Monday, 31 December 2012

Kill your darlings

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. 
-          Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

'Kill your darlings.' The phrase irked me the first time I read it. The relish with which other people repeat it has only annoyed me more.

I guess what he was getting at is that if a writer is particularly proud of a phrase, those words are likely to stick out, draw attention to themselves, and snap the reader out of her immersion in the story. That's likely enough, so it's good advice. But the smug self-satisfaction with which the advice is delivered really gets under my skin.

This morning I woke with a revelation – 'Murder your darlings' is a darling. It's exactly the sort of 'exceptionally fine writing' that should have been deleted before being sent to press. The smugness, the preciousness, the surprising and clever metaphor, are precisely the definition of a darling.

Oh, the delicious irony. The aphorism 'Kill your darlings' is a darling, so by rights Quiller-Couch should have killed it, but he didn't so it's beloved and repeated by thousands who don't recognize that it should have succumbed to its author's knife, gun or poison.

Here's a more in-depth analysis by Stephen Wright, who also despises the phrase.

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