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Alternative Thoughts; Murder Your Darlings

09-06-01a hansvandenberg30, signLast week I posted on my personal belief that words should be carefully selected and that much thought should be given as to exactly where they are placed in your prose.

In a remarkable coincidence, just as the post was published, Ron Parnell from The Easy Way to Write sent me a newsletter stating that you should not get too fond of your words and “good writing” should be amongst the first to be considered for cutting.

I wouldn’t have written such a coincidence in a novel, it’s just too unbelievable.

Did I get upset? No. Instead, I chose to listen, learn and take it to heart, but I will use my own judgment on where to use his wisdom and where not.

I e-mailed Ron about this and he replied in a really nice mail, and so for you with Ron’s permission, here is his original article that the newsletter was based on.

Is he right? You decide.

Murder Your Darlings

by Rob Parnell

(According to Google this is my most popular article – something short I wrote back in 2003. It’s reproduced in over 160 places on the Net and even gets a reference on Wikipedia as a qualified information source. Cool!)

“Murder your darlings” was a phrase first coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (or Fitzgerald or Nabakov or even Stephen King, depending on who you believe). They’re all referring to what you might call your “best bits.” The “bits” you should edit out of your work.

As Elmore Leonard once said, “If I come across anything in my work that smacks of ‘good writing,’ I immediately strike it out.”

The theory is that writing you’re particularly proud of is probably self-indulgent and will stand out.

You might think this is good. Wrong.

You will most likely break the “fictive dream.” (This is the state of consciousness reached by readers who are absorbed by a story.) And breaking your reader out of this fictive dream is a heinous sin!

Editing out “the best bits” is the hardest thing a novice writer has to do – after all, isn’t it counterproductive to write good things down only to cut them out?

Look at it this way…

When you start out, every word you write is precious. The words are torn from you. You wrestle with them, forcing them to express what you’re trying to say.

When you’re done, you may have only a paragraph or a few pages – but to you the writing shines with inner radiance and significance.

That’s why criticism cuts to the core. You can’t stand the idea of changing a single word in case the sense you’re trying to convey gets lost or distorted.

Worse still, you have moments of doubt when you think you’re a bad writer – criticism will do this every time. Sometimes you might go for months, blocked and worrying over your words and your ability.

There is only one cure for this – to write more; to get words out of your head and on to the page. When you do that, you’re ahead, no matter how bad you think you are.

After all, words are just the tools – a collection of words is not the end result, it is only the medium through which you work. In the same way that a builder uses bricks and wood to build a house – the end result is not about the materials, it’s about creating a place to live.

As you progress in your writing career, you become less touchy about your words. You have to. Editors hack them around without mercy. Agents get you to rewrite great swathes of text they don’t like. Publishers cut out whole sections as irrelevant.

All this hurts – a lot.

But after a while, you realize you’re being helped. That it’s not the words that matter so much as what you’re trying to communicate.

Once you accept that none of the words actually matter, and have the courage to “murder your darlings,” you have the makings of the correct professional attitude to ensure your writing career.

This is a tough lesson to learn.

But, as always, the trick is…to keep writing!

© Copyright Rob Parnell. All Rights Reserved.09-06-01b Rob Parnell Bio

Rob Parnell
Your Success is My Concern
The Easy Way to Write


So there you have it. Two very different opposing views. So tell us, what do you think? Keep it? Cut it? What will you do when you have to make the decision?


Photo Sign, cc Hansvandenberg30

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8 comments to Alternative Thoughts; Murder Your Darlings

  • nallan08

    My gosh, can this be right? But my darlings…my precious darlings, if I cut them, my novel will crumble!

    This is good advice, but…here’s the but! Everything ‘good’ is only good in moderation. Think of food, eat too much you become obese. Eat nothing at all and you waste away to nothing.

    I think some darlings should be cut. That bit of diaolgue might be truly amazing, but if it does nothing to further the story, cut it! No matter how ‘darling’ or ‘wonderful’ it might be.

    However, if your ‘amazing darling’ is furthering the story, helps the plot makes sense, or is truly emotive and touches the senses then leave it in!

    Only if a really good piece of writing has no purpose do you cut it.

    Everything ‘good’ even advice is to be used in moderation.

    This is just my opinion and I’d like to see what everyone else thinks – even you, Shack!

  • SpikeTheLobster

    I remember hearing a similar thing applied to film-making, whereby any “really cool scenes” had to be cut from a script. If they’re left in, chances are everything else will suffer and the film will seem choppy and weird. Makes sense, I suppose, but what if you like your whole story? Do you just publish the front cover and a single sheet with “The End” written on it? :)

  • Andy Shackcloth

    Natalie, I have another alternative thoughts; follow-up on Friday’s post scheduled for tomorrow. My thoughts will be there.
    However I do agree with you, cut if it is at fault, there has to be a reason, we should not blindly follow a rule.

    Spike; laughed my head off, you have just invented a whole new nano-fiction possibility. Your humour has improved, have you been in the sun?

  • kristycolley

    I don’t seem to know how something “good” can be consistently self indulgent? I’ll give him this, yes, some things are. Not all.
    nallan is right; all things in moderation.
    I can hardly breathe when a plot culminates and characters converge at the same moment the good writing comes to a head. Ah, breathtaking! It feels magical both as the author and reader.

    Use good judgment, and common sense if you’re blessed with it. ;)

  • Bobby

    Hey Andy, I’ve thought about this argument for literary minimalism for years. I’m no big fan of Elmore Leonard and his inartistic approach to prose. It’s like saying, “If it smacks of beautiful artistry, don’t paint it.”

    I trim back in certain areas, but I will not kill my writing style because “every sentence, every word MUST add to the story”. Some of my favorite writers like Tolstoy and Clive Barker wouldn’t even have careers if everyone thought “good writing” was meaningless. I say find a balance between minimalism and artistic flourish. I sometimes write entire short stories based on “maximism” or “imagism” where descriptive prose is a requirement and minimalistic prose is treated like a disease–the opposite of what Rob Parnell is saying.

    The idea some writers (like Parnell) have about “artistic prose” being something only inexperienced writing novices do is presumptuous and condescending. I’s like saying great painters only use two colors and one of them is white.

  • Andy Shackcloth

    Kristy, Agree “all things in moderation” and by taking the meaning of moderation and to moderate as “the limiting, controlling or restricting of something so that it becomes or remains moderate” (I looked it up) then we should exercise self control, restraint, and discipline over the pride in our work.

    Then if part of our work excels the rest and we are at risk of ‘break the “fictive dream.” ‘ should we not then moderate the darling by its removal or by bolstering the surrounding siblings with more work?

    Either way, keeping the flow smooth and so the “fictive dream” alive.

    I am with you on when it all comes together at one point it is better than… ;)

  • Andy Shackcloth

    Bobby, Nice point about finding balance and I believe that there is no universal balance point that all these ‘rules’ seem to espouse, that it will vary depending on who you are writing for.

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