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Murder Your Darlings
And Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser
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With so many excellent writing guides lining bookstore shelves, it can be hard to know where to look for the best advice. Should you go with Natalie Goldberg or Anne Lamott? Maybe William Zinsser or Stephen King would be more appropriate. Then again, what about the classics — Strunk and White, or even Aristotle himself?
Thankfully, your search is over. In Murder Your Darlings, Roy Peter Clark, who has been a beloved and revered writing teacher to children and Pulitzer Prize winners alike for more than thirty years, has compiled a remarkable collection of more than 100 of the best writing tips from fifty of the best writing books of all time.
With a chapter devoted to each key strategy, Clark expands and contextualizes the original author's suggestions and offers anecdotes about how each one helped him or other writers sharpen their skills. An invaluable resource for writers of all kinds, Murder Your Darlings is an inspiring and edifying ode to the craft of writing.
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A Writing Book about Writing Books
Fans of the TV comedy Seinfeld will remember the one great literary success of that slapstick lunatic Cosmo Kramer: He wrote a coffee-table book about coffee tables. The book came with little legs you could unfold to make it into a miniature coffee table. He sold the film rights.
Murder Your Darlings, an allusion to a famous bit of writing advice from a British professor nicknamed "Q," turns out to be a writing book about…writing books. I love writing guides, and they love me. They confirm things I know about the craft, teach me methods I have never heard of before, and, in rare but crucial cases, spin my head around like an owl's at an exorcism.
You are holding my sixth book on reading, writing, and language since 2006. Thank you, Little, Brown. Professors often ask me to reveal the secrets of my productivity. "It's easy," I answer, and I'm serious. "I write during faculty meetings."
"How do you get away with it?"
"Everyone thinks I am taking notes."
The first and most popular of my Little, Brown books is Writing Tools. Where did I find the fifty-five writing strategies shared in that book? They came from close readings of great works of literature, a skill I learned in college and honed into a craft I call "X-ray reading." They came from writing and writing and rewriting, with the guidance of teachers, editors, and other writers. And they came from countless essays and guidebooks on the writing craft, some published well before the birth of Christ (a pretty good storyteller himself) and some published just last year.
In focusing on these important writing books, 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. Read them! To those who say that you can't learn to write by reading a book on writing, I answer: "Then why are there so many of them?" Most bookstores devote a shelf or two or even a full bookcase to writing guides. I own about 1,500 books, most of them about reading, writing, grammar, rhetoric, composition, language, literature, and journalism. I understand that the writing teacher and legal scholar Bryan Garner has a space in Dallas called the Scriptorium, a Taj Mahal of lexical Know-It-All. I have a space at the Poynter Institute I call my cubby. Among its roomlike, womblike virtues, it hides ten steps from a specialized library comprising 12,000 books, most of them on my favorite topics.
So many writing books. Which ones will I choose to write about, and by what criteria? Let me explain what I am not trying to do. I am not choosing the best writing guides, or the most practical, or the most enduring, or the most anything. As a reader I happen to like those lists, the ones you find in Rolling Stone: the 100 greatest rock 'n' roll songs, the 100 greatest guitar solos of all time, Dylan's 100 greatest hits.
I do not rank the writing books, but I do appreciate them. 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. As you will see, my appreciation is not without a critical edge: any advice from John McPhee should come with the knowledge that he has been a privileged New Yorker writer, with time and resources most of us can only dream about; Anne Lamott is way too hard on herself, running the risk of discouraging others; and, sad to say, Dorothea Brande, who wrote one of the most original writing guides of all time, turns out to have been—along with her editor hubby—a 1930s-style American fascist and anti-Semite. We teachers prefer our apples without bruises, but there you go.
Before I compiled these books, I did some crowdsourcing. On social media, I asked writers for the names of writing guides that had informed or inspired them. Suggestions arrived by the dozens, many with authors and books I had read many times, but others with introductions to strangers I was glad to meet. All of those worthy candidates made my selection process harder.
I began by listing books that were famous, popular, or influential: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White; Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg; Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott; The New Journalism by Tom Wolfe. Among the five Ws (who, what, where, when, and why), why is hardest to answer. I made it my mission to capture why such books matter.
I wanted to include writing guides that were ancient, and thus foundational, from Aristotle on the cathartic nature of tragedy to Quintilian on the influence of the spoken word. Such texts allow us to trace the long and powerful story of making meaning through reading, writing, and speaking—that is, through the essential acts of literacy.
I could not avoid the temptation to include several books written by authors and teachers whom I know personally. A teacher at Oxford (where I spent a glorious summer) is called a don, and many a great don has passed by my writing room (Don Fry, Don Murray, Don Graves, Don Hall). I repay them, when I can, by passing along their knowledge. The writing world is cozy enough for me to have worked with Bill Zinsser, Bill Howarth, and Connie Hale, to name a few. I once interviewed Stephen King. I exchanged a letter with E. B. White. On a buffet line at a literary conference in Tucson I got to meet Elmore Leonard and engaged him in a friendly argument about how many exclamation points are allowed in a text. (His take was one for every 100,000 words unless you are Tom Wolfe—then the sky's the limit.)
I drop these names not for me, but for you. When an author writes a good writing guide, that author is inviting you—in Frank Smith's good phrase—to join a club. You may aspire to become a writer, but after reading their work on writing, you can better identify as one, feeling part of a community, a tribe of scribes.
How this book was written,
and how it is organized
Murder Your Darlings is divided into six parts. I did not draft the book that way. I wrote without a structural plan, selecting books off my shelves as the muse guided me. I built momentum by writing about the books I knew best—with some side trips along the way. I wrote about book after book, chapter by chapter, until the writing train crashed through the 75,000-word barrier, and then through the 100,000-word frontier. I paused after drafting fifty chapters, with another fifty or so books nearby that I knew I wanted to write about. I panicked. Then in my ear I heard the voice of my writing coach Donald Murray with a tip I have passed along to countless other overwriters: "Brevity comes from selection, and not compression." I got down to 36 chapters, and then 33.
What would be the order of the chapters? How would I divide them into sections? I looked up to see near my desk a stack of new index cards. I thumbed through them and counted six colors: white, pink, yellow, green, violet, and blue. Hmm. Six colors. Maybe six sections? So I gave it a shot.
- Yellow stood for "Language and Craft."
- Violet for "Voice and Style."
- White for "Confidence and Identity."
- Blue for "Storytelling and Character."
- Pink for "Rhetoric and Audience."
- Green for "Mission and Purpose."
Many of the books summarized here touch on all of these themes and topics. Don't be surprised when I scoot off-topic to show you something interesting or useful being played out down a side street. Reading these books, analyzing them, appreciating them, playing with them, made me want to write. They made me want to write not just about the books themselves, but about all aspects of my creative life, personal and professional. It is my wish that they will make you want to write, too.
The added bonus of reading
Murder Your Darlings
- You will get a taste of more than fifty writing guides, helping you to choose which ones you would like to read and/or own.
- There are hundreds of writing lessons in some of these books. I will focus on one or two that I have found particularly helpful in my own writing.
- Many of the books are in print and for sale. Others, of a certain vintage, are free online. Still others are rare or no longer in print. This book gives you some access to these gems.
- Citations from each book include not just writing tips, but brief excerpts that let you hear the voice of the original author.
Early in my research for Murder Your Darlings, I came upon the word asymptote. It comes from mathematics and denotes a curved line that approaches a straight one on a graph, getting closer and closer to it without ever reaching it—to infinity. I embraced asymptote as a metaphor for my own life and work. In my daily teaching, I tell students—of all ages—that it is my goal to learn something new about the craft every day, something I can pass along to them. If that sounds hokey to you, just kick me in the asymptote. If not, feel free to embrace the idea of a life of language learning as your own. Let Murder Your Darlings show you the way.
Language and Craft
Donald Hall, who served as America's poet laureate, writes about the English language as if it were a place you could inhabit, a life-enhancing atmosphere that lets you breathe. The love of words shines in all the works studied in Murder Your Darlings. Language turns out to be the raw material of meaning. It takes craft to turn words into an essay, a novel, a poem.
Writing may look like magic in the hands of an author such as John McPhee, but Bill Howarth reveals that the magic is not magic at all, but the product of a process—elaborate, yes, but one that can be learned. I should know. I used McPhee's method to write my first book. You are about to learn it, too.
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch encouraged his students to cut their self-indulgent words and phrases. But William Zinsser was so dedicated to his craft that he was willing to reveal his work in all its imperfection, highlighting the clutter that made it feel impenetrable, and then cutting every word not doing useful work.
George Campbell, a brainy minister of the word and the Word, thought it most worthy in the eighteenth century to turn his attention to the English language in all its glory. Wordcraft could work on the page and from the pulpit. Sentences could be shaped for maximum clarity or for a desired literary effect, to express utility or beauty.
All of these authors—across generations and cultures—share a love of language that feels inspirational when you read them. Their special gift to us is not just the creative language we might find in a poem or novel. It is the use of words about words, of language about language, a meta-perspective that sharpens our own vision.
Murder your darlings.
Keep your eye on those fancy phrases.
On the Art of Writing
By Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
Toolbox: You will write things you love. That's wonderful. Enjoy that feeling. During revision, though, ask yourself a crucial question. Does that gorgeous passage or that clever thought support your main idea? If not, take it out. You do not have to "murder" that darling metaphor. You can save it for another story on another day.
One of the most famous bits of writing advice comes to us from British author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, known to his mates and university students as Q. (He should not be confused with the Quartermaster, played by actor Desmond Llewelyn, who provides 007 with those wonderful gadgets in the James Bond movies.)
"Murder your darlings," Q ordered his students in 1914. When his lectures were published, he emphasized the imperative in italics: "Murder your darlings." Thank you, Q, for giving me a title for this book.
In America the phrase has been misattributed (sometimes to Orwell) and misquoted as "Kill your babies." Like other short sentences, "Murder your darlings" has the ring of truth, made more shocking because Q's commandment bumps into a more famous one from Mount Sinai: "Thou shalt not kill."
The eccentric Professor Q described exactly what he meant in the lecture "On Style," the final chapter in his book On the Art of Writing. Before he offered his own definition of what writing style is, he argued for what style is not:
Style…is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover…: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this.
Freeze frame. As I read that passage, I imagine I am a university student at Cambridge in 1914—not yet facing trench warfare in France or the Spanish flu pandemic, seeing only a world of language and letters before me, sitting on the edge of my chair in the lecture hall, a quill in my hand, waiting to record the wisdom of Professor Q:
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.
As Q delivered this message, the Oxford English Dictionary was chugging along toward completion, so it seems only right to check the OED for a definition of darling. Derived from Old English, it denotes a "dear one," more broadly: "A person who is very dear to another; the object of a person's love; one dearly loved. Commonly used as a term of endearing address."
For Q, then, it is not enough to murder a word, phrase, or passage that you like—or even love. His sadism requires you to commit verbicide on the words you love the most. Your darlings. In human terms, your favorite child; perhaps, your blushing bride; dare I say it, your sainted mother.
Here is where, for me, Q's metaphor met real life.
Travel back with me to March 2017. A series of phone calls informs me that my alma mater, Providence College in Rhode Island, wants to give me an honorary degree: Doctor of Journalism. More significant, the president, Father Brian Shanley, asks me to deliver the commencement address in celebration of the college's centennial. I am struck dumb.
I had read speeches in front of big crowds before, but nothing like this. My assignment was to inspire and delight 1,200 graduates and a stadium crowd numbering about 10,000. From the moment I said yes to the moment I delivered the goods on Sunday, May 21, my stomach hurt.
This felt like the greatest honor of my professional life, with deep connections to family and friends. Over the next hundred days I thought of little else but that speech. Without committing a word to paper or screen, I spent a month in bed, in the shower, over coffee, behind the wheel, rehearsing the imagined text. When friends asked, "How's it going?" I would try out the occasional theme statement or funny line, forming a kind of ad hoc focus group.
I calculated that I could deliver about 2,000 words in 15 minutes. By early May I had a first draft. It spread to 8,000 words. I did the math. I had prepared a speech that would take at least an hour to read. I knew my remarks would come near the end of the ceremony, with a huge audience butt-numb from more than two hours of sitting. I imagined I was on the stage of the Apollo Theater, where on Amateur Night bad performers might be dragged offstage with a hook. I would be like the guy who spoke for two hours at Gettysburg before Lincoln got his two minutes.
"You were selected," said a friend, "because you wrote a book on SHORT writing."
"Yes," I responded, "but it was a BOOK about short writing."
In examining my first draft, I loved everything I had written. What was I to do? A voice with a British accent invaded my thoughts: "Murder your darlings." So that's what I did. I murdered my mother.
Before I confess the how and why of it, let me turn back to Q's directive.
"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."
Notice that Q does not say "Don't write down the words you love best." He encourages us to write them down—almost as a way of purging them from our system. Draft, purge, murder. Before you murder that darling, you must create it. The murder comes through revision. That reveals Q to be a "putter-inner" rather than a "taker-outter," the type of writer who puts it all in during drafting and cuts ruthlessly during revision.
In my 8,000-word first draft, I included eight references to my mom. Two things conspired to make my early draft so Mom-heavy. The first was my misunderstanding that the commencement was scheduled for Mother's Day, when in fact it came a week later. The second was a ghostlike visit from Mom in the form of a long-saved voice-mail message. Mom died in March of 2015, closing in on the age of ninety-six. Looking for a lost message, I stumbled upon this saved one, which began, "Hello, Roy. This is your mother. Remember me? The one who created you?"
She was inquiring about someone in the family, but out of that context, this felt like a visitation, and it led me to reflect upon my favorite Shirley Clark anecdotes, some of which were pure entertainment, others that carried potential lessons for the graduate. Two examples will suffice.
- Mom was a conservative Catholic church-lady who could swear like the love child of a longshoreman and a gangsta rapper. I believe I once heard her use the f-word as four different parts of speech in a single sentence. When her assisted-living facility conducted a trivia contest and she could not quite remember the name of a famous Peter, Paul and Mary song, she blurted, "F--- the Magic Dragon."
- She learned at the age of ninety that her firstborn granddaughter was gay. The next day she phoned to assure Alison that her only concern was Alison's happiness. "We love you," she repeated. "Your family loves you."
There was much more, but you get it. I had a lot to work with. And I thought the mothers of the graduates would be pleased to hear me honor my own mom on this special day.
How do you turn an 8,000-word text into 2,000?
Maybe I did not have to murder my mom; I could just select the best of her multiple personalities. Over days and then weeks, the text grew shorter and shorter. Eight references to mom became five, became three, became one. Became none.
Why did she have to make the ultimate sacrifice? Because the speech was not about her. Mom was nothing more than the scaffolding for my story, the parts I had to erect until I learned what I really wanted to say, what I thought the graduates really needed to hear.
The short version of my theme derived from the meaning of the name of the college, Providence, as expressed in an old religious saying I learned in eighth grade: "God writes straight with crooked lines." I told the graduates that out of high school I did not want to attend Providence. I wanted to go to Princeton, but did not get in.
"It turns out I was never, ever accepted to the place I thought I wanted to be, but in retrospect I always wound up at the place I needed to be. Only looking over my shoulder could I see that pattern. Time after time, what I had experienced as Disappointment became transformed into Opportunity."
My brothers, Ted and Vincent, offered their opinions on what Mom would have thought about being elbowed out of the final draft in favor of a little light theology. I should mention that Shirley Clark was very theatrical and wrote and directed many community variety shows. She may never have murdered a darling, but our best guess is that in some corner of heaven she has Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in a chokehold.
1. If you think of something clever, by all means write it down.
2. 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?"
3. If you decide to "murder" that passage, remember that you have another choice. You can save it in a file or journal. It may work well in a different context.
4. You may not be able to make these judgments on your own. Trust an editor or a writing friend to help. My editor, Tracy Behar, called attention to dozens of passages in my manuscript that were impatiently waiting for a different opportunity to appear in print.
Find and cut the clutter. Search for lazy words, even after several drafts.
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
By William Zinsser
Toolbox: Like William Zinsser, assume that your third draft, even your fifth draft, maybe your eleventh draft, contains too many words. But how can you cut clutter if you can't see it? Test every word. You do not have to keep the reader on the "proper path." The word path has the idea of "proper" built in.
What if we polled readers to determine the most influential writing books of all time? The winner, no doubt, would be The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. We'll get to those old boys later. Next on the list would be On Writing Well by William Zinsser, which has sold more than one million copies over the last thirty years. If I had to summarize Zinsser's advice in three words, it would be "Dump the clutter."
My appreciation for this book is marked by my affection for the man. I met him just after its publication and reunited with him by phone just before his death at the age of ninety-two. By then he was blind but still working with visiting writers in his Manhattan apartment and taking lessons from a poetry tutor. I can't get out of my head the thought of a ninety-year-old man taking poetry lessons. The idea inspires me and makes me laugh. It exemplifies the phrase lifetime learning. It reinforces my personal mission to try to learn something new about the craft every day. It makes me want to take trombone lessons. Maybe by ninety, I might join a jazz band.
To be honest, when I first met him in 1980 at a journalism conference in New York City, Zinsser already looked like an old man. The venue was a fancy ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria. We shared the stage with Ed Bliss, author of a fine book, Writing News for Broadcast. Zinsser was promoting his own new book, the thirtieth-anniversary edition of which boasts "More Than One Million Copies Sold."
I, at the time, was bookless.
Since that meeting, I have accounted for a dozen or more of those million copies of On Writing Well, volumes which have been read, borrowed, marked up, loaned out, spindled, and mutilated.
At the age of ninety, the old man was still kicking my asymptote.
When I last checked an online bookseller's lists, Zinsser held the number-1 spot for all books on authorship. My Writing Tools came in at number 4 (and number 16 in a digital version). My book ranked number 2,115 among all sold on Amazon; his was number 360. There have been many days when my book has been number 2, but even then I continue to eat the Z-man's dust.
(As I write these words, I realize that this chapter will get him even more sales. On the track of writing books, I am still being lapped by the ghost of Zinsser.)
Because of our friendly rivalry, I am tempted to declare Zinsser's book overrated, the way that the uber-achiever in our category, Strunk and White, is slammed by certain types of teachers and scholars. I want to drop-kick Zinsser and then body-slam the puny writing god, the way the Hulk does Loki in The Avengers. But I just can't do it.
I can't do it because of two stinkin' pages. Two pages.
"What emerges is an all-encompassing guide to a life spent with words...Reading Clark is like sitting in on a conversational master class. Writer-readers will clamor for more."
—Courtney Eathorne, Booklist
"A party-popper of inspiration."
—Mignon Fogarty, author of Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing
"With his latest work, Murder Your Darlings, Roy Peter Clark once again proves he is America's writing coach. Having compiled, dissected, and analyzed the best writing tips from the best books on writing, Clark has done all lovers of the written word a tremendous favor. Murder Your Darlings is sure to become the go-to source, not only for writing tips but also for Clark's unique insight and practical instruction. A terrific addition to any bookshelf."
—Lori Roy, two-time Edgar award-winning author of Gone Too Long
"This book is magic. Open any page of Murder Your Darlings and dive in. You'll quickly find yourself pulled into Roy Peter Clark's folksy and gentle voice, and his distillation of the wisdom of more than 50 writing books. Through this appreciation, he opens the door to writing books ancient and modern, and to scores of inspiring strategies and tools. He zeroes in on the craft, but also the soul of writing -- our voice and identity as writers, as well as our mission and purpose. Along the way, 'America's Writing Coach' encourages us with his greatest lesson -- that we can all get better, every day. I am in love with Murder Your Darlings. This is the book I want to give to every writer."
—Diana K. Sugg, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and Writing Coach and Enterprise Editor at The Baltimore Sun
"I met Roy Peter Clark over forty years ago, when the Pulitzer-winning editor of the St. Petersburg Times, Eugene C. Patterson, himself an elegant stylist, hired Roy as one of the first "writing coaches" in a large American newsroom. Roy not only improved the literary quality of an already fluent newspaper, he helped invent the profession of journalistic coaching. Murder Your Darlings sums up the best wisdom of a discipline in which Roy was a pioneer and remains a star."
—Howell Raines, author of Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis
- On Sale
- Jan 5, 2021
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Little Brown Spark