'Murder Your Darlings': Quiller-Couch on Style

"Style . . . is not--can never be--extraneous Ornament"

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944). (Leonard McCombe/Getty Images)

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

It is at any rate curious to note that the literary revolution against the despotic diction of Pope seems issuing, like political revolutions, in a despotism of his own making;
and he adds a note that this is the more surprising to him because so many Victorian poets were prose-writers as well.
Now, according to our theory, the practice of prose should maintain fresh and comprehensive a poet’s diction, should save him from falling into the hands of an exclusive coterie of poetic words. It should react upon his metrical vocabulary to its beneficial expansion, by taking him outside his aristocratic circle of language, and keeping him in touch with the great commonalty, the proletariat of speech. For it is with words as with men: constant intermarriage within the limits of a patrician clan begets effete refinement; and to reinvigorate the stock, its veins must be replenished from hardy plebeian blood.

In diction, then, let us acquire all the store we can, rejecting no coin for its minting but only if its metal be base. So shall we bring out of our treasuries new things and old.

Diction, however, is but a part of Style, and perhaps not the most important part. So I revert to the larger question, "What is Style? What is its . . . essence, the law of its being?"

The Writer's Obligation

But let us philosophise a little. You have been told, I daresay often enough, that the business of writing demands two--the author and the reader. Add to this what is equally obvious, that the obligation of courtesy rests first with the author, who invites the séance, and commonly charges for it. What follows, but that in speaking or writing we have an obligation to put ourselves into the hearer’s or reader’s place? It is his comfort, his convenience, we have to consult. To express ourselves is a very small part of the business: very small and almost unimportant as compared with impressing ourselves: the aim of the whole process being to persuade.

All reading demands an effort. The energy, the good-will which a reader brings to the book is, and must be, partly expended in the labour of reading, marking, learning, inwardly digesting what the author means. The more difficulties, then, we authors obtrude on him by obscure or careless writing, the more we blunt the edge of his attention: so that if only in our own interest--though I had rather kept it on the ground of courtesy--we should study to anticipate his comfort.

. . .

What am I urging? "That Style in writing is much the same thing as good manners in other human intercourse?" Well, and why not? At all events we have reached a point where Buffon’s often-quoted saying that "Style is the man himself" touches and coincides with William of Wykeham’s old motto that "Manners makyth Man": and before you condemn my doctrine as inadequate listen to this from Coventry Patmore, still bearing in mind that a writer’s main object is to impress his thought or vision upon his hearer.

"There is nothing comparable for moral force to the charm of truly noble manners."

I grant you, to be sure, that the claim to possess a Style must be conceded to many writers--Carlyle is one--who take no care to put listeners at their ease, but rely rather on native force of genius to shock and astound. Nor will I grudge them your admiration. But I do say that, as more and more you grow to value truth and the modest grace of truth, it is less and less to such writers that you will turn: and I say even more confidently that the qualities of Style we allow them are not the qualities we should seek as a norm, for they one and all offend against Art’s true maxim of avoiding excess. .

. .

Flaubert, that gladiator among artists, held that, at its highest, literary art could be carried into pure science. "I believe," said he, "that great art is scientific and impersonal. You should by an intellectual effort transport yourself into characters, not draw them into yourself. That at least is the method." On the other hand, says Goethe, "We should endeavour to use words that correspond as closely as possible with what we feel, see, think, imagine, experience, and reason. It is an endeavour we cannot evade and must daily renew." I call Flaubert’s the better counsel, even though I have spent a part of this lecture in attempting to prove it impossible. It at least is noble, encouraging us to what is difficult. The shrewder Goethe encourages us to exploit ourselves to the top of our bent.

I think Flaubert would have hit the mark if for "impersonal" he had substituted "disinterested."

For--believe me, Gentlemen--so far as Handel stands above Chopin, as Velasquez above Greuze, even so far stand the great masculine objective writers above all who appeal to you by parade of personality or private sentiment.

Mention of these great masculine "objective" writers brings me to my last word: which is, "Steep yourselves in them: habitually bring all to the test of them: for while you cannot escape the fate of all style, which is to be personal, the more of catholic manhood you inherit from those great loins the more you will assuredly beget."

This then is Style. As technically manifested in Literature it is the power to touch with ease, grace, precision, any note in the gamut of human thought or emotion.

But essentially it resembles good manners. It comes of endeavouring to understand others, of thinking for them rather than for yourself--of thinking, that is, with the heart as well as the head. It gives rather than receives; it is nobly careless of thanks or applause, not being fed by these but rather sustained and continually refreshed by an inward loyalty to the best. Yet, like "character" it has its altar within; to that retires for counsel, from that fetches its illumination, to ray outwards. Cultivate, Gentlemen, that habit of withdrawing to be advised by the best. So, says Fénelon, "you will find yourself infinitely quieter, your words will be fewer and more effectual; and while you make less ado, what you do will be more profitable."

On the Art of Writing: Lectures Delivered in the University of Cambridge, 1913–1914, by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, was published in 1916 by Cambridge University Press.