Murder and the Art of Copywriting

“Kill your darlings.”

A couple of weeks ago, I talked to you about Mark Morgan Ford’s most important rule of any type of persuasive writing: The Rule of One.

Mark says this about his Rule of One …

“To create blockbuster promotions time after time, you must understand the difference between good copy and great copy. The Rule of One is the driving force behind great copy.”

The Rule of One means you must have one powerful idea to write about … one strong emotion to target … and one compelling benefit to highlight.

(If you missed this discussion, click here to read it).

Mark Morgan Ford isn’t the only renowned writer to feel this way. Here’s a quote from Ernest Hemingway …

“If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.”

In copywriting this translates to: Just because you can say something in a promotion doesn’t mean you should.

It takes discipline … and a cold heart

But getting rid of something you want to say is hard. You’ve put a lot of work and research into discovering all the benefits of the product. You’ve really studied your prospect closely … and you have an intimate picture of him and his emotions. And, as a result of your hard work, you’ve come up with several killer ideas. You want to write about all of it, but you know doing so would violate the Rule of One.

What do you get rid of?

The Rule of One starts before you begin writing. It even starts before you do any of your research or study. It starts with the understanding that every writer falls in love with some of his or her ideas, words, and phrases.

Falling in love with those things is such an entrenched part of being a writer that it’s earned a special term.

We call these beloved parts of our writing our “darlings.”

And, here’s where discipline and a cold heart come in. If you want to be a successful copywriter … if you want to be able to follow the Rule of One every time … you must steel yourself and embrace the idea many writers have expressed …

 … “Kill your darlings.”

Heartbreak has good company …

I, too, went through the heartbreak of having to get rid of ideas, words, and phrases I loved but marketing managers didn’t. When I discovered this expression, it told me I was not alone. I wasn’t the only writer who had trouble getting rid of parts of my writing I loved most dearly.

I was in good company.

William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Anton Chekov are a few of the famous authors credited for this advice. In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King wrote …

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

But none of these great writers originated this expression. It came from a rather obscure author, Arthur Quiller-Couch, in a 1914 lecture.

“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.’”

Read that quote carefully. It contains the most important strategy that will help you kill your darlings without remorse. Quiller-Couch tells you — and I have been teaching this for years now — to write those examples of “exceptionally fine writing.”

And then, in your editing, hack out any words, phrases, and extraneous ideas you have fallen in love with.

Send your darlings to purgatory …

You’re lucky, though, because you live in the computer age. Instead of deleting your darlings before sending your copy to your client, cut them out and paste them in another file. This is what I did when I was first writing and doing my best to kill my darlings.

I pasted those beautiful phrases and those extra ideas I felt my prospect had to know about into a new file I called “Beautiful Writing to Be Used Later.” Well, in those days, the name had to be shorter. But that was the idea.

You know what? That file grew longer and longer … and I never once made a withdrawal to use elsewhere. Not once.

Looking back, I know my reluctance grew from believing I could never write such a well-turned phrase as I was about to cut out. But I did write more phrases. I did find more compelling ideas … over and over again.

Killing my darlings — following the Rule of One —taught me a valuable lesson. Writing unhindered by restrictions and then having the courage and discipline to hack out what I thought was the most beautiful or the most brilliant taught me that I am a writer.

It will do the same for you.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: July 14, 2014

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