages. A 2019 book I recently finished (Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe) is 464 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. Umm, 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.)

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on June 3/08.

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If you want support with murdering your darlings and help with writing or editing every day, consider applying to my Get It Done writing accountability program. More information and the application form can be found here. April 26/19 is the deadline for starting May 1/9.

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How do you feel about murdering your darlings. We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section of my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by April 30/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of the non-fiction book Organized Enough by Amanda Sullivan. To enter, please go to my blog (and scroll to the end for the “comments” section.) You don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here  to learn how to post as a guest.