Murder Your Darlings is not a detective mystery or true crime drama.
Murder Your Darlings is writing advice. You see it a lot in writing circles these days, but it originally came from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a British author and professor (known as Q, not to be confused with the WWII spy-gadget-maker). This phrase was first delivered in a lecture to his students in 1914 which was later published. In context, he said, “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” (p. 17).
Roy Peter Clark interprets Q’s advice thus: “Ask yourself, ‘Am I including this because it provides the reader with a memorable and delightful piece of evidence to prove the point of my text? Or is it beside the point even though it reveals what a good wordsmith I am?'” (p. 21).
In other words, the phrase, sentence, or paragraph that’s the most precious to you, but doesn’t really add anything to your thesis, must go. Clark opines that you don’t have to “commit verbicide on the words you love the most” (p. 17). You can save them in a file for another day.
Clark, known as “America’s writing coach,” shares advice from over 50 other writing sources in Murder Your Darlings: And Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser. Clarks says, “I am not trying to steal their thunder. I am trying, instead, to amplify it, to pay back my debt to the authors who shaped my craft” (p. 8).
Some of these books are filled with writing advice, and Clark pulls out a lesson or two to discuss. “Most of what you will read here is why I appreciate them, what I or others have learned from them, and what I think you, the reader, can take away and apply to your own work” (p. 23).
Clark begins each chapter with a “toolbox,” a brief summary of the particular principle or writing instruction he’s going to discuss. Then he’ll give a little background about the work he is drawing from, the author, illustrations of the writing advice under consideration, whether he agrees or disagrees and to what extent. He ends each chapter with a short list of “Lessons” summarizing the main points of the chapter.
Clark’s book is quite readable. The Lessons at the end are particularly helpful to remind oneself of the salient tips from a chapter. Some of the writers he quotes from are well-known, others are not.
As you can imagine, I have multitudes of passages highlighted from the book. Here are a few:
It turns out that the internet is not an information superhighway. It is, instead, a polluted ocean with buried treasure sitting here and there on the bottom. Neutralize the poison of the propagandists, hackers, conspiracy theorists, trolls, and bullies by devoting your online efforts to the public good (p. 83).
Early writing is not sculpture, but clay, the stuff in which you will find the better work (p. 105).
An implied social contract exists between the reader and an author of nonfiction and that the contract reads, “Please believe me, my memory of events may be flawed, but none of this was intentionally made up.” If the author decides to veer from this standard, say, by using composite characters, the author must be transparent, revealing the strategies before the story begins, not in a footnote at the end (p. 222).
Donald Murray . . . advised writers to use “Shorter words, shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity” (p. 231).
Another Roman author, Horace, steps into the light with a sense of mission that is both public and aesthetic, arguing that the purpose of great literature is to delight and instruct or, on the good days, to do both! (p. 237).
This is a secular book, and there are words I wouldn’t use and situations and philosophies I wouldn’t agree with. But I found it fairly easy to sidestep those things just to glean the writing advice.
Clark’s book will help you hone your craft by sharing wisdom with you from sources that you might not have found yet. And the sources he quotes might inspire you to look up the authors’ original works.
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What an interesting book!