Cut The Cleverness

You have really outdone yourself this time. I mean, you knew you were a good writer, but this – this is great. You have just crafted the perfect analogy (or description, thesis statement, blog post): it’s punchy, it’s tongue-in-cheek, and most of all, it’s just so clever! You giggle every time you read it.

I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but you should seriously consider taking that thing out behind the shed and putting it down. Yep, I’m talking about deletion.

I will never forget the day that I got this advice. I felt as though I had been slapped. What?! Why would I want to cut it? It’s the best writing in the whole piece! This guy obviously just doesn’t get it. Apparently, he can’t recognize good – no, great – writing when he sees it. It must be over his head. It’s just so clever.

Considering that my reader – the guy who “didn’t get it” – was a distinguished professor of English at a top research university and I was a first year PhD student, I am glad I didn’t say any of those things out loud. But I was stunned.

He then shared a line that has stayed with me ever since. When it comes to writing, he said, “Murder your darlings.”

The thinking behind this rather acerbic advice is that cutesy writing – otherwise known as your piece’s devastating cleverness – rarely comes across with all of the wit and force that the writer is enjoying from it.

It’s a particular form of writer-centered thinking that seduces us all at one time or another. Writing over-the-top prose can be fun, and it’s fine to get caught up in that pleasure while drafting. I’ve certainly been known to do it. After all, the anecdote I started this post with is a true story.

But when you revise, you must shift your focus to serving the reader. Try to remember that the reader is honoring you by reading your work; he or she owes you nothing other than that. As the writer, you must try to anticipate the reader’s needs and questions. More than that, you must make the reader feel comfortable and validated. The success of your purpose, whether informative, persuasive, or entertaining, depends on it.

Cutesy writing tends to drive a wedge between you and the reader. Instead of establishing a bond with the reader, ultra-clever language leaves the reader feeling left out of the joke (even if the reader gets the joke). It’s hard to feel a bond with someone who is smirking at you.

Humility trumps cleverness every time.

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5 Responses to Cut The Cleverness

  1. Excellent post, Loren. I absolutely love the “murder your darlings” story. Stumbled, subscribing, etc!

  2. I recently had a conversation about this with an editing client. He was so pleased with a particular scene he was sure that alone would win him an award of some kind. I repeated some excellent writing advice I’d heard: “murder your darlings.” Great to see you reinforcing that here.

  3. I suppose it depends on what’s defined as “cutesy” and how far off the meter we’re talking.

    It’s a balance. Because gods know you don’t want to be completely dry, but at the same time you do want to communicate. “Murder your darlings” is something you bring in when you need to edit the draft; you don’t cut every last one.

    And I’ve known some PhDs who were… less than clueful. And yeah, I used to be in utter awe of them.

  4. Farfield says:

    Very nice post indeed. In the beginning I didn’t even read back what I had written. And now I discover how important it is to read your own piece with the average reader in mind!

  5. loren says:

    Thanks for the great comments, one and all. Sounds like this is a phenomenon with which we are all familiar.

    It’s so hard to get perspective on your own writing, isn’t it? There is indeed a fine line between self-indulgent cleverness that serves the writer rather than the reader and what I’d call wit, or an engaging tone.

    Trying to define that line by considering things from the reader’s perspective is important, even if we don’t always hit the mark.


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