Kurt Vonnegut published fourteen novels including the best-seller Slaughterhouse-Five, three short story collections, five plays, and five nonfiction books. He used concise sentences, short paragraphs, and an informal, conversational tone.
Vonnegut died in April 2007 at 84. So he didn’t write this post.
But in 1980 he wrote an essay with advice to writers.
His seven rules work for novels, he said, and also with “a petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door.”
His rules are also perfect for anyone thinking about writing posts for the FCPA Blog.
Here are Kurt Vonnegut’s seven rules to better writing:
1. Find a subject you care about. Genuine caring about your subject, Vonnegut said, not fancy words games, will “be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.”
2. Do not ramble, though. Enough said.
3. Keep it simple. Write sentences, like William Shakespeare did, that are “almost childlike.” The same sentences can still be profound. “To be or not to be?” is as deep as it gets. Simplicity of language is not only reputable, according to Vonnegut, but perhaps even sacred. He cited the first sentence of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
4. Have guts to cut. Keep only the words and sentences that shine light on your subject. Toss everything else. “If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” That really does take guts.
5. Sound like yourself. Vonnegut said he trusted his own writing most, and others did too, when he sounded like a person from Indianapolis, which he was. Write in the style most natural for you. Usually that’s the language you heard as a child. “I myself grew up in Indianapolis,” Vonnegut said, “where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.”
6. Say what you mean. It takes discipline and self control to use words the way they’re intended, and to follow the rules of punctuation. If you want to be understood, avoid inventive “Picasso-style or jazz-style writing,” Vonnegut said.
7. Pity the readers. Reading is hard. It takes years of effort to become proficient at it. And most people are very busy. So writers need to be sympathetic and patient with their audience, “ever willing to simplify and clarify.” Don’t worry about “singing like a nightingale,” Vonnegut said. Just try to be understood.
* * *
Finally, whatever you’re writing, examine it constantly.
“If you scribble your thoughts any which way,” Vonnegut said, “your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you.”
* * *
Adapted from How to Write with Style by Kurt Vonnegut.
Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog. He’ll be the keynote speaker at the FCPA Blog NYC Conference 2016.