“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher shared this quotation from Faulkner with the class. It meant that to be a good writer, you had to cut out all the clever phrasing or rhetorical flourishes that do not serve the interests of the reader, even if you personally like them. In essence, my teacher was trying to show us how to revise—which often involves scrapping unnecessary words and phrases, even if we consider them our “darlings.”
The concept of revision was not new to me, but I never truly embraced it as a part of the writing process. From a young age, I was a perfectionist in my writing, not moving on from a single sentence until it was flawless. It made little sense to me to revisit a draft later and make changes; in my mind, I had made it perfect the first time. While I have now learned to incorporate revision as part of my writing process, I still have to resist the urge to spend minutes and minutes obsessing over each word choice and sentence structure. Perfectionism is a difficult attitude to unlearn.
But what exactly did perfect mean? I believe that definition came from how I was taught to write. Lauer calls it the “current-traditional” method of teaching composition, which puts “emphasis on the teacher as audience and on exposition and literary analysis as the types of writing assigned” (Lauer 129). Throughout elementary and middle school, teachers instructed me to follow the classic five-paragraph structure for all my essays. It seemed that writing had a particular set of rules, which when followed, would result in an A-paper. No contractions, no first-person pronouns, no starting a sentence with a conjunction—if I followed each rule, my writing would be “perfect,” or so I thought. I strove for a detached, excessively formal voice that bordered on haughtiness, a style that I found was rewarded with good grades.
In part, I adopted this manner of writing as a result of my childhood experience with literacy. I grew up in a trilingual household, speaking Vietnamese with my mother, Urdu with my father, and English with my siblings. My mom was a war refugee and immigrant who never mastered written English and still speaks with a heavy accent and awkward grammar. When she and my dad went to my school for parent events, I remember feeling embarrassed: what would people think when they heard my mom’s broken English?
From a young age, then, I was acutely aware of the roles language and literacy play as “an unevenly distributed form of social capital” (Lindquist 101). I felt embarrassed about my mom’s English because I thought it might reflect poorly on her, or me, or our family. I thought if I could write with perfect, academic-sounding English that I would not have to bear the stigma of illiteracy. Somewhere in my schooling, I had begun to associate speaking and writing good English with intelligence and refinement.
For me, the idea of English-language exceptionalism came from the current-traditional method of teaching composition. Obviously, all the assigned readings were in English, and all the authors mostly male and western; this subconsciously reinforced in my mind what I thought a “writer” looked like. Teachers emphasized the importance of using formal diction in writing, and would replace words like “so” with “hence” in my essays. I knew implicitly that my mom didn’t speak or write English in this way—never mind that nobody else I knew actually spoke that way, either. But because my teachers privileged a certain style of writing as more polished and respectable, I viewed other forms of English-speaking with disdain.
Although I was not conscious of it at the time, I was trying to obtain literacy to “acquire social power” (Lindquist 101). I wanted to distance myself from the embarrassment of my mom’s improper English by learning to write properly and perfectly. But my quest for perfection did not result in good writing. My word choices were stilted: I remember once using the word “pulchritude” in an essay instead of “beauty,” because I couldn’t dare use such a simple and understandable word in formal prose. And I paid little attention to the needs or character of my reader. As Lauer points out, “the teacher-examiner as audience” is another quality of the current-traditional paradigm (Lauer 115). Because my teacher assigned a grade to my work, I sought to impress and woo my sole reader with pretty words but unoriginal content.
It wasn’t until college that I began to consider writing in a different way. In my freshman English class, my professor urged me to adopt a plain English style. This meant veering away from the pretentious jargon I was used to and the rules I had dutifully followed for so many years. Instead of using a thesaurus to find the words that would make me sound the most intelligent and scholarly, I began to write with clarity. Not only was my work more readable, but the content also improved; I learned to write what I actually meant to say.
Like other scholars of rhetoric and composition, my professor also stressed the importance of having “sensitivity to rhetorical situations and diverse audiences” (Lauer 108). I will never forget the question she posed us about every work of writing we submitted: who the heck cares? I had never before considered why someone might be bothered to read my writing, much less whom I was writing for. It forced me to think about what bearing my arguments and reasoning had in real-life, non-literary situations. Even though the audience for my literary analyses and poetry explications was still my professor, I sought to describe the greater meaning of these works in a human context. The idea of writing for diverse audiences applied in my other classes, too. As an engineering major, I quickly learned that my lab reports, proofs, and technical documentation greatly improved in form and content when I considered the needs of my audience.
During my last few years of high school, my elitist conception of English also began to change. My senior year, we read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, an epistolary novel written from the perspective of a Black woman. Walker tells a story about complex relationships and coming-of-age through the voice a woman who writes with incorrect grammar and a limited vocabulary—someone like my mom. She doesn’t have Fitzgerald’s imagery or Dickens’s verbosity, but it doesn’t make the writing any less worthy of interpretation and critical analysis. For the first time, I began to consider literacy as an “assemblage of social practices,” not just a measure of aptitude for reading and writing (Lindquist 100).
My writing has evolved for the better as a result of these experiences. Reading diverse texts and encountering varying forms of English literacy have helped me understand the different ways one can be literate. I used to strive for the appearance of erudition in my writing, but I now hope only to write as plainly and clearly as possible. It’s no surprise to me now that the word “essay” comes from the French essayer, to try. Each time I write, I make my best effort to form my thoughts and arguments in a coherent way and communicate them clearly to the reader. Even if I have to kill my darlings.