I’m currently out of town and travelling with my husband in New Zealand and Australia. Given the enormous distance involved,we will be away until April 30th. I am available to existing clients via email (I will be able to check most days) and I have posted my Power Writing column in advance for April 23rd.
Arthur Quiller-Couch developed his famous maxim — murder your darlings — while working as a professor of English at Cambridge University near the turn of the last century. Here’s why his advice still applies to writers today….
I have a close friend, whose work I have helped edit for more than 20 years. He likes to say that my job is to review his writing, find the very best parts and then remove them. He is half joking. But only half.
In my defense, I will say that I am simply following the advice of British journalist, critic, and novelist Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who said: “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.”
Quiller-Couch formed his maxim while a professor of English at Cambridge University and he used it in a series of lectures titled on the Art of Writing. (Anyone raised on sound-bite TV may have a hard time plowing through the original, but go for it if you like.)
Sadly for Quiller-Couch, he seldom gets full credit for his sage advice. Kudos more often go to the better-remembered F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Mark Twain and Stephen King, who said the same thing. But it’s not surprising that other smart, successful writers would echo the professor’s suggestion. After all, they know the inevitability of getting a little blood on their hands.
Why? I’m so glad you asked.
1) “Darling” writing — and by that I mean writing that is clever, self-conscious, inappropriately literary or writing that otherwise calls undue attention to itself — usually sounds forced and laboured. You can almost hear the writer panting and gasping for breath. Instead, really good writing should look like figure skating or ballet — graceful, elegant and effortless. (Even though it is the product of hard work.)
2) Focusing on bons mots and smart turns of phrase will slow your writing process. As I have said countless times, fast writing is the best writing — even if this means the writing eventually needs repair. I know I risk sounding contradictory, but my philosophy — write in haste, edit in leisure — hinges on the concept of “flow.” This delightful state, to which every writer should aspire, is one in which words come easily and effortlessly. You cannot achieve flow if you attempt to edit or otherwise fuss while writing. Keep the writing and editing processes separate!
3) Clever writing usually adds length — and in this time-pressed age, no reader wants to be faced with more words than absolutely necessary. Consider the 19th century book versus the modern one. My copy of George Eliot’s Middlemarch is 864 pages. A 2019 book I recently finished (Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe) is 464 pages. I’m not saying the latter is better because it’s shorter — I’m simply saying that modern sensibilities demand more restraint. Middlemarch is still well worth reading — but the jury is out on your long sales letter or e-zine article….
4) Polishing your little “jewels” of prose will subvert your own editing process. When you’re in love with what you’ve written, you’re like the 16-year-old who can’t spot the flaws in her own boyfriend. He’s so smart! He’s so good-looking! He’s so perfect. Umm, no.
5) Writing is about making a point. “Darling” phrases, if we’re honest, are usually about showing off a bit. Don’t distract readers with your clever phrasing — instead, persuade them with the merits of your argument. As James Carville might have said: “it’s about the content, stupid.”
Fiction writers are sometimes told, “Love the book, not the scene.” For non-fiction writers, let me rephrase: Love the finished piece, not the paragraph.
(Thanks to Trish who suggested the idea for this column.)
An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on June 3/08.
If you want support with murdering your darlings and help with writing or editing every day, consider applying to my Get It Done writing accountability program. More information and the application form can be found here. April 26/19 is the deadline for starting May 1/9.
How do you feel about murdering your darlings. We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section ofmy blog.Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by April 30/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of the non-fiction bookOrganized Enough by Amanda Sullivan. To enter, please go to my blog(and scroll to the end for the “comments” section.) You don’t have to join the commenting software to post. Seehereto learn how to post as a guest.
I’m currently out of town and travelling with my husband in New Zealand and Australia. Given the enormous distance involved,we will be away until April 30th. I am available to existing clients via email (I will be able to check most days) and I have posted my Power Writing columns in advance for April 16 and 23rd.
Do you tend to set big fat writing goals for yourself? Today’s column describes what the Japanese can teach you about writing….
When my family and I moved out of our house for a major renovation 10 years ago, we wore our paper shredder to oblivion getting rid of old financial documents. And we gave away more than 18 boxes of books. But we also discovered a few treasures.
One was the short book One Small Step Can Change Your Life by Robert Maurer, a professor at the UCLA school of medicine. I recall being briefly embarrassed to realize I had received the book as a gift from a friend many years ago — and the teeny tiny volume somehow buried itself in the stacks of clutter in my office. It emerged from hibernation while we were decluttering and I read it for the first time. What a winner! And what lessons this book offers.
Subtitled “The Kaizen Way” the book presents the technique of achieving great and lasting success through small, steady steps. How small? Really small. For example, a single mother who was depressed, exhausted and 30 lbs overweight was instructed to lose weight by marching for one minute while she watched TV each night. One minute!
The woman became so enthusiastic about her success in achieving this modest goal she asked for more exercise. Maurer and his colleague then helped her build the exercise habit, minute by minute. Within a few months, the woman’s resistance had disappeared and she enthusiastically embraced a full aerobics workout.
Maurer says Kaizen works because it:
Unsticks you from creative blocks
Bypasses the fight-or-flight response associated with fear
Creates new connections between neurons so that the brain enthusiastically takes over the process of change.
So, how can this help you become a better writer? Maurer offers six steps which I’ve listed below. And under each one, I’ve suggested a “how to” example that’s specific to writing.
1) Ask small questions. Ask yourself, “how will I get my book written?” and your brain is likely to shut down. That’s because big questions cause fear to arise. Instead, ask incredibly simple questions such as: “If writing were my first priority, what would I be doing today?”
2) Think small thoughts. Spend 30 seconds every day imagining yourself as a successful, accomplished writer. Picture sitting at your computer and seeing your fingers moving quickly across the keyboard. When you’re comfortable doing this, imagine what happens when you run out of ideas and then see yourself successfully dealing with the problem.
3) Take small actions. Instead of vowing to write for five hours, spend five minutes writing.
4) Solve small problems. Look for small problems in your writing or writing habits. Perhaps you have a messy desk that distracts you? Maybe you answer email while you’re trying to write? Perhaps your mouse is uncomfortable? Pick one problem and do something small to make it better.
5) Bestow small rewards. Big rewards tend to put your focus on the wrong thing — big projects. Instead, you want to focus on something small. So reward yourself for achieving a small writing commitment. For example, write for five minutes and then reward yourself by watching a show on Netflix or reading a favourite blog.
6) Identify small moments. Look for what Maurer calls “hidden moments of delight” and note them to yourself. What pleases you about your writing? When does writing feel good? Look for the sense of pleasure rather than pain and celebrate it.
I know this may all sound flakey or trivial, but there’s lots of proof that Kaizen works. Toyota reduced many of its automobile flaws with the small step of adding a pull-cord allowing workers to stop the assembly line if they saw a problem.
Why don’t you make reading One Small Step your small task for this week?
An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Feb. 17/09.
Have you ever achieved outstanding results by starting with a very small step? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by April 30/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of the non-fiction book Organized Enough by Amanda Sullivan. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.
I’m currently out of town and travelling with my husband in New Zealand and Australia. Given the enormous distance involved,we will be away until April 30th. I am available to existing clients via email (I will be able to check most days) and I have posted my Power Writing columns in advance for April 9, 16 and 23rd.
Many people use PowerPoint as the default tool for writing their speeches and presentations. That’s not always a wise decision….
Whenever I’ve written about the software PowerPoint, I’ve usually received a flood of email. A few readers may disagree with my basic premise that the software sucks. But more of you throw up your hands and say, “OK, Daphne. But let’s get practical here. What can we use to replace it?”
Good point. Here are five suggestions to keep in mind the next time you’re tempted by the siren song of PowerPoint:
1) Don’t write in PowerPoint; instead, mindmap. Let’s talk worst-case scenario and imagine your boss has said she’ll fire you if you don’t use PowerPoint. Well, okay, you’re stuck with the beast. But don’t use it as your planning tool. As I explain in detail in my book, your brain is made up of many different parts. One part (the linear/logical part) excels at making outlines but isn’t very inventive. Another part (the creative part) is a star at coming up with new ideas and connections. But here’s the thing: Only one part of your brain can have control at any given time. And when you write — whether it’s an article, an essay, an advertisement or a presentation — you want the creative part of your brain to be in charge. PowerPoint — the essence of linear, logical thinking — will not let this happen. The solution? Switch to mindmapping. (If you signed up for my newsletter, you should have received my free e-book on mindmapping. If you missed it, go here to sign up now.)
2) Forget about text and instead, use photos, illustrations and videos. Your visual display should support your speech, not supplant it. After all, what’s the value of talking while others are reading? I’ve mentioned Erin McKean before (pictured above), but in case you missed her marvelous 18-minute presentation to the TED group, have a look now to see how visual images can enhance a speech. Be aware that you can get good quality photos, inexpensively, from sites such as Bigstock Photo and unsplash. And keep in mind that custom illustration is not as expensive as you might think. Talented illustrators work in the newspaper and book industries and are often available for hire at reasonable rates. Contact your local paper or graphic arts school for some names.
3) Have a point. Too many presenters simply do a data dump on their unlucky audience. Always remember that your presentation should be driving to a clear and inexorable conclusion. Presenters like PowerPoint because it makes them feel in control — and, it’s true, that the nice shiny bullet points lined up neatly one after another do give an overall impression or patina of order. But really, what your presentation needs most is a main point. NB: This is not the same as having a subject. For example, “customer service” is a subject. But “retail firms should spend 25% of their budgets to improve customer service,” is a point. Have one of those and your presentation will soar.
4) Give handouts created in whatever software works best. Let’s say you have some technical information you need to impart. Why would you want to constrain yourself to the teeny-tiny field offered by PP? Small and unwieldy, PP slides can hold only 15-95 words. Instead, present your information in the best way imaginable (this may be using an Excel spreadsheet, or may involve having something created in InDesign) and then hand it out on 8.5 x 11 paper. Your viewers can then consider your wisdom at their leisure — and you can have your branding and contact info at the bottom of the page.
5) Consider using no technology at all. You may have heard the advice “to zig when everyone else zags.” In my speeches for the last few years, I have used no technology. Zip. Zilch. Nada. This not only makes me stand out from the crowd (there’s that crazy lady who doesn’t use PowerPoint) it also takes away a lot of stress. I don’t have to carry around a laptop loaded with slides. I don’t fret about the length of extension cords. And I have no fear of power failures. I don’t just talk, however, I encourage audience participation with exercises, using, wait for it, a paper and pencil.
Some techniques just never go out of fashion.
An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Nov. 18/08.
How do you cope with having to prepare a PowerPoint presentation? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. And congratulations to Roger Groce, the winner of this month’s book prize, The Artful Edit by Susan Bell for a March 12/19 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by April 30/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of Organized Enough by Amanda Sullivan. To enter, please go to my blog (and scroll to the end for the “comments” section.) You don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.
I’m currently out of town and travelling with my husband in New Zealand and Australia. Given the enormous distance involved, we will be away until April 30th. I am available to clients via email (I will be able to check most days) and I have posted my Power Writing columns in advance for April 2, 9, 16 and 23rd.