Murdering your darlings

Writing students are often warned about the terrors of revision—that at some point, they’ll have to “murder their darlings,” those clever turns of phrase and well-written sections that make authors fall in love with their own work. This cautionary phrase can be traced back to a lecture delivered in 1913 or 1914 by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a Cambridge professor of writing. He said:

“Style…is not—can never be—extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation…and 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—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.‘”

The point of the lecture was that writing style “resembles good manners”; it recognizes that “the business of writing demands two—the author and the reader,” and the author must prioritize the experience of the reader.

A writer is therefore better off killing her darlings—the decorative but empty words—than take for granted the reader’s attention span. And this is a fact that, a hundred years after Quiller-Couch’s lecture, is even more critical given the multiple stimuli vying for the modern business reader’s attention.

Clear, concise, and purposeful writing has the effect of murdering the darlings of corporate speak, those atrocities like acronyms, jargon, and shorthand that masquerade as insight. But going a step further, we still sometimes cling to the darlings that we’re used to employing to describe our business or offerings. An outside perspective can transform these messages for the better by pointing out the incongruities between what’s meant and what the reader understands.

Often we get too close to our work or our passions to maintain an impartial perspective, especially when trying to articulate complex ideas. The process of explaining it and then having someone else synthesize it can shed light on the gaps.

Recently we worked with a client on a brochure about a new program offering. After an introductory meeting during which the client walked us through his vision, we provided a first draft that we thought encapsulated his message and intent. His response highlighted the effectiveness of an outside perspective in showing him what he’d been trying (and sometimes failing) to communicate. It was helpful for him to see someone else describe his program, in words different than what he’d been using, because it highlighted the gap in understanding between the author and the reader. This process also gave him a vantage point to reinforce the messages or components that made the program distinctive.

At the close of his lecture, Quiller-Couch urged his students to endeavor to understand others and seek counsel rather than focusing on their own perspective:

“Cultivate, Gentlemen, that habit of withdrawing to be advised by the best. So, says Fénelon, ‘you will find yourself infinitely quieter, your words will be fewer and more effectual; and while you make less ado, what you do will be more profitable.’”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Brittany Williams

Brittany is the editorial director at Leff. She is passionate about helping clients tell their stories through incisive, fact-based narratives. Every once in awhile, she takes a break to muse on rhetorical devices, grammar, and content strategy on the Leff Communications blog. Follow Brittany on Twitter @britpetersen.

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