Why Budding Writers Should Be Less Precious—and More Cutthroat—with Their Drafts
Roy Peter Clark on Some Hard Lessons He’s Learned Along the Way
Did my reading of writing books over the last half-century help me become a better writer?
To help answer that question, I decided to write a book about writing books. That produced Murder Your Darlings: And Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser. Word nerds may recognize in my title an allusion to a famous tip from British scholar Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, known to his students at Cambridge as Q. Hence, a Q-tip.
In a 1914 lecture, and then in a book, Q encouraged his students to avoid falling in love with their own creativity. Write down your clever phrases by all means, he told them, if only to get them out of your system. But before you mail the manuscript, “Murder your darlings.”
In the first chapter of my book, I reveal how helpful this advice was to me in 2017 at a time I was drafting a commencement speech, one that would be delivered to more than 10,000 in a basketball arena. The original draft, monstrous in length, contained eight anecdotes about my mother, a colorful and inspirational character. Revisions, about a dozen of them, reduced that number to five then three then one then none.
I murdered my mommy!
In my teaching, I revised Q’s advice. You do not have to murder your darlings, gentle writers. You can send them to their rooms or off to boarding school until you are ready to use them. I promise that as long as there are Mother’s Days, I will be publishing those deleted mommy stories for my readers’ edification and delight.
I own about 1,500 books, most of them about writing, reading, language, journalism, and literacy. I chose about 50 to highlight in my book. I could have easily chosen 100 more. An important selection criterion was my ability to identify how a particular writing book turned me—or other scribes I know—into a better writer.
Writers are often described as idiosyncratic, an adjective that hits the mark. That said, we share common problems: finding something to write about; collecting the evidence we need; discovering a focus; seeing the shape of the story; developing a draft; applying revisions. We need tools and strategies to accomplish these tasks. But we also need useful habits and constructive attitudes. We write, and we live the life of a writer. At our best, we see the world as a storehouse of story ideas. Reading books on writing—harvesting gold coins from them—can help us discover who we are as writers, how we work, what we value, where we are headed.
Here are a few examples of lessons I learned from books I have read and then discussed in Murder Your Darlings:
Donald Murray (A Writer Teaches Writing) taught me that a habit of regular writing works better than bingeing. “A page a day,” he wrote, “equals a book a year.”
John McPhee (Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process) described the way he tames his material while drafting a book. He puts his notes aside and from memory writes a 2,000-word introduction or “lead,” an opening scene that acts as a “flashlight” that shines down into the story.
Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird) expresses too much self-loathing over her supposedly terrible first drafts. I learned that if such dreadful drafts produce excellent work, as they do for her, then they are inevitable, necessary, and ultimately desirable. I celebrate them as “zero drafts.”
Canadian scholar Northrop Frye (Fables of Identity) taught me that, in a way, we all read stories twice. The first time, we read to find out what will happen next. Then, on reflection, we become less concerned with linear narrative and more with how it holds together and what it all means. The writer must tell the story but also attend to matters of theme, message, symbol, archetype, and meaning.
My reading of writing books declines while I am writing my own books. I don’t want to be over-influenced, nor intimidated, by championship work I cannot match. That’s my idiosyncrasy. When I do eventually crack the cover of a new writing book, my anxiety dissolves into curiosity, into the satisfaction of having some preferences confirmed, into the excitement of discovering one of those gold coins, a new way of thinking about the craft that I can put into immediate use.
Gold coins can be found by sifting through old works (how about that Aristotle!) and new ones. They add value to the elements of the writing craft down to the granular level of words and marks of punctuation, up to the motivational level of purpose, voice, even my identity as a writer.
Criticisms of writing books—sometimes by the authors themselves—include a tendency to reinforce conventional, and often stale, approaches to storytelling. Critics suggest that the time reading such books could be better spent in writing under the coaching of a teacher or editor. They argue that the same advice is offered in book after book. (How many times must we encounter an expert’s preference for active verbs?) The most painful criticism is when a cranky critic finds a writing book badly written. So, the dentist has bad teeth!
Gold coins can be found by sifting through old works (how about that Aristotle!) and new ones.
Faced with questions about whether books about writing help writers, I respond with many citations from books that have helped me. But I have another source of evidence. More than 1,000 readers have left brief reviews of my book Writing Tools on the Amazon site. Published in 2006 by Little, Brown, the book claims to offer “55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.” But that’s just marketing. The proof of utility and influence rests in sales—more than a quarter million—and translations into German, Danish, Arabic, and Chinese.
Notes and letters of appreciation come from students, teachers, and public writers of all kinds, from professional and amateur scribes. My recent favorites include a writer confined to a state prison in California taking a course and working on his craft, and a 16-year-old student from Indonesia. She was attending an academic program in Morocco and asked her mom to please send her well-thumbed copy of Writing Tools.
While visiting a Washington, DC, bookstore, I bumped into a man who was holding a copy of one of my books. I took the liberty of introducing myself. He had been working on a graduate thesis and was getting nowhere. With tears in his eyes, he described how his sister, a teacher, had directed him to Writing Tools, and how he gained momentum and earned his degree.
I’ve kept a list of the most popular and influential strategies, taken from my books, but certainly available in others. These include:
*Use the ends of sentences—but especially the ends of paragraphs—for emphasis.
*Think of white space at the end of paragraphs as a powerful form of punctuation, a visual ventilation of the text.
*Place odd and interesting things next to each other, a friction that creates energy as in the book title The Glamour of Grammar.
*Make hard facts easier reading by slowing down the pace of information. Think of the period as a stop sign. The more stop signs, the slower the pace, easing the reader through difficult territory.
*Understand the strategic difference between reports and stories. One delivers information; the other creates a virtual experience. It’s the difference between pointing you there and putting you there.
*Neutralize the poison of procrastination. Turn it into rehearsal, acts of strategic daydreaming that will help you imagine the writing to come.
*Break big writing projects into the smallest manageable parts. You may not be able to run a marathon, but, given time, you can run 52 half-miles.
*Create a mission statement for your work, not just for your books, but for every piece you publish.
The reading scholar Frank Smith describes literacy as a “club.” That works for me. I am a member of a club, a pretty big one, that has read the book The Elements of Style more than once. The authors, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, are long dead, but it doesn’t matter. We, their readers, are in continuing conversation with them.
I suppose you can read and write on your own, but a conversation about the craft requires another person and, if you are lucky, a club, team, class, or village of writers. Absent that community, writing books fill a need. At their best, they host a virtual conversation between reader and author about how meaning is created.
In real life, the people you bring together matter. Your choices say a lot about them, and even more about you. I’ve spent my career organizing writing seminars and conferences, some for three people, some for thousands.
When my friend Paul Kramer, historian and author, read a draft of Murder Your Darlings, he offered this endorsement: “In the largest sense you’re hosting what’s likely to be the liveliest gathering of word nerds history has ever assembled.”
I love the idea that as the author of a writing book, I am hosting a party that readers can attend, a gathering with lots of lively conversation, even if it does not occur aloud. An author can receive no greater gift than the attention of readers. For quite some time now, I have been a reader in writerly conversation with the likes of George Orwell, Louise Rosenblatt, S.I. Hayakawa, Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Mary Karr, and many more.
To join our club, find a writing book that works for you.
Murder Your Darlings: And Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser is available from Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Hachette Book Group.