Don't Kill Your Darlings!

There's a new movie about the Beats, called Kill Your Darlings, and as you might know, the title refers to a piece of literary advice which says that as a writer you should let go of the sentences or passages you love most dearly, presumably because they're self-indulgent and reduce the quality of the work as a whole. Today, Forest Wickman of Slate investigates the provenance of this saying, which apparently is often attributed to Faulkner, though it has been repeated by many a great writer. Turns out it goes back to one Arthur Quiller Couch, who wrote in 1914, "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."

Now maybe I'm just a narcissistic hack who'll never get anywhere, but I've always found this oft-repeated maxim to be infuriating. In short, I think it's crap.

One of the things that doing a lot of writing ought to give you is an ear for what's good and what's bad. That doesn't mean your judgment is infallible, and it's certainly true that at times we have trouble judging our own work. We all have idiosyncratic tastes to some degree, and a sentence you find clever or beautiful or witty might strike me as banal or overwritten. But the assumption behind "kill your darlings" is not just that you as a writer are utterly incapable of telling whether what you've written is good or not, but that your judgment is backward. If you really like something you've written, that must mean it's awful.

I've certainly had disagreements with editors about the value of particular sentences or paragraphs (not often, but a few times). The fact that a writer loves a sentence and an editor is less than smitten by it suggests that it may not be quite as wonderful as the writer believes. If he shows it to three different people and they all hate it, then chances are they're right and he's wrong. But sometimes, you write something and love it because it's actually good. If you followed this advice and deleted every sentence you were fond of, you'd end up with very dull prose.

So don't kill your darlings. Show them to other people and see what they think. Because maybe they really are beautiful.

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