Murder Your Darlings: And Other Gentle Writing Advice From Aristotle To Zinsser, by Roy Peter Clark
This book could have been a really good one. In many ways, the approach of this book is a sound one, providing plenty of personal stories about writing and the author’s own background while also pointing the reader to a great many guides for writing that span over the wide range of history and that demonstrate the wit and wisdom from a wide variety of writers who have sought to teach and guide others into writing better. For the most part, I found this book to be enjoyable and instructive, with only a few problems. But as the book went on, I found the author’s approach less and less enjoyable, especially as it became evident that the author was trying to carve out a space for the sort of behavior that biased contemporary journalists engage in but do not want to consider as illegitimate and blameworthy. Ultimately, the fact that the author is a journalist and apparently a fairly ordinary one as far as it goes nowadays means that as this book went on and the author felt it desirable to defend his profession and that is something that I wasn’t willing to go along with, which decreased my enjoyment of the book towards the end considerably.
This book is a bit more than 300 pages and is divided into six parts and 32 chapters, some of which deal with more than one writing guide. The author begins with five essays on language and craft (I) that discuss getting rid of precious words (1), cutting clutter (2), learning to live inside words (3), shaping a sentence for effect (4), and working from a plan (5). The author then looks at matters of voice and style (II), including the tensions inherent within style (6), varying sentence length (7), using visual markings to spark creativity (8), tuning one’s voice to the digital age (9), and adjusting one’s sound (10). Then comes some essays on confidence and identity (III) that focus on the steps of the writing process (11), persistence (12), free writing (13), identifying as a writer (14), and developing the habit of writing (15). Six essays deal with storytelling and character (IV), including understanding the value of storytelling (16), preferring the complex character (17), writing for sequence then theme (18), distilling a story simply (19), adding dimension to characters (20), and reporting for story (21). After that the author praises attention to rhetoric and audience (V) with essays on anticipating readers’ needs (22), embracing the power of rhetoric (23), influencing the emotional response of the audience (24), signing a social contract with the reader (25), and writing a bit above the level of the reader (26). Finally, the author discusses mission and purpose (VI), with essays on strategies for reporting reliably (27), writing to grow one’s soul (28), writing to delight and instruct (29), seeking to become the eyes and ears of the audience (30), choosing advocacy over propaganda, as if they were different (31), and being a writer and more (32). The book then ends with the usual afterword, acknowledgements, an appendix on books by the author, bibliography, and index.
In the end, this is a book whose reception depends on one’s view of contemporary journalism. The author makes it explicitly clear that he believes there is a legitimate place in journalism for positive propaganda that he labels as advocacy even as he demonizes official propaganda that he labels as illegitimate. Yet the advocacy of contemporary journalism, which the author probably engages in himself given some of the comments in this book, is clearly just as wicked as the propaganda he condemns for belonging to fascistic regimes. The author’s framing leads one to believe in a certain double standard that makes this book impossible to wholeheartedly enjoy or recommend. It would have been far better had the author not been a part of the corrupt contemporary journalistic establishment, but knowing his obvious filters and biases and worldview errors does explain so much of what is wrong with a lot of contemporary writing. The author wants to condemn people like John McPhee for his privilege but doesn’t see how privileged he is as a writer himself, and this lack of self-awareness pervades the book as a whole, to the detriment of my appreciation of the author’s supposed wisdom.