“Murder Your Darlings”

terry-mcdonell

Murder your darlings. Famous words in writing, where the judge (that’s writers like me) tends to grant words clemency a bit more often than advisable.

In reading famous editor Terry McDonell’s The Accidental Life, I came across a small section that serves as wisdom not only for prose writers but for the non-prose sorts in his audience as well, the poets and the dreamers.

Let’s listen in:

“Avoid clichés like the plague, and no matter how amazing or incredible or unbelievable anything is, know how challenging it can be to raise the bar–even when you are writing about icons living in La La Land or Tinseltown or on the Left Coast.

“Likewise it is prudent to take Kurt Vonnegut’s advice: ‘Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.’

“Think like Mark Twain: ‘When you catch an adjective, kill it.’

“‘Kill your darlings’ means cut anything precious, overly clever, or self-indulgent. It is a stark, brilliant prohibition attributed most often to William Faulkner but also to Allen Ginsberg, Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty, G. K. Chesterton, Anton Chekhov and Stephen King, who used the phrase in his effusive On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: ‘Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’

“When the 2013 biopic of Allen Ginsberg, Kill Your Darlings, came out, Forrest Wickman on Slate tracked what is probably the best attribution to Arthur Quiller-Couch in his 1914 Cambridge lecture ‘On Style.’ The prolific poet, novelist and critic railed against ‘extraneous Ornament’ and emphasized, ‘If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘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.

“Wickman’s research also brought him to an even more important rule for journalists: ‘Check your sources.'”

— p. 70 “Editcraft”

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