Reviewing a piece of copy I’d been working on, the great American copywriter, John Forde, made a brief note in the margin that read:
I know you love this bit, and it’s very good. But you need to delete it.
Of course, I was outraged.
I knew the line he was referring to immediately. It was unadulterated genius. Perhaps the finest line of copy I’d ever written. Well, maybe not. But it was pretty smart, and John was right – I did like it.
At the same time, I knew instantly it had to go.
Though the phrasing was good, the point valid and the copy succinct, it wasn’t needed in the piece I was writing.
Perhaps worse, it actively distracted from the flow, leading the reader away from the broader point of the piece in a clumsy way.
Of course, John was evoking an age-old piece of writing advice:
That you should kill your darlings.
Advice from Rat
Most people think it was the horror writer Stephen King who coined this phrase.
Others say King was quoting William Faulkner’s line: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
Other others – is that a thing? – claim the phrase comes from the brilliantly named English writer, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who advised you “murder your darlings.”
Quiller-Couch is also said to be the inspiration for Rat in The Wind in the Willows. But that has no relevance here.
The point is, your darlings are always best off slain.
Thing is, it’s very easy to say you should kill, murder or maim your darlings, but skewering the blighters isn’t always easy.
A damp squib of a line you thought about deleting as you wrote it? Yup, no problem. Kill it.
But when it’s something you’ve finely crafted, thought about deeply and by any other name might be a right nice rose…
Well, that’s not so straight-forward.
To help you commit the act, you need two things.
Accessories to murder
First, you need the opinion of someone you trust.
As a writer, it’s important to have a small list of people on speed dial who you can bat ideas off.
These people don’t need to necessarily be writers, and if they are, they don’t need to be familiar with your work. But they do need to be people you won’t begrudge if they say a bad word about your work.
You need to give them permission to think about the bigger picture without feeling like they might accidentally knock your nose out of joint.
In this instance, I knew John was thinking about the bigger picture. He wanted to help me produce the most effective piece of work I could. He knew I liked the line because he liked it.
But I’d asked him to review the copy with the aim of making it stronger. I needed a critical eye, not a complimentary one.
And because I could trust him, I knew he was being fair in calling time on this particular darling’s existence.
The second thing you need is our old friend, the most useful tool a writer has in their toolbox:
The question: why?
John had already asked this of the line himself. He’d asked why it was there and the answer wasn’t satisfactory. Firing responsibility for its murder back to me, I had to make a decision.
I had to ask myself why it was there? What purpose was it serving for the overall piece?
As John had already found, the answer was lacking.
It was a nice line. Clever even. But it didn’t add any new information. It didn’t move the reader along. And though it was a nice turn of phrase, it didn’t provoke any emotion in the reader. It had to go.
But by consulting the opinion of someone I trusted and by asking why it was there of myself, I was much less distraught at its funeral.
I even got to meet the line that came after the one I’d killed. It was a good one and we started chatting. Nice buffet too. And didn’t the undertaker organise everything so well?
Anyway, I digress.