Murder Your Darlings

In seeking paths around the all-too-frequent roadblocks that pop up during the writing process, I’ve continually sought out a variety of advice on writing and examples of strong writing in action. A personal favorite for advice is Paul Barolsky’s “Writing (and) the History of Art” (The Art Bulletin, vol. 78, no. 3, pp. 398-400) which still holds up well after almost twenty years. In terms of examples, each essay chapter of Ian Bogost’s How To Do Things With Videogames incites a pang of jealousy for its clear prose as well as thoughtful ideas.

The current piece of advice I’ve been batting around in my head is that of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, to “Murder your darlings.” I’ll freely admit a fascination with particularly witty turns of phrase in my own writing, so it’s helpful and timely advice. The next major event in my academic life is a presentation at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference next week. Unlike the recent art history conferences at which I’ve presented, which allowed for 20 minutes for presenting, my PCA/ACA session only allows for 15 minutes per speaker.

With a shorter time frame, crafting a talk has been a difficult process. By this point I’ve mostly internalized the notion that “conference talk = 20 minutes.” My general process is to write about ten pages and then cull that down to a 20-minute talk, which has become a longer process when the end result needs to be six or seven pages instead of eight or nine. Instead of cutting extraneous phrases and clarifying poor wording, I’ve had to cut multiple entire concepts to get the talk to a point where I’m comfortable.

Slicing and dicing my PCA/ACA presentation hasn’t necessarily resulted in a strong argument, but it has resulted in more precision and a clearer voice. Looking at the 15-minute presentation, I’m not sure one with an extra five minutes would improve anything. In cutting down my talk, for the first time I’ve put considerable effort into signposting questions for the audience to ask instead of simply excising any and all hints of the removed content.

One of the last lines I cut in order to get under the 15-minute mark was a reference to the content of a co-authored article, currently accepted for review in an edited collection. I’d love to have left the reference in, since any question about that in the Q&A session would have been a gimme, and I’m proud of the piece. However, I took Sir Quiller-Couch’s words to heart, and murdered that darling. If an appropriate situation arises during the Q&A to bring it up, I will, but it didn’t have a place in this particular talk. Now, when I eventually turn this presentation into a publication, all bets are off…


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