Kill Your Darlings

Posted by – July 27, 2010

This writer’s mantra has been ringing in my head the past week. It comes from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1916 lecture on writing style, and was originally “murder your darlings”:

To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style isnot; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and 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.’

I don’t encourage you to read the entire lecture, although you can do so here. Quiller-Couch, frankly, would have done well to murder one or two of his darlings.

The message is this: As a writer, you fall in love with certain passages, certain words, certain turns of phrase, or even certain characters that come about it your own writing. These are your darlings. They mean something, deeply, to you; for whatever reason, you just think they’re awesome. When you’re editing a piece, these are the passages that stay no matter what. You can find yourself building and rebuilding an entire piece around them. These are usually the parts that need to be deleted entirely. It’s just emotionally impossible to do so.

As a blogger, I don’t have to do a lot of darling-killing. I don’t have time to do a lot of darling-killing. Pieces get written, the “Publish” button gets hit, and life goes on. Blogging — especially around news subjects — is a fascinating form of writing, because it happens so quickly, with so little editing, and with essentially no word limit. As I’ve taken on different types of writing jobs lately, jobs where I have weeks to edit articles, to get them down to a max word count, to make sure all angles of a story are addressed, I find that the writing process for me is very different than in blogging. I find I have darlings. I find I don’t want to kill them. Sometimes I don’t when I probably should. Sometimes I think “This is my darling, and I won’t kill it,” when the voice in my head says “Kill your darlings.”

My career as a professional writer has been almost entirely as a news blogger. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve written longer-form articles and stories for public consumption. I’d forgotten how much I still have to learn, how much I have yet to internalize, about the process, how hard it is to create darlings and then have to murder them.

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