Murder your darlings

The irrepressible Jessica Mitford - image from 'Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford', by Leslie Brody

The irrepressible Jessica Mitford – image from ‘Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford’, by Leslie Brody

If you want to write well you must be prepared to murder your darlings – that is, kill off all those unnecessary words and little flourishes.

Whenever you execute a particularly fine piece of writing be sure to delete it before pressing ‘send’. This applies equally to business writing and first novels.

Jessica Mitford, one of the famous Mitford sisters, popularised the phrase in her controversial book The Making of a Muckraker, which included tips on how to write if you want to be listened to.

The red sheep of the family, she was a younger sister of novelist Nancy Mitford, of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate fame, and Diana Mitford, who married British wartime Fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Perhaps it’s not surprising she became a life-long Communist.

This blog is dedicated to Jessica and her unfine writing – writing that is robust and honest, and delivers its message clearly.

I would be less than honest if I didn’t mention that Jessica didn’t actually invent the phrase “murder your darlings”. It was coined by British journalist, critic and novelist Arthur Quiller-Couch who did. He said that “whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

He also opposed the use of jargon – another killer of good writing. But he thought the kind of slang words that have become everyday usage were perfectly fine.

However, all this doesn’t mean writing needs to be rough, or that it shouldn’t be properly thought out. As a writer, you need to think carefully about what you want to say but not labour too much over style. The result will have a spare elegance about it, like a Little Black dress or one of Apple’s beautifully minimal products.

So, when you regretfully draw a red line through all those fine flourishes you are really paring back to the beautiful bare bones of your writing.

This is when you really start to communicate with your reader.

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Creativity and pyjamas

For inspiration just don some PJs

For inspiration just don some PJs

Or why inspiration always strikes at the wrong moment

Why is it that when you sit down in front of your computer breakfasted and dressed smartly for work the necessary inspiration usually fails to come.

But fall out of bed, briefly rub a flannel across your face, maybe brush your teeth, and sit down nonchalantly in front of the computer, toast in hand, and exquisite words and ideas fall out of your head without any effort.

One could conclude that the only way to write is in one’s PJs. Given this, maybe some nicer ones are needed as you’ll be spending a lot of time in them and you want to look OK when the courier calls.

Well, fortunately, this is not the only way to get creative.

It’s all about left brain and right brain, and accessing the creative part of the mind. The left side of the brain is the rational part, while the right hemisphere is the creative part. Confusingly, the left brain is also the verbal part, but it seems that to write well you need to be able to access the right brain too.

So, how do you do it? By relaxing. Which is what you do naturally when you wander around half asleep in your pyjamas and idly switch on the computer to find yourself accidentally in creative mode. If you should start working in this relaxed mood you will effortlessly harness your creativity to your work without even thinking about it. However, the rigours of getting dressed for work and putting your mind into “work mode” destroys all this.

But there are ways to harness the creative strength of the right brain while in the office. Veteran British comedian and actor John Cleese suggests a non-pyjama way in his insightful and amusing video on the topic. He describes creativity as an ability to play with ideas, for example, just for enjoyment. It is a “way of operating”, he says, not a talent. It is “childlike”.

Another technique for switching into creative right brain mode is to learn to draw. I know, I know, I hear the moans and groans. But it is possible to advance beyond the infantile image-making of your 10-year-old self, when you gave up drawing because it had become too painful. There are developmental reasons why this happened, and with the help of Betty Edwards’ wonderful Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain anyone can learn to draw – and come to love it – and access their creativity for other purposes as well. Indeed, corporations employ Betty to help their executives become more generally creative.

Yoga and meditation can do a similar job.

But, whatever method you choose, it will be well worth the effort.

Now, I just need to order my own copy of Betty’s book as the one I lent from my friend is getting way too thumb-marked.