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”)

Example

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?