Why You Should Murder Your Darling Words, Phrases & Ideas

“If I come across anything in my work that smacks of ‘good writing,’ I immediately strike it out.” —Elmore Leonard


image by ClkerFreeVectorImages
image by ClkerFreeVectorImages

Who Said It

Most writers have heard British journalist, critic, and novelist Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s saying, “Murder your darlings.” 

Quiller-Couch (1863-1944) said: “Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. … 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.

Who Didn’t Say It (except in different words)

Collectively, the authors of several articles mentioned the quote has been attributed to:

Allen Ginsberg,
   William Faulkner,
       Oscar Wilde,
           Eudora Welty,
              G.K. Chesterton,
                 Anton Chekov,
                    Stephen King,
                        Mark Twain,
                           Ernest Hemmingway,
                              George Orwell,
                                  W. H. Auden,
                                    Samuel Johnson,
                                       Scott Fitzgerald, and
                                           Vladimir Nabokov.

This makes a point:

“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.” —Daphne Gray-Grant

image by khunaspix
Image courtesy of khunaspix at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What It Means

“Eliminate all words or phrases, no matter how pleasing, that draw undue attention to themselves (or the writer) at the expense of the narrative flow.” —David Corbett (Writer’s Digest May/June 2013 “Clearing Out the Clutter”)

“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.”
Daphne Gray-Grant

image by condesign
image by condesign

Why Writers Write Darlings

“When you start out, every word you write is precious. The words are torn from you. You wrestle with them, forcing them to express what you’re trying to say. … To you the writing shines with inner radiance and significance.”
Rob Parnell


“It says, ‘look at me,’ instead of, ‘keep reading.’” —David Corbett (Writer’s Digest May/June 2013 “Clearing Out the Clutter”)

“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. … ‘Darling’ phrases, if we’re honest, are usually about showing off a bit.” —Daphne Gray-Grant

image by Unsplash
image by Unsplash

How to Deal With It

“It is a metaphor for how you should behave toward your writing while you are revising it. The idea is to proceed objectively without sentiment. Just like you would if you were to kill a loved one.” —Seth Fried

“But after a while [after editors hack your darlings], you realize you’re being helped. That it’s not the words that matter so much as what you’re trying to communicate.” —Rob Parnell

“Try to train yourself to read your own work as a disinterested party … Read your work out loud.” —David Corbett (Writer’s Digest May/June 2013 “Clearing Out the Clutter”)


My heroine opens the door to a new neighbor. He hurt her in high school, but he doesn’t recognize her now.

“Do you have a razor blade I could borrow?”

“Not if you’re contemplating slitting your wrists.”

An insensitive comeback to the character and possibly the reader.

Possible rewrite:

“Sugar, yes. Razor blade, not so sure.”

Sometimes you need to take an axe to your “clever” writing. Click to tweet.

What is a darling you had to murder?

How to Find the Amazing Word for That Thingy, Modifier, or Action

Flip Dictionary takes you from a “meaning” you are aware of to the “word” you need.” —Barbara Ann Kipfer, Ph.D.


image by ClkeFreeVectorImages
image by ClkerFreeVectorImages

In a scene, my character senses a reverent atmosphere, but I didn’t want to use atmosphere. I couldn’t summon the word I wanted. Microsoft Word’s thesaurus offered ambiance, feeling, mood, and others. I knew a better word was available but my brain couldn’t capture it.

I looked up atmosphere in Flip Dictionary by Barbara Ann Kipfer, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of fotographic1980 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of fotographic1980 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Aura. That was it!

Under the word atmosphere, Kipfer listed 16 words for different kinds of atmosphere. For example: “atmosphere of special power or mystery: mystique.”

So, today I want to plug Flip Dictionary. Let’s look at some other examples. 

Example 1

How about courage. The thesaurus supplied: bravery, nerve, pluck, valor, daring, audacity, mettle, resolution, and guts.

As Flip Dictionary does, it named all of the above from a thesaurus and then added: backbone, boldness, braveness, chin up, élan, fearlessness, firmness, fortitude, gallantry, gameness, grit, gumption, hardihood, heart, the heart of a lion, heroism, prowess, soul, spine, spunk, and tenacity.

Wow. What a wealth of words to choose from. Some have a different meaning from, but are in the scope of, courage.

image by ClkerFreeVectorImages
image by ClkerFreeVectorImages

Suppose my character is a boy who grabs a runaway dog’s leash and persists in pulling the resistant canine away from a busy street. I might use a form of:        

  • Grit – “courage and resolve; strength of character”
  • Gumption – “shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness”
  • Heroism – “great bravery”
  • Spunk – “courage and determination”
  • Tenacity – “the quality or fact of being determined; determination”

(definitions from New Oxford American Dictionary)

I like spunk. I don’t think I’d use it for a man. Maybe for a grandmother or a young woman. If my story is folksy, I might employ gumption.

The point is Flip Dictionary gives me words that go beyond synonyms. I like that.

Example 2

What’s the bar thingy that holds flags so they hang across a porch?

I looked up flag, and beneath it I found:

image by jill111
image by jill111

Flag hung on crosspiece, not pole: gonfalon”

gonfalon: “a banner or pennant, especially one with streamers, hung from a crossbar” (New Oxford American Dictionary)

Gonfalon was also listed under banner in Flip Dictionary.

If you can look up a clue to the thingy escaping you, often you’ll find it in Flip Dictionary.

An amazing resource that gives me words that go beyond synonyms. Click to tweet.

If you use another resource or Flip Dictionary, would you tell us about how you use it?

Turn Your Scene That’s Becoming a Cliché Into a Reader’s Surprise

“I look for ways to purposely write myself into corners and then use them to my advantage.” —Steven James (Writer’s Digest July/August 2015)


image by ClkeFreeVectorImages
image by ClkeFreeVectorImages

While writing a scene, I realized it was turning into a cliché for a Christmas story. Snow falls and the couple builds a snowman or starts a snowball fight. I thought, “Will you, much less your readers, be satisfied with that?”

Image by kerplode
Image by kerplode

To my surprise as I typed more words, the hero suggested a twist mid cliché. Something told me not to backspace through the paragraphs leading into the cliché activity. I allowed my hero to switch from the familiar pursuit to an activity I’d done in my past. Something most characters don’t do in a Christmas story.

Two benefits naturally emerged from my unique solution:

  1. I was forced to bring out much deeper character values than in the developing cliché. Better than the heroine squealing and yelling, “Don’t you dare hit me with that snowball!”
  1. By allowing the scene to head into a cliché, it became a red herring. I started out in one direction then orchestrated a switcheroo. Surprise! The bonus: the reader’s greater understanding of the characters’ values and characters.

I added this idea to my scene checklist:

Look for cliché activities and turn them into surprises for the reader. Click to tweet.


Sarah pulled herself into a sitting position and rested her back against the headboard. If she didn’t overcome this illness soon and help Clay in the fields, they’d lose much of the crop. They still didn’t know if the drought had hurt the wheat. As it was, the proceeds would barely be enough to pay their bills.

She slid her legs over the edge of the bed. When she stood, lightheadedness and nausea seized her, and her knees wobbled. She crawled into bed. Clay didn’t need to come home and find her on the floor. He already spent too much time worrying about her slow progress.

image by Jan Temmel
image by Jan Temmel

As she stared out the window, a tear rolled to her jaw. In the distance, Clay strode in from the fields for lunch. She grabbed her comb from the bedside table and went to work on her tangled hair. Was that flowers he was carrying?

The door opened and paper rustled in the other room. What was Clay doing?

Clay clomped into the bedroom and held out the flowers concealed in a sheet of her drawing paper. His lips trembled, and he looked as if he’d cry at any moment. What had Clay done wrong that brought on rare tears and flowers?

image by sushi
image by sushi

Studying his face for a clue, she accepted his guilt offering. Her fingers shook as she unwrapped a posy of … healthy green wheat.


To me, a man bringing flowers to his sick wife is nice, but a little cliché-like. Making this activity a red herring for his wife and the reader will liven up the scene. Their actions say a lot about them and their relationship.

What are other cliché-like activities?