Your darlings may not deserve to die

When Arthur Quiller-Couch lectured on the art of writing at Cambridge in 1914, he uttered a phrase repeated frequently among authors today.

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.[i]

This phrase has been transformed into, “kill your babies” or “kill your darlings” by authors more famous than him. Few aspiring writers today would pay attention to his advice if it had not been repeated by these people. But, this almost forgotten author and academic lecturer still deserves the recognition for originating it. Although Quiller-Couch was a prolific writer in his day, the transcript of his Cambridge lectures is one of his few books that is still in print. If you desire to read his brand of fiction, you will have to hunt down used copies.

I’ve heard many authors interpret this phrase as referring to writers who cling to their creations as if it were their child. The writer is told to sacrifice the most excellent part if it doesn’t serve to further the story. However, as most authors aren’t reading Quiller-Couch currently, do we really know what he meant by “Murder your darlings?” If you look at this phrase in context you will find he criticized a writing style which contained “extraneous ornament.” He described it as inauthentic, like a man who hires someone else to write an exquisite love letter for him. His point was that beautiful and expansive writing was not necessarily good writing.

If you want to understand Quiller-Couch’s advice, look at the lush descriptive writing of Pat Conroy’s novels The Great Santini and Prince of Tides. Now, compare Conroy’s work to the sparse, lean prose found in the works of Ernest Hemingway and the more recent author, Tove Jansson. Aspiring authors should look at their own work critically. But they don’t need to rip their best work from the novel. It should remain. However, they need to remember that the ornate writing style prized at the beginning of the twentieth century is not widely valued among readers today.

Do recent authors who repeat their own version of “Murder your darlings” mean the same thing? Let’s look at the context of their comments. Stephen King insists that writers:

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.[ii]

This does not refer to the use of an ornamental or expansive writing style. Stephen King’s work actually contains many digressions and doesn’t always emulate the direct style preferred by Quiller-Couch. In this context the quote seems to deal with authors who hold their work above criticism.

King apparently disapproves of amateur authors’ egotistical attachment to their “scribbling.” Maybe it also concerns their reluctance to dispose of well written characters who need to die to keep the story traumatic (at least if you write horror). However, it should not be aimed at the amateur author but the professional one. Unfortunately, those who can write what they want based on sheer reputation must be careful about producing florid or meandering writing and actually having it published. Few people are willing to mention such faults to a famous author.

[i] Quiller-Couch, Arthur. On the Art of Writing, Lectures delivered in the University of Cambridge 1913-1914

[ii] King, Stephen. On Writing (A Memoir of the Craft) 2000

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