Writers, do you want to read a book that contains summaries of the best books on writing? Look no further than Roy Peter Clark’s Murder Your Darlings and other gentle writing advice from Aristotle to Zinsser. I found this book on the ACES website (The ACES: The Society for Editing). Clark is a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, which is a world-famous school for journalists. Having taught writing for over forty years, Clark shares the advice of famous writers throughout history. This is his latest book and now I plan to search for his earlier works, which include The Art of X-Ray Reading, How to Write Short, The Glamour of Grammar, and Writing Tools. I felt an instant kinship to Clark for two reasons: He writes in the beginning that he did not get accepted into his first-choice school (Princeton) and he graduated from Providence College. I also did not get into my first-choice school, Brown University, and I happen to be a native of Providence, Rhode Island, so I felt an affinity to this author right from the start.
To give readers a sample of Murder Your Darlings, I will summarize the advice of a few of the most noteworthy authors and their writing tips:
On the Art of Writing by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
Sir Quiller Couch, or Professor Q as he was affectionally known, told his students to “Murder Your Darlings.” He did not mean they should actually kill people, but rather if they come up with sentences they think are particularly witty or exceptional, they should by all means write them down. However, he cautioned they should not be so enamored with them that they refuse to delete them when editing. Professor Q wrote that “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.” (p. 15)
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Stephen King really needs no introduction. In his book King shares his writing strategies as well as his own daily writing habits. The following are a few strategies in a nutshell:
- The story is more important than the plot. A good way to move the action is to ask “what-if” questions. For instance, “What if vampires invaded a small New England village, as in Salem’s Lot?” (p. 143)
- When King thinks of the story’s pacing, he reminds himself of writer Elmore Leonard’s advice to cut out the boring parts. Even if you crafted some sentences that you are extremely proud of, if it slows down the story’s pacing, take it out (murder your darlings).
- Kings tells writers to use their imagination in their description, but make sure the readers can actually envision that description in their imagination. Description should not be exhaustively excessive but rather insert a few “well-chosen details” so they can imagine the rest.
Language in Thought and Action by S. I. Hayakawa
Everyone has bias but journalists should make every effort to not allow theirs to creep into their work. S. I. Hayakawa emphasized that news reports must contain only verifiable facts with no propaganda to influence readers’ opinions. To ensure a sustainable democracy, the media have the responsibility to report provable information free of bias and their own subjectivity. How can they achieve this? The following is some of Hayakawa’s advice:
1. Avoid judgments. The writer should not express their approval or disapproval of the individuals they are writing about.
2. Avoid inferences. Hayakawa writes that there should be “. . . no guesses as to what is going on in other people’s minds.” (262) In other words, show actions such as “she hugged and kissed her sister” rather than “she was relieved to find her sister unharmed.”
3. Slant both ways at once. In other words, describe details that demonstrates impartiality. For example, if a writer is describing a rally, they may mention it was well-attended but they can also include unflattering details, such as the attendees were speaking among themselves instead of focusing their attention on the rally. Hayakawa’s point is to paint an accurate and objective portrait of the events being described.
How I wish more journalists today would heed his advice!
Writers, eager to read more? Get a copy of Murder Your Darlings.
Idelle Kursman is the author of the novels True Mercy and The Book of Revelations.