How to murder your darlings.

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.

(Draft 12B.)

16 thoughts on “How to murder your darlings.”

  1. I’m a retired copy editor, and oh how I remember clients hating the process! I also studied journalism and one of the tricks I learned, and apply even to my emails, is to take one of my last paragraphs and move it to the top. The professor was right: that’s often where the attention grabber is.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Danny for your thought provoking posts. Does “degustibus non distputandum” apply to this? Cause I like some fat in delicious writing.


  3. Eloquently said…as always! With your Art Before Breakfast by my side and your blog at my finger tips, I’m hoping some of your creativity will rub off on me!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I learned a great piece of advice from my fave tv show years ago. The main character was taking a writing class between jobs (in advertising, I might add). She said, “I am not going to teach you to be writers. You already are writers…But you all do need to get past where you are. Past the need to stand between the work and the reader so that he’ll know how clever you are. Because good writing, is writing that appears not to have been constructed but to have ripened. Like a banana.” Thirty years later, and I still remember it by heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My mind went right to watercolor. Don’t stand between the viewer and the piece of art by fussing over nonessential details, invariably overworking and adding totally unnecessary brushstrokes…Now, to try and follow my own advice!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Funny post! I remember being critiqued by the head creative honcho in my first ad job for trying to be clever. Ouch. You’re right. Editing is essential, and some of our best writing doesn’t serve our story (or our client).


  7. Draft 12B reminds me of a quote that has been attributed to lots of folks and, appropriately, revised along the way. In 1657, French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, wrote this about a letter he had written: “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

    Liked by 1 person

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