Who Really Said You Should “Kill Your Darlings”?

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 18 2013 1:09 PM

Who Really Said You Should “Kill Your Darlings”?

William Burroughs (Ben Foster), Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) in Kill Your Darlings
William Burroughs (Ben Foster), Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) in Kill Your Darlings.

Photo byClay Enos ©2013 Sony Pictures Classics

The new movie Kill Your Darlings, starring Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg and Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr, takes its name from an old piece of advice sometimes given to aspiring writers. You have to learn, literary hopefuls are told, to “kill your darlings.”

In other words, you have to get rid of your most precious and especially self-indulgent passages for the greater good of your literary work. In reviews of the movie, the widely repeated saying has been attributed both to Ginsberg and to William Faulkner. Who really came up with “kill your darlings”?

Advertisement

Not who you think. Variations on the “murder your darlings” saying, including “kill your darlings” and “kill your babies,” have been handed down in writing workshops and guides for decades, and almost every major 20th century English author has been cited at one time or another. In addition to the common attribution to Faulkner—“In writing, you must kill all your darlings”—which seems to have been popularized in guides to screenwriting in the 1990s, the advice has also been attributed to Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty, G.K. Chesterton, “the great master Chekov,” and Stephen King, who wrote, “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

But the earliest known example of the phrase is not from any of these writers, but rather Arthur Quiller-Couch, who spread it in his widely reprinted 1913-1914 Cambridge lectures “On the Art of Writing.” In his 1914 lecture “On Style,” he said, while railing against “extraneous Ornament”:

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—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

Of course, all these citations to names like Faulkner, Wilde, and Chekov may have helped the saying spread—it’s hard to imagine it spreading as quickly as attributed to the lesser-known Quiller-Couch. But whether you’re talking about killing darlings or murdering babies, it’s best to follow another rule of writing: Check your sources. 

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

Politics

The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.