Advice, Craft, Critique, Editing, Fiction, Revision, Writing

To murder or not?

By now, you all probably know my love/hate relationship with writing rules. Sometimes I resist a rule because I don’t think it applies to my style or genre. Sometimes I resist because it makes no sense to me. And sometimes I resist because it confuses me. “Murder your darlings.” is one of those.

Yes, I agree we should avoid overwriting, purple prose, affected literariness (go with it) or any other type of what I call unnatural writing. But the original quote defines “darlings” as the writing you consider your finest. Uh … what?

Here’s the full quote:

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.” – Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

Yes, I understand Quiller-Couch uttered the term “fine writing” tongue-in-cheek. But there’s an underlying implication that sets my as-yet-unpublished writer’s brain into a tizzy. The statement says that when we think we’ve written something very well, we’re wrong, we’re fooling ourselves, but assumes—when we come to our senses—we’ll recognize them as “darlings” and amputate accordingly.

But, but, but … what if we’re blinded?

Certainly, critique groups are a benefit. If four out of five readers tell you a certain passage should be cut, no matter how much you love it, you really must consider they’re right. But what if a line or phrase is deemed “a darling” by one reader and “beautiful writing” by another … and you, obviously, side with beautiful? If we have the mindset that the passages we love best, those we think we’ve written especially well, by definition are “darlings” that need to be murdered, what if we slice out the parts that really are well-written, the phrasing that defines our style, the bits that make our writing come alive? How do you know?

Are these scalpel skills innate or can they be learned? Do you just write the way you want and leave it to an agent/editor to point out the darlings? Is it devious of me to use the editorial “you” when no one but me is this dense?

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Photo credit: Rainer Ebert

27 thoughts on “To murder or not?”

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