Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Worst Writing Advice

Zestful Blog Post #162

The worst writing advice I’ve ever heard is ‘kill your babies.’ Many, many fine writers have spewed this advice, including such vastly different story fabricators as William Faulkner and Stephen King. I just hunted up the original reference (thank you, Google), and here it is, from the British novelist and critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, writing in 1914:

‘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.’

He was being facetious, implying that if you think very highly of something you’ve written, it’s most likely pretentious dreck. Actually, this is often true for very young writers, or very new ones.

The true point of ‘murder your darlings’ is simply this: You must have the strength to cut material which is irrelevant or unnecessary to the piece at hand, in spite of how much pride you feel in it. This is common sense. Yet many writers get nervous about it, thinking maybe they’re supposed to destroy whatever they think is good. Which is insane.

The quotation keeps getting delivered with tremendous pompousness by authors and critics alike, as if it's some kind of golden key to excellence. I’ve also seen critics use it to mean whatever they want it to mean. I’m always like: Just say something doesn’t work, then justify it by whatever literary standards you want.

Furthermore, I say, love your babies, love your work, do your best to write with passion and concision, and forget stupid crap like that.

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  1. "Kill your darlings" has always been a piece of advice that has made me extremely uncomfortable. It has made me doubt myself as a writer, since it seems to be saying that whatever writing I am proudest of needs to be destroyed. If that were true and my best writing wasn't worth more than fire starters, what does that mean about everything else I write?

  2. Exactly, Valahv! Nobody who echoes him understands that Quiller-Couch was being facetious, referring to inferior writers who are in love with their most heavily ornamented passages. Because yeah, destroy what you honestly love and feel is your best work? Uhnnn.

  3. Well, let's just spin that a bit and make it a win-win, shall we? As a newbie writer I "get" that I may have a higher opinion of my work than it deserves, but I still poured my heart and soul into every line. So when I do have the courage to kill my darlings, I put them in stasis in a folder on my desktop. I'll revive them at some future point to round out a chapter, jump start inspiration or for a good laugh. After completing my first novel, I had cut enough darlings to use as seed for book two. Win-Win.

  4. Liz, yep, if you know the material is good, but just doesn't fit right THERE, you're right on to save it. And it seems you're organized well enough to keep track of such files, the sign of a pro!

  5. I think "Love your babies" is much better advice.
    To get the idea across, perhaps "Love your babies, but let them go". The original is an interesting thought process and certainly applicable in many circumstances but I agree that it gives the wrong impression.

  6. Right on, Anna. Good to see you here!


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