Murder Your Darlings

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.

Book Review: Write Better

In every writer’s conference, writer’s blog, or book about writing I have encountered, writers are told to continually improve their craft. Wherever we are on our writing journey, we need reminders, encouragement, and instruction. We can too easily grow complacent. Plus, changes in what’s acceptable can occur so quickly, we need to keep on top of current trends.

At the last writer’s conference I attended virtually, one industry professional said she read a book about writing or speaking every month. I thought I was doing good to read one a year!

Last year, several people recommended Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art, and Spirituality by Andrew T. Le Peau. Blogger and author Tim Challies said, “It is every bit the book many Christians need as they consider writing, and every bit the book many Christian writers need as they attempt to grow in their skill.” Literary agent Steve Laube called it the “book of the summer” of 2020.

Mr. Le Peau worked for InterVarsity Press for over forty years, spending much of that time as the associate publisher for editorial. He’s also written several books and Bible studies. So he knows what he’s talking about.

He also writes from and for a distinctly Christian point of view.

Le Peau divides his book into three parts: Craft, Art, and Spirituality.

Craft deals with the “nuts and bolts” of writing: creating good openings, endings, and titles, the craft and character of persuasion, narrative nonfiction, etc.

Art goes into creativity, tone, metaphor, restraint, and more.

Spirituality discusses calling, voice, authority, courage, and stewardship.

Several appendices cover platform, editors, coauthoring, self-publishing, and copyright.

I agree with the high praise that others have given this book. Le Peau not only writes well and has heaps of experience: he reads extensively and gives multitudes of examples of what he’s teaching. He writes professionally but without lapsing into academese.

I have many more places marked than I can share, but I wanted to note a few points that especially stood out to me.

After observing that “persuasion is part of almost every piece of nonfiction” (p. 37), Le Peau encourages writers to be honest persuaders.

If we want to be honest persuaders, we will be on the lookout for and stay away from hasty generalizations, false analogies, demonizing opponents, avoiding or sidelining the central issue (that is, using red herrings), and more. Honesty means respecting the truth as best we can know it, respecting contrary viewpoints, giving due credit, and using logic (p. 44).

He points out that “presenting the arguments for these other viewpoints in as strong a form as possible” (p. 55) is not only honest, but doing so actually strengthens our own arguments and the solutions we offer.

Even though this book primarily covers nonfiction, Le Peau encourages using stories. Stories pull us in and touch the heart. Stories “are bound to stick with us long after the information has been forgotten” (p. 60).

His chapter on creativity helped diffuse some of its mystery: “Essentially, creativity isn’t concocting something entirely unprecedented. Rather it is bringing together two things that have been around for a while but previously hadn’t been combined. Innovation almost always involves building on the past” (p. 117).

A few other quotes:

Grammar has one—and only one—purpose: to facilitate clear, effective, powerful, artful communication (p. 129).

Metaphors, similes, and analogies sharpen the sword of our writing. They allow us to cut quickly through the fat to the meat of our purpose (p. 146).

When we are too focused on readers getting our point, we can become didactic and perhaps preachy, engaging only one dimension—perhaps just the mind or just the will. Art engages the whole person—will, heart, soul, mind, and strength (p. 158).

Regardless of what we are writing, however, we must treat our readers with dignity. Don’t announce that you are going to tell a funny joke or story. Give readers the dignity of deciding for themselves if it is humorous. Besides, doing so makes it less funny because you have given away the element of surprise. Don’t say a story will be sad or happy or startling. That inoculates the reader against sadness or happiness or shock. Just tell the story (p. 159).

The goal of writers is not complete originality but to take the past and give it a shake, a fresh look that helps us see  reality differently and better (p. 185).

Criticism is not just something to be endured. It is something to help us grow and improve (p. 214),

Though all the book is valuable, perhaps the most valuable part of it is the last section on spirituality, having the right perspective whether in success or failure, remembering we’re stewards of God’s truth and the talents He gave us. “Remember, my identity is in Christ. I am not defined by what I write. I am not defined by the praise or criticism or sales of my book or the number of hits on my blog. My identity is in Christ, who loves me with an everlasting love, who made me, who put the urge to write in me, and who helped me get it out” (p. 225).

I wish I could read a book like this and keep all of its information readily accessible in my mind. Since I haven’t figured out how to do that, I should plan to reread this one every year. Highly recommended.

You can read more from Mr. Le Peau at his blog, Andy Unedited.

(Sharing with Carol’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)