How to decide when to “save” your darlings and other writing tips – Poynter
While I was unable to teach in-person writing workshops during the pandemic, my Zoom teachings intensified. Almost all of these virtual workshops have been pro-bono, but I have received rewards beyond the money. A favorite activity is to “visit” a writing class, especially one that uses one of my writing books as text. I have fun, play some music, and get treated like Obama or Springsteen.
The other years, I would have crossed the street from the Poynter Institute to visit a class on the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida. Instead, I taught this week, in my new mode, from a computer perched on our dining room table.
The day before class, the teacher, veteran journalist Janet Keeler, submitted a list of questions from students who had studied my most recent book “Murder Your Darlings: And Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser”. In short, it’s a writing book about writing books.
The questions were so good that I wanted to sit for about an hour and answer them in writing. These questions and answers, slightly edited for clarity, may be helpful in your own work. I hope.
What makes you so love to write?
I think it started with reading. As a child, I watched television a lot. I did sport. But there were times when I wanted to escape to my room, or to the public library, or even to a sycamore tree in our backyard.
In the 1950s, if you were a kid who wanted to know the secrets of adulthood, you couldn’t get them on TV or in the movies. But you can get them from the books.
It took me a while to realize that I could go from reading another writer’s stories to writing my own. The importance of stories has never felt more real to me than over the past year during these difficult times.
Have you ever saved your own “darlings” from the drawer and used them? Do most writers keep some amount of “smart” but unusable material as a source from which to draw ideas?
I do this all the time. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch advised his students to ‘murder your darlings’ – that is, kill those words and phrases designed to show your skill, rather than support the center of the story. But I said to Q, “Why do we have to murder these darlings? Why can’t we just send them to residential school? Maybe a day will come when we can welcome them to our home.
In other words, don’t kill the things you don’t use in a story; save it for another day.
When do you know when you are done writing?
Time limits control that to some extent. Feedback from teachers and editors also influences your feeling that it’s time to give it back. Or that it is not yet fully cooked.
I have this trick I use: build up enough momentum to get through the agreed length. I won’t stop writing a 1000 word essay until I hit 2000 words. “Murder Your Darlings” was probably 30,000 words too many. But that seems like a good problem to have. Now let’s move on to review and selection. I am putter-inner, then I become taker-outer.
What’s one thing you didn’t say in the book but wish you had?
I may have written 10 more chapters that had to be cut. I have published some of these chapters as essays, and I may publish others. I wish there had been more space for me to include the influence of key and enduring texts on my writing: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and especially the Oxford English Dictionary , the most important work on language ever compiled.
What was a reader’s most interesting review?
A reader told me that when she saw the headline “Murder your darlings”, she thought to herself. “Great! I love Agatha Christie! I’m lucky – especially in the age of internet trolling – that the vast majority of readers tell me that one of my books helped them solve a problem. or inspired them to become better writers. If I can be useful and inspiring, it is gold. It fulfills my professional mission and purpose.
On Editors: How do we know when to hold on and give a sweetheart a stay of execution? Is this something that we learn over time? Should we look for a new publisher if we fundamentally disagree on a planned hit?
There is a sneaky way to post your darlings, and a better way. The underhanded way is to place it in your story about two-thirds from the top. This space gets less attention than the top or bottom, so you can pass it around. If you deliver it at the last minute, your editor may not have time to find it.
Hope you can tell I don’t think this is the best way. Better to make your editor a shepherd for the finer aspects of your work. To do this, “send a rocket,” share that phrase or anecdote, expressing why you think it’s important, then be prepared to stand up for it when a cranky editor or reader doesn’t like it.
What are the most important priorities for self-publishing? How can I be a better editor?
First, don’t think of the review as a proofreading. You can review every part of the process: idea, report, focus, selection, order, draft. You can even revise the revision. You can’t do any of these if you don’t give yourself the time. Consider writing a lot sooner than you think.
How do you find inspiration to write about things that don’t interest you or that don’t interest you? Can you think of ways to get interested?
Take the brown pelicans. Why should we care about the brown pelican? I promise you, there is someone who loves brown pelicans more than I love my children. Find that person. Tap into their passion. This person will deliver stories and ideas to you that will enlighten your interest and that of your readers.
How to stay inspired beyond the initial idea?
It helps to see the world as a storehouse of story ideas. This means that for every column I write, I have five more that I could write.
My friend Jacqui Banaszynski speaks of “being in the midst of history”. This means that as you gain momentum, you’ll be amazed to start seeing aspects of your story everywhere – and every day.
The day I decided to write about pelicans, a squadron of them pooped on my car windshield while I was driving over the Howard Frankland Bridge. It was like validation!
Would you share a tip that you used as a beginning writer to overcome hesitation due to insecurities and procrastination?
One key is to trust your hands. If you write sooner than you think and faster, you can create what Anne Lamott calls those “shitty first drafts”. I don’t think that’s a good term for it. With rare exceptions, all first drafts are imperfect, but that imperfection is a gift – the raw material you need to make things better when revising.
As for procrastination, I never procrastinate. I repeat “. Just because your hands aren’t moving yet doesn’t mean your mind isn’t working.
How do you balance an informal and conversational tone while maintaining authority on the subject?
One answer to this question is to take advantage of an ignored pronoun – you. The plural you. Or, as some say in the South: “all of you”. On occasion, writing directly to an imaginary reader, as if speaking to a curious and intelligent friend, leads you to language that can be both conversational and authoritative. TED talks, I think, are good at it.
Could you tell us more about how you came up with the term “zero draft”?
I did not create this sentence, as I always admit in public. I have tried to track down the writer or teacher who coined the term, but without success. But I will say that I have probably become his strongest supporter.
By definition, a zero draft is preliminary, not even at the level of a first draft. It allows you to relax, even write without referring to your notes. Writing a zero draft teaches you what you already know and what you still have to learn.
In “Murder Your Darlings” you wrote that you are sincere in your memoirs and that writers turn their difficulties into advantages. Still, I don’t know how to approach writing about it or if I even want to. Have you ever faced a decision like this?
I met a writer who had been in prison in his youth. I remember telling him that as a writer he was lucky. That my hardest obstacle in life was not being able to find my white minivan in the mall parking lot. I was a caregiver for my wife Karen for almost four years of her breast cancer treatments and recovery before I felt ready to write about it. I could now, at the age of almost 73, come up with a long list of problems and tragedies worth writing in my experience.
Each case, each story is different. It helps to write a short mission statement: Why do I want to write this? Who will be helped? Are there any vulnerable people in history who might need protection?
Do you have any tips to help a chronic sentence writer?
My answer is to put more commas, semicolons and periods. I like long sentences that describe something like a line of cars at COVID-19 testing sites. I try to put my best thought in my shortest sentence.
Do you think I can be a successful writer without also being an avid reader?
I’m sure there are such writers, but I couldn’t name one from my experience. It is good to ask yourself: how can I become a more literate person? I suggest you practice three behaviors: 1) read critically 2) write with purpose 3) and talk about how reading and writing create meaning – as we do now.
In “Murder Your Darlings” you have a very distinct voice. How did you find and develop this voice?
When I was a kid, I had a sort of wise New Yorker voice. I bet my wife that I could go on for five minutes without making a joke, and I lost the bet in about 90 seconds. By the time I got to college, I had learned to write about Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Aristotle in a standard academic voice. I had gone from pissing to epistemology.
When I finally “grew up” around the age of 50, I realized that I could write a story that alluded to both Saint Thomas Aquinas and Seinfeld. I feel like who I am.
You have so much advice in the book. Which do you use the most in your own writing?
My favorite writing tip is to put the most important or interesting word in a sentence or paragraph at the end where readers can see it. Get your best stuff out of your hiding place.