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"Murder Your Darlings": Quiller-Couch on Style


Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944)

British journalist, critic, and novelist Arthur Quiller-Couch (who often wrote under the pseudonym "Q") made a habit of discussing literature as a subject for enjoyment rather than for analysis. While serving as a professor of English at Cambridge University, he published a series of lectures titled On the Art of Writing (1916). In these excerpts from his lecture "On Style," Q discusses the dangers of "fine writing," advising students to "Murder your darlings."

from On Style

Chapter 12 in On the Art of Writing

by Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944)

Looking back on a course of lectures which I deemed to be accomplished; correcting them in print; revising them with all the nervousness of a beginner; I have seemed to hear you complain--"He has exhorted us to write accurately, appropriately; to eschew Jargon; to be bold and essay Verse. He has insisted that Literature is a living art, to be practised. But just what we most needed he has not told. At the final doorway to the secret he turned his back and left us. Accuracy, propriety, perspicuity--these we may achieve. But where has he helped us to write with beauty, with charm, with distinction? Where has he given us rules for what is called Style in short?--having attained which an author may count himself set up in business."

Thus, Gentlemen, with my mind’s ear I heard you reproaching me. I beg you to accept what follows for my apology.

What Style Is Not

To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not--can never be--extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: "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."

But let me plead further that you have not been left altogether without clue to the secret of what Style is. That you must master the secret for yourselves lay implicit in our bargain, and you were never promised that a writer’s training would be easy. Yet a clue was certainly put in your hands when, having insisted that Literature is a living art, I added that therefore it must be personal and of its essence personal. . . .

Literature Is Personal

Now let me carry this contention--that all Literature is personal and therefore various--into a field much exploited by the pedant, and fenced about with many notice-boards and public warnings. "Neologisms not allowed here," "All persons using slang, or trespassing in pursuit of originality . . .."

Well, I answer these notice-boards by saying that, literature being personal, and men various--and even the Oxford English Dictionary being no Canonical book--man’s use or defiance of the dictionary depends for its justification on nothing but his success: adding that, since it takes all kinds to make a world, or a literature, his success will probably depend on the occasion. A few months ago I found myself seated at a bump-supper next to a cheerful youth who, towards the close, suggested thoughtfully, as I arose to make a speech, that, the bonfire (which of course he called the "bonner") being due at nine-thirty o’clock, there was little more than bare time left for "langers and godders." It cost me, who think slowly, some seconds to interpret that by "langers" he meant "Auld Lang Syne" and by "godders" "God Save the King." I thought at the time, and still think, and will maintain against any schoolmaster, that the neologisms of my young neighbour, though not to be recommended for essays or sermons, did admirably suit the time, place, and occasion.

Seeing that in human discourse, infinitely varied as it is, so much must ever depend on who speaks, and to whom, in what mood and upon what occasion; and seeing that Literature must needs take account of all manner of writers, audiences, moods, occasions; I hold it a sin against the light to put up a warning against any word that comes to us in the fair way of use and wont (as "wire," for instance, for a telegram), even as surely as we should warn off hybrids or deliberately pedantic impostors, such as "antibody" and "picture-drome"; and that, generally, it is better to err on the side of liberty than on the side of the censor: since by the manumitting of new words we infuse new blood into a tongue of which (or we have learnt nothing from Shakespeare’s audacity) our first pride should be that it is flexible, alive, capable of responding to new demands of man’s untiring quest after knowledge and experience. Not because it was an ugly thing did I denounce Jargon to you, the other day: but because it was a dead thing, leading no-whither, meaning naught. There is wickedness in human speech, sometimes. You will detect it all the better for having ruled out what is naughty. . . .

The Best Words

Well, let us not lose our heads over this, any more than over other prophecies of our national decadence. . . . Yet the warning has point: as Francis Thompson has noted in his Essay on Shelley:

Theoretically, of course, one ought always to try for the best word. But practically, the habit of excessive care in word-selection frequently results in loss of spontaneity; and, still worse, the habit of always taking the best word too easily becomes the habit of always taking the most ornate word, the word most removed from ordinary speech. In consequence of this, poetic diction has become latterly a kaleidoscope, and one’s chief curiosity is as to the precise combinations into which the pieces will be shifted. There is, in fact, a certain band of words, the Praetorian cohorts of Poetry, whose prescriptive aid is invoked by every aspirant to the poetic purple . . . Against these it is time some banner should be raised. . . .

Concluded on page two

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