Improve Your Writing (by Killing Your Darlings)

Many Americans credit Thomas Jefferson with the brilliant writing of the Declaration of Independence. What those people fail to mention, however, is that Jefferson’s first draft was a rough one and greatly in need of thorough revisions that came from John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and eventually the other members of the Second Continental Congress. The final Declaration document was, in actuality, hardly Jefferson’s masterful brilliance at all.

More of Jefferson’s writing was actually deleted or changed than was used. Even the phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident” was Ben Franklin’s doing. Jefferson’s first draft, in fact, read “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.”

Furthermore, as the Declaration passed through Congress, a whole five paragraphs were decidedly cut out entirely because Jefferson’s long prose became a sort of rambling “in a way that detracted from the document’s power.” Ouch. Jefferson’s writing lacked brevity. In the end, most of his words had to be cut completely. These words were, I am sure, dear to Jefferson’s heart.*

One can assume that cutting those five paragraphs was emotionally tasking for Jefferson. He poured his heart into the writing only to see his work slashed away with thick black ink. Like a grown adult who is finally forced to discard his high school letter jacket, sometimes even the most precious of words must be placed in the trash. This act, the cutting out of beloved portions of writing, is what Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once called “murdering your darlings,” and it is one of the hardest things to do as a writer, whether you are a famous author or, like me, a cubicle-dwelling email-sender.

(Side Note: Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch knew the value of being concise maybe even to a fault. Instead of using his real name, he published most of his works under the pseudonym “Q.” How’s that for being brief?)

It is worth noting that killing off your darlings is as cold and heartless as it sounds. For most of us, as soon as our words are set down on the page they become part of us, like an arm or a leg. Cutting off these beloved sentences, words, and paragraphs is hard. The silver lining here is that the more you do it, the easier it becomes, like organizing a room.

The process of editing one’s writing really is a simple process of cleaning up. Manuscripts of the perennial books of our time are no doubt marked with thick black strokes that kill off ideas, opinions, and convictions like a brutal massacre, all in the glorious name of Clear Communication. These weathered writers understand that often times less is more. Cleaning up, as in messy writing and in messy rooms, takes effort and discipline, yes, but it is really the time that’s needed that makes this act so difficult. Mark Twain is credited with saying:

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Irony plays well here, proving that using fewer words actually takes more time.

To say that writing concisely is a skill I have mastered would be far-fetched, even comedic. This post itself has no doubt been redundant, maybe even overexplicit. Yet I assure you that I did cut more than half of my first draft, as I am encouraging you to do.

Writing brief prose is a constant challenge, a reminder that there is infinite room for improvement. This blog, for what it is worth, puts that weakness in full view. But I am grateful that even the realization of this weakness has led me to improve in other areas of communication. In my customer-facing job, I strive to use fewer words in my speaking, remembering often the maxim “the more words you use, the more you lose.”

This doesn’t mean that one should be pursed at the lips or hide behind a veil of mysteriousness in an effort to say less. No, quite the opposite, it means that one should seek to be transparent and open yet concise and efficient. Using fewer words leads to being understood better. For example, one could argue that if I had simply made this blog post read the below fifteen words, I would have been more effective in conveying my message:

To be better understood, use as few words as possible, but make those words count.

Regardless, here we are.

In summary, it is not always possible to be concise, but when it is, my humble advice, if I am so allowed to give it, is to cut the fluff, kill your darlings, and get to the point. As you wince in pain while killing off these darlings, think of the hoarder who cleans her basement with reluctance. She winces in agony while discarding old heirlooms and memories, but in the end everyone is more comfortable visiting her home.

For More Reading:

Book examples of excellent, concise writing:

Other similar posts from It’s Me, Chris:

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*My source for the facts on Jefferson and the Declaration came from Ben Franklin, An American Life, by Walter Isaacson

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