KILL THE KITTEN
A friend of mine used to be a journalist, and she once told me that they used the catchphrase “kill the kitten” all the time in the office. Although it sounds like a ghoulish bit of journalist slang, this is actually really great writing advice, just like the literary saying “kill your darlings”.Why?
Particularly when you’re writing about something you’re really interested in, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between material that really needs to be in the essay or report for the sake of your argument and material that you have included just because you like it. This is especially common with long projects like dissertations: the process of research can throw up huge amounts of interesting ideas, facts and information, and it can sometimes be hard to focus on the things that are really important. The material that you include solely because you like it is the kitten. It is pleasing you, as kittens do, and that is why you have kept it.
There’s nothing wrong with putting information that makes you happy into your writing. Sometimes a point is productively demonstrated or reinforced through reference to something that is witty or unusual. For example, Mikhail Gorbachev earned the nickname “Comrade Orange Juice” when he tried to introduce policies that would reduce the amount of alcohol drunk by the general Russian population. This is a colourful detail, and if you were to write an essay about the public perception of Gorbachev’s morally-driven economic policy, it could also be a pertinent fact. It would demonstrate the ridicule and resistance that this measure was met with, and it would strengthen your essay by providing evidence for your argument.
A problem arises, however, when the information is only there because you like it. If you were writing an essay about another aspect of Gorbachev’s premiership, this same fun fact could just be an irrelevant bauble on your essay that detracted from the main point. Now, baubles are lovely, but there isn’t much room for them in academic writing, for which prettiness is optional but functionality is key. All of the information in any piece of academic writing needs to be doing a job, rather than being ornamental or entertaining. For example, I was recently writing about James Bond, and I desperately wanted to include a reference to “007 in New York”, a short story in which Ian Fleming provides Bond’s personal recipe for scrambled eggs. There isn’t a much clearer example of an unnecessary bauble than that! It wasn’t doing anything at all for my argument, and was only there to please me. I had to – however reluctantly – get rid of it.
The problem is that it’s not always going to be this clear. How do you know which points are the most important? How can you be more concise? Here are some questions I like to try on my own writing:
- If you have several examples that illustrate one point, can you do without some of them? Do you need every single example, or will one strong example do it?
- Sometimes you’ve found a really great quotation that can illustrate your point, and it’s funny too. Can you explain the point without this quote? Paraphrasing is a key academic skill, and it often helps you be more economical with language.
- Can you identify what each piece of information in any given paragraph is doing? Is it evidence? Is it analysis? If you can’t explain the academic function of something that makes you smile, it’s a kitten and it needs to come out.
My unsentimental journalist friend was right. Sometimes a kitten has to die for the greater good of your writing. You don’t have to delete it – there may well be a way for you to rethink your argument so that the kitten can help you. But certainly try reading your work without it.
DECLARATION: No kittens were harmed in the writing of this blog post! Kittens can also sometimes help your writing. There is a great piece of online positive reinforcement software called Written? Kitten!, which is a lot of fun and very motivating.
Posted by Alex