Kurt Vonnegut was a great American storyteller and teacher. Known for his satirical style of writing, he was one of the most famous writers of the 1960s.
His career spanned over 50 years, in which he published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of nonfiction, with further collections being published after his death. He is most known of his novels Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions.
In 1980, he wrote the article “How to Write with Style,” which was published in the Times. In that article, he made seven suggestions on the literary style which every new writer should frame and put on her desk.
Here they are in a nutshell:
1. Find a subject to care about
Kurt said, “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about too. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.”
He couldn’t be more right. Your writing shines when you write about something you care about; whether it is a novel or a love letter to the girl next door or a petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house.
One of Vonnegut’s favorite pieces of writing was an open letter his daughter Nanette wrote to a stranger who was so mad at the service he received from a waitress that he complained to the management, in writing. In her letter, Nanette made a plea to be kind and humane to young wait staff and don’t break their spirit if they happen to found it difficult to juggle correct balance and timing.
2. Do Not Rumble.
And he said he would not ramble about it.
3. Keep it simple.
There is a belief that the writing that is convoluted and sprinkled with big words is somehow elevated and more intelligent. Kurt Vonnegut wrote in simple words.
As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.
The simplicity of the language is not only reputable but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.
4. Have the guts to cut
It takes guts to cut the words you have spent hours writing and polishing. Yet you have to develop the courage to be able to do just that.
But the problem is more significant than having the courage to cut.
It is “not knowing” what to cut, and Vonnegut knew that. He wrote, “The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.”
He goes on to say:
It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant to the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, doesn’t illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.
He never talked about separating the process of writing and editing because perhaps he never wrote like that. In an interview, when asked about his method of composition, he responded:
There are swoopers and there are the bashers, and I happen to be one of the bashers. That is, you beat your head against a wall until you break through to page two and you break through to page three and so forth…But the swooper’s way, you know — and I envy them too because it must be exhilarating — is to write the book any which way and in a month maybe, whack it out, and then go through it again and again and again and again. I’ve never been able to do that.
5. Sound like yourself
When writing, most of us make an extra effort not to write the way we speak. Yet this is exactly like we need to do.
Many writers waste too much time finding their voice, without knowing they already have it. It is the voice in which they speak every single day. Even if English is your second language, you should write what is your natural way.
The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.
All varieties of speech are beautiful, just as the varies for butterflies are beautiful. No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens to not be standard English, and if it shows itself when you write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue.
6. Say what you mean to say.
Have you ever started writing something and found that it went in a completely different direction. Many modern writers writing to SEO guidelines find themselves in this conundrum.
The primary goal of good writing is to say precisely what the author meant to say.
My teacher wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like the parts fo the machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable — and therefore understood…If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-pigggledy, I would simply not be understood.
If you have something worth saying, you too should avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing and write to be understood.
7. Pity the readers.
Vonnegut was acutely aware of the skill required if the readers to decipher and understand the written word.
Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high-school — twelve long years.
He wanted writers to sympathize with their readers. To be patient with them. To be ever willing to simplify and clarify.
It was this advice of his that impacted me the most.
We writers are so focused on ourselves that we forget the readers.
Yet surprisingly, most writers are the readers too.
As readers, we consume a lot of information in a day. We spend a lot of mental energy to select what we want to pursue and what we want to discard.
If your writing is convoluted, difficult to read, has lots of rambling, the reader will discard it.
I started this column to help writers write from the reader’s point of view.
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