Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Five Reasons Why You Must Murder Your Darlings

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 — wholeheartedly — 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, for the determined, here it is.)

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 all said much 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 labored. 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.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday July 21st 2008, 7:21 AM
Comment by: Nicholas T.
Thanks for the reminder. Your article hit the spot today.
Nicholas
Monday July 21st 2008, 11:20 AM
Comment by: Beryl S. (Schroeder, MN)
Advice always worth hearing again. And again. And again! Thank you for leading us to the source of this blessed yet painful advice.
Monday July 21st 2008, 1:39 PM
Comment by: Varun R. (Stamford, CT)
Stephen King said the same thing albeit on a different context I feel. He said writing no matter how dear to you, if you think that it wont sell or make an impact, should be trashed. One should have no second thoughts on it and it is with respect to this that S King said Murder your darlings...

And anyways, I feel that this advice should be taken with a pinch of salt. After all, I dont think that all beautiful phrases by my own favorite author S King, come out in a flow. I am sure that he would have labored a bit thinking of alternatives to "It was hot as hell" before coming up with something more catchy...
Monday July 21st 2008, 3:46 PM
Comment by: Karkle (Austin, TX)
Great advice if you want everything you write to be as brief, plain and functional as possible -- but that sounds like a recipe for boredom to me. I take the point that self-indulgent frills can be counter-effective, but the idea that you should get rid of anything you really like is nonsense (unless you have no confidence in your ability), as is the premise that "fast writing is the best writing." Audiences respond to a pleasantly turned phrase, an engaging description, a well articulated argument, etc., much more than we usually give them credit for, I think. "Clever" writing that "calls attention to itself" is often the goal of marketing copy. And such effects aren't the result of "flow"; they come from the conscious effort to cause them. Someday, generic writing computers will be able to follow this column's advice, but they'll never be able to inject the artistry that it seems to be trying to snuff out. No, you shouldn't write your white paper in sonnet form or a news article full of precise-but-exotic vocabulary. But advising that all writing should be as transparent, quickly consumed and easily digestible as possible -- like lukewarm water -- is an overreaction at best. And writing that way is no fun!
Monday July 21st 2008, 4:06 PM
Comment by: Karkle (Austin, TX)
P.S. If Quiller-Couch had truly followed his own advice, then "Murder your darlings" itself would never have made it past the red pen ...
Monday July 21st 2008, 4:52 PM
Comment by: Judy J.
hummmmmmmmm....I find myself agreeing with two virtual polar opposites: Karl R AND Nicholas T. Guess I'll just stick to reading. ^^)
Tuesday July 22nd 2008, 2:34 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
As your readers have noted, not all writing has the same goal. For that reason, not all writing needs to follow the same rule. It's good to have knowledge of the rules of writing overall so you can make a wise decision about which ones apply to your current project.
Wednesday July 23rd 2008, 10:36 AM
Comment by: John M. (Baltimore, MD)
Earlier still than the other writers mentioned is this suggestion from Smuel Johnson: "I would say ... what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils:'Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.'"
Friday July 25th 2008, 10:20 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Wow. I love the debate this has engendered. But Karl, I have to disagree on several points. First, I never said you have to get rid of everything you really like when you self-edit. That would be just plain silly. What I'm referring to are the self-indulgent, overly clever passages. It can be hard to identify them in your own writing (and that's where external editors can be so helpful) but -- perhaps counter-intuitively -- one of the "red flags" for self-indulgent writing is that you tend to be especially proud of it. I know I have a number of passages in my book that I was achingly proud of at the time of writing - I now I recognize them to be too "precious" and will expunge them for future editions.

Re: fast writing - I fear you misunderstand my approach. I advocate fast writing of the **first draft.** There's a lot of evidence to support that this is the best way to achieve a "flow" state -- in which the words come easily or quickly. That said, I have never in my life advocated fast editing. Editing is a slow, laborious process that takes a great deal of care and attention. I tend to harp on the distinction between writing and editing because so many people try to do both things at once - and this is a recipe for becoming a blocked writer.

I also have to disagree that "clever" writing that calls attention to itself is the goal of most marketing writing. Quite the opposite! Successful marketing writing always calls attention to the product. This doesn't mean that even very high end advertising agencies don't make mistakes. There is lots of ineffective copy out there. But if your job is to sell, you need to focus on the product. You don't want readers/viewers walking away and saying "Wow, that's a really clever ad/direct mail piece." You want them saying: "I need that product. Now."

Finally, I would never ever try to snuff out artistry. You're putting words in my mouth when you claim I said "all writing should be as transparent, quickly consumed and easily digestible as possible." I do believe in clarity -- but different writers have different ways of reaching that goal, and that's perfectly fine. As for me, I read and enjoy a wide range of non-fiction and literature and agree that the individuality of each writer's approach is what makes reading so enjoyagble.

And in terms of Arther Quiller-Couch, whose words sparked this whole discussion - don't you perhaps think he was being ironic in his word choice when he said, "Murder your darlings?"
Monday July 28th 2008, 3:08 PM
Comment by: Al D. (Cambridge, MA)
My first reaction to the article was in keeping with Karl R.'s. There's no need to apologize or hide from talent as a writer, and those who have the good fortune of being aware of their talent and not shrinking from it deserve our admiration, not our censure. Removing the gems might make one's writing widely accessible, but only in the same way that Fox News is widely accessible. I prefer Frontline. I think risk of losing your audience is part of the game.

And college profs who admonish their students to "read over [their] compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out," might simply be revealing their own insecurities. Can't have the pupils outdoing the teachers, after all.

If the criterion by which you apply the ax is how much you enjoy a particular phrase or wording, then you are effectively removing all the joy from the act of writing. And I doubt that's what's being advocated. I think it's more accurate to say that that good writers omit, despite whatever delusions they've spun around it, the type of obsessive meanderings that never transcend the subjective bounds of the author -- that I can relate to. Murder your neuroses, but be careful not to kill the thing you love.
Tuesday July 29th 2008, 5:58 PM
Comment by: Karkle (Austin, TX)
I get the point, Daphne, I really do, and it's a good one. No one can advocate self-indulgent, precious writing, and being really fond of something CAN be a red flag, a sign that you've lost focus on your main goals. But your column struck me as going a little farther than that, as an argument against style. I think now that I overreacted a bit, but I'm still not ready to accept "murder your darlings" without a lot of caveats.

I would advise writers to be self-aware enough to question WHY their darlings are so darling to them. Do you like that passage because it demonstrates your awesome gift for clever wordplay, or because it serves your purpose in a particularly interesting, fresh, engaging way? The former is a distraction at best, but the latter is the lifeblood of written communication. If you can't tell the difference yourself, then by all means seek advice from an editor you trust. If that still leaves you undecided, I'd say give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Failed flair is much better than successful straightforwardness, in my opinion. Above all, avoid a "baby with the bathwater" approach that makes you overly suspicious of yourself and ever-fearful of crossing the "precious" line. Swing for the fences!

As for fast writing, I know that what you advocate (dump a first draft, then sculpt it) is the standard approach that seems to work for a lot of people. But as an inveterate edit-as-I-go guy, I can't relate to it. I've tried the flowing first draft, but I've never seen any benefit from spilling out a bunch of stuff that I KNOW isn't any good. (I put "journaling" into the same category.) I'm just not interested in producing verbal raw material. Or in other words, to me, writing IS editing, editing the inner language that I feel no need to put on paper.

Which brings us back to writers' self-awareness. I'm a very self-conscious writer, and that has served me well, but I understand how others can get stuck inside a process of relentless self-editing that short-circuits the whole project. It's a matter of personal temperament, I suppose. I would advise people to experiment and work in whichever way suits their personalities and situations. If you want flow, go for it! If you're more like me, embrace that too; it doesn't necessarily lead to a tedious or blocked composing process.

I have to disagree strongly with your comments about marketing writing. My charge as a marketing copywriter IS ultimately to sell products, but how? As important as spotlighting products, if not more, is developing a unique voice for my company's brand -- which is ALL ABOUT stylized writing that cuts through the oft-cited ad clutter. Often, I write marketing copy that has nothing to do with products AT ALL! It's about building rapport and creating communities with an emotional connection to the brand. That approach doesn't just sell stuff today; it creates long-term loyalty. Take a closer look at progressive companies' websites, and I'm sure you'll notice the prevalence of this kind of writing.

Accusing you of attempted artistic genocide was, in a phrase, over the top, and I apologize. I just have a chip on my shoulder regarding the many so-called editors I've been subject to, whose entire cowardly method is to remove anything even remotely objectionable. And I fear that your good advice will be taken as a hard, fast Writing Rule by some who will overzealously apply it, to the detriment of their work. I would hate for anyone to mistake their wonderful personal style for preciousness.

As for Quiller-Couch, I'm sure he had some irony in mind. My point was that, ironic or not, "murder my darlings" is at least very close to being a red-flag bon mot itself. Come on, can't you just see him writing that, leaning back in his chair, and saying "Damn, that's good"? Aren't you glad he left it in?
Wednesday July 30th 2008, 9:10 AM
Comment by: Al D. (Cambridge, MA)
"There must be courage; there must be no awe. There must be criticism, for humor, to my mind, is encapsulated in criticism. There must be a disciplined eye and wild mind. There must be a magnificent disregard for your reader, for if he cannot follow you, there is nothing you can do about it."

Ms. Parker's darlings survived, thank goodness.
Monday August 4th 2008, 8:17 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Sorry to take so long to reply. Have been swamped with client work...

Anyway, I suspect we all probably agree more than you think. What we likely have is an elephant and blindmen situation here: In the famous poem by John Godfrey Saxe one blind man grasps the side of the beast and "sees" a wall; one touches the tusk and sees a spear; and one gets the trunk and sees a snake.

I say "darling" and see: writing that is pretentious, adjective- and adverb-laden, and filled with metaphors that over-reach themselves. You say "darling" and you see writing that is simply clever and interesting. We're using "darling" in entirely different ways, I think.

Karl, I too have suffered at the hands of over-zealous editors, believe me. But I've also worked as an editor in a newsroom filled with massive egos. (See the following exchange for a taste of what that's like: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/jul/23/mediamonkey?gusrc=rss&feed=media
and
http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/jul/29/sundaytimes.pressandpublishing) By the way, I agree with the writer that the edit was a mistake but agree with the sub-editors that the writer didn't need to be so abusive about it.

The thing is, it's extraordinarily difficult to evaluate your own writing -- especially just after you've written it. For me, I find it takes at least six months (often more) to be able to have any degree of judgement about the quality of my work. And even then I consider myself a suspect audience! But I do find that any degree of smugness or self-satisfaction is usually a good warning sign that I've gone astray.

And while I adore Dorothy Parker and echo the "disciplined eye and wild mind" I disagree, in the strongest possible terms, with her sentiment "there must be a magnificent disregard for your reader".

In fact, I don't think she genuinely believed that. Her own writing belies the comment.
Saturday August 16th 2008, 8:52 AM
Comment by: Al D. (Cambridge, MA)
WOW! Ok, Giles maybe drinks too much coffee... If his letter to the subs is what you mean by a darling, then by all means, send that crap on holiday, but his original sentence wasn't in need of a death edict. The edit could have gone either way. They should have talked it out. Funny, but I got the sense that both he and the sub had each grabbed hold of the elephant's "nosh" and made a career out of it.

I think Parker whole-heartedly believed it, Daphne. She was a true romantic and seldom let a contradiction or ambivalence keep her from finding her voice and her style -- and her true love. She said it how it needed to be said for her, and damn those who couldn't handle it. Of course, taken to an extreme, this disregard can backfire, but I truly believe that part of mastery is letting go of that inner critic, and that does perhaps involve a MAGNIFICENT disregard for the outer ones too.

If you truly need six months to self-evaluate your writing, Daphne, perhaps it's a red flag that some other kind of writing is calling you? You obviously have talent.

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