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 But there’s an underlying implication that sets my as-yet-unpublished writer’s brain into a tizzy.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?”

  1. I believe the skills can be learned. I learned them. I also learned things like, what I thought was funny isn’t always funny, I probably could’ve written frat lit if I’d wanted to, slapstick doesn’t play well in text, and it’s harder than it sounds to write something scary.

    I cut my darlings a lot lately. I have to or the story isn’t sound. I can do it. Anyone can. (I couldn’t even SEE my darlings eighteen months ago.)

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    1. Especially, when you’re unpublished, it can be hard to know how to apply advice to your writing … or even whether some advice appliesto your writing. Some things, like believable dialogue, I’ve never had a problem writing, so I don’t read much advice about that. But other aspects, I’m not so sure about, so I read and read and the more I read the more confused I get. The concensus here seems to be to GO WITH YOUR GUT!

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  2. I think part of seeing the little darlings in your own work is letting it grow cold. It’s amazing how they frolic around when it’s been a few months!

    btw, I’m just getting the hang of Twitter and thus just now saw that you re-tweeted my flash fiction the other day. thanks! 🙂

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    1. I expect you’re right about that, Cathryn. Even by the time I finished the last chapter of Brevity, when I went back to the first chapters, I found all sorts of sloppy writing to edit. I don’t call those “darlings” but the principal is the same.

      You’re welcome for the re-tweet. I always enjoy your stories and, taking my own advice, I felt I should share a link with Twitterworld.

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  3. I’ve always kind of interpreted this quote to mean that some writers write just to wield wonderful words on the paper without any kind of restraint to how it upholds the story! Kind of like people who talk and are saying nothing! Hope this helps

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