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How Writers “Murder Their Darlings” (and stay out of prison) Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

Creative-writing students are sometimes advised to “murder your darlings,” usually in a glib, demeaning way by a teacher or critic. The concept has major importance for a successful writer and it’s sad that the phrase has a cutesy-clever quality that causes it's value often to be discounted and ignored. Here are a few thoughts.

“Darlings” are felt by the proud writer to be clever, erudite, intellectually unique pieces of writing that to most readers may be excessive, illogical, overwritten, distracting, and often irritating. In essence, a “darling” is assumed to be acceptable, even great, by the author but not by most readers. It can be subtle and it occurs when the writer is unconsciously trying to impress the reader with his or her talent and aptitude rather than focusing on creating readable, enjoyable, and informative prose.

“Darlings” are not easy to find in one’s work. The trick is, as an author, to predict in readers what they might consider as poor writing, and to delete or change. Of course, when authors write, they’re not trying to create “darlings.” To discover “darlings,” writers must assume they might be present and be willing to look for them by: 1) avoiding baseless admiration for their creations and maintaining appropriate modesty for their talent, 2) revising their works with objectivity and with a knowledgeable critical appraisal of what they’ve written.

Here are some examples that represent categories of writing that a writer might use as a guide to “darling” hunting when revising his or her work.

1. NON SEQUITUR [Something that does not follow logically what comes before.]
—His faith is important to him and he believes passionately in the gospel and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and you know, the whole concept of running up and down a court to throw a bloated ball through a metal ring would be, to him, a reprehensible opprobrious waste of energy.
2. OVERWRITING
—“. . . we’re huddled beneath a blue tarp next to the midden, sipping coffee and ingesting some terrestrial chemical elements in the form of cookies.” [Smithsonian, March 2017, pg. 32]
3. HYPERBOLE [Exaggerated statements or claims.]
—The food was fantastic, chock full of bursting flavors with a scrumptious lingering aftertaste to please the gods.
4. CLICHÉ [Element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating.]
—That is not my cup of tea.
—Everyone’s best interest.
—Two score and three years ago, I brought forth to this community, to this congregation, the glory that is God.
5. FLAWED METAPHOR [Metaphor: a thing symbolic or representative of something else so the comparison enhances interpretation and meaning.]
—That backhoe is a blooming iris. [No meaning. The items compared are too disparate.}
—She’s as graceful as a turtle on its back. (Could be consider sarcastic, but not successful metaphoric comparison.)
6. ERRANT DIALOGUE [Example exaggerated for emphasis.]
—“Last night I dreamt I heard a thousand, screaming, lost souls trapped in the fiery depths of hell for eternity,” the nurse said as she used tweezers to gently tease pus-embedded gauze from the charred skin on her patient’s back.
7. PRETENTIOUS VOCABULARY
—reprehensible opprobrious waste of energy
—terrestrial chemical elements in the form of cookies
—mawkishly pseudo-intellectual quality

CONCLUSION: Potentially perceived bad writing, a highly variable judgment, can take many forms that writers need to identify; the above categories serve as common sources of error that can be used in revision as guidelines for objective analysis and recognition of unwanted missteps–"darlings."

William H. Coles. storyinliteraryfiction.com
Thanks for reading!

FURTHER STUDY: A series of essays on creating story in literary fiction–> storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/

A Simple Life by William H. Coles

Illustration from new short story "A Simple Life." Read free here.

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One Response to “How Writers “Murder Their Darlings” (and stay out of prison)”

  1. Anna Says:

    Hm… I found this quite informative. I do think that some 'darling' writing can be quite brilliant, and beautiful prose–we need only look at Fitzgerald–is like a beautiful painting: even if it depicts just a flower, that flower sparkles. But I do agree with this darling idea and I quite like it. I've probably got a few darlings in the closet..

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