Writing Secrets: On darlings, and why they deserve to die

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

What is a “darling” anyway, and why should it be murdered? I was asked this in a workshop recently, and it brought me up short.

We are used, as writers, to being told to murder our darlings, but seldom are we told how to recognise them. That’s probably because darlings vary from writer to writer.

Definition might be hard, but I think we often know darlings when we see them – in other people’s writing. That’s the point. It’s difficult to recognise them in our own.

The phrase was coined in 1914, by English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who wrote: “Style is not … extraneous ornament … 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.”

Perhaps this is what Elmore Leonard meant when he said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” As Stephen King said, your job as a writer is to make sure your style is “reasonably reader-friendly”.

Whether something is a darling or not often comes down to a vague feeling that it’s all too much. You know the feeling you get when you eat an entire box of chocolates? Each was perfect in itself, delicious, a joy. But after all that joy, you’re left with a surfeit of sugar on the tongue

It’s a bit too lyrical, too “purple”, too pretentious. That’s the danger sign for your own darlings: if you’re particularly proud of a description, phrase or paragraph, it’s time to look at it again. A “darling” doesn’t look effortless. It looks as though you tried too hard.

Should they always be murdered, though? It’s a difficult balance because we can fall in love with whole paragraphs which really do deserve to die.

On the other hand, there are times when a darling can undergo radical surgery – and be allowed to live. It might not be without virtue altogether. We might have found the perfect metaphor. Only … we found three. Cut two, and it’ll be perfect.

The trouble is that being ruthless is terrifying. What happens if you find yourself rummaging through your recycle bin for that beautiful paragraph you so ruthlessly threw away? Wouldn’t it work somewhere else, or in a different context?

I get over this by tricking myself. I create a file called: “Extracts to use elsewhere.” I throw pretty paragraphs into it, clever descriptions, whole pretentious scenes.

It’s extremely rare (as in, a likelihood of under five percent) that I’ll find a place for it elsewhere in the book, or in another writing project entirely. For the most part, all those pretty paragraphs will spend their lives languishing in the file of lost darlings, and no-one will ever look at them again.

It succeeded in tricking me into being ruthless, though, which is the important thing.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: The authenticity of filthy language

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