Killing the Babies

You’re in the middle of an interview, and suddenly your source delivers a delicious quote. It’s clear, grammatical, not obscene, short, and punchy. A prize-winning quote if ever you’ve heard one. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with what you’re writing about.

How do star writers deal with this situation? They want that quote in print, no matter what, so they stick it into the last quarter of their piece. Since it doesn’t fit their subject matter, they have to warp the entire article just to get it in. To avoid such wreckage, you must leave the wonderful quote on the cutting room floor.

I call this technique “Killing the Babies.” George Orwell called it “murdering your darlings.” These violent terms capture how much it hurts to leave out something you love so much. But the secret of good writing is leaving out, not putting in.

The term “Killing the Babies” comes from a coaching session I had with a magazine writer who turned in five times as much copy as her editors printed. She wrote brilliant monthly profiles, each about one man. I asked her the secret of her powerful portraits. She said she spent 24 hours a day for a whole week with each subject, and they’d fall in love, temporarily. “I would get everything in his head,” she said, “all of it in beautiful quotes.” She took so many notes that she had to write them on three-by-five cards, one quote per card. She pointed to a huge stack on her desk, and said, “That’s why I write so long, because I can’t bear not to put everything in. Help me.”

I replied, “Could you divide these cards into two stacks: one, absolutely fabulous, Pulitzer-Prize, superduper quotes; and the other, not quite so fabulous, merely great quotes?” “Yes,” she said, “that would be easy.” “Good,” said I, “and then you could put the ‘not-quite-so’ cards into a folder in that file cabinet, and write from the other pile alone.” “Great, then I could keep them,” she said. “I wouldn’t have to kill my babies!”

Hear the metaphor? She and her source fall in love, producing these fabulous quote-babies. Not including them in the profile was tantamount to murder. And that’s how painful leaving wonderful things out can feel.

So how do you kill the babies? You use the magic question, “What’s this about,” as a sword. Faced with a great but irrelevant quote, you ask yourself if it helps the reader understand what the piece is about. If the answer is no, adios baby.

I know one way to soften your grief. Write the wonderful deleted quote on a three-by-five card, along with the name and phone number of the speaker. Then keep it in your future file as a prompt for a later story idea.

Of course, this problem and technique also applies to terrific characters, anecdotes, turns of phrase, etc. that must die.

Published in: on January 9, 2009 at 12:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

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