When I was still a young pup, I was asked to write a draft of an incredibly important newspaper ad. It was to explain to the American public the historic breakup of AT&T into eight different companies. This pivotal moment would end a century of monopoly and change American technology overnight.
I pounded away at my Selectric® for days, dog-eared thesaurus at my side, then dumped reams and reams of copy on my boss’s desk. He looked over his reading glasses at me, sighed and said, “I see you didn’t have time to write less,” then picked up a red grease pencil and started to slash at my masterpiece. When he handed it back, gutted and bloody, I was appalled. How could he cut this phrase, that similie, those seven paragraphs of blinding brilliance?
It didn’t matter that this was one of the most important ads of the decade, that it would take up multiple pages in every newspaper in the country, that the client’s very existence was on the operating table. Every word I’d written was perfect, pure poetry, immutable. My boss was clearly a Philistine!
I glared at him in resentful silence.
“Let’s go to lunch,” the boor said, snuffling on his jacket. (In those days, people still went out for business lunches).
“My friend,” he said over his first martini, “If you’re going to make it as a writer, you’ve got to learn to murder your darlings. You can’t grab people’s attention with a shovelful of perfumed horseturds. You wrote a lot of pretty phrases, pooped out a lot of gorgeous ten-dollar words, but in the end, you’ve gotta be willing to sacrifice them all to get your point across. Writing isn’t nearly as hard as they say. But rewriting is murder.”
By the time the big ad ran, it was unrecognizable. All my clever turns of phrases had been pruned, my self-indulgences excised, my bloated carcass trimmed down by hundreds of words, but, oh, the agony of sacrificing so much wit on the altar of alteration.
It was a lesson I’d have to learn again and again. I loved to pour out endless, long copy and present epic campaigns with 30 executions or more. I would fall on my sword for beautiful pieces of film that didn’t advance the plot a jot. I loved writing 60-, 90- and even 120-second TV commercials. Manifestos. Gatefold inserts. Volumes, when a pithy phrase would suffice.
I had to learn to sharpen the knife and murderer my darlings again. To let the orgasmic moment of my own cleverness pass, and then log the hours needed to crumple paper and shuffle words, until just the right ones fell perfectly into place, with not a spare syllable, not an gram of fat.
Creativity require destruction, refinement, survival only of the fittest. Take a deep breath, murder your darlings, and climb high on their bones.