Kurt Vonnegut Explains “How to Write With Style”


If you feel the need for tips on devel­op­ing a writ­ing style, you prob­a­bly don’t look right to the Insti­tute of Elec­tri­cal and Elec­tron­ics Engi­neers’ jour­nal Trans­ac­tions on Pro­fes­sion­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions. You cer­tain­ly don’t open such a pub­li­ca­tion expect­ing such tips from nov­el­ist Kurt Von­negut, a writer with a style of his own if ever there was one.

But in a 1980 issue, the author of Slaugh­ter­house-FiveJail­bird, and Cat’s Cra­dle does indeed appear with advice on “how to put your style and per­son­al­i­ty into every­thing you write.” What’s more, he does it in an ad, part of a series from the Inter­na­tion­al Paper Com­pa­ny called “The Pow­er of the Print­ed Word,” osten­si­bly meant to address the need, now that “the print­ed word is more vital than ever,” for “all of us to read bet­ter, write bet­ter, and com­mu­ni­cate bet­ter.”

This arguably holds much truer now, giv­en the explo­sion of tex­tu­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion over the inter­net, than it did in 1980. And so which of Von­negut’s words of wis­dom can still help us con­vey our words of wis­dom? You can read the full PDF of this two-page piece of ad-uca­tion here, but some excerpt­ed points fol­low:

  • Find a sub­ject you care about. “Find a sub­ject you care about and which you in your heart feel oth­ers should care about. It is this gen­uine car­ing, and not your games with lan­guage, which will be the most com­pelling and seduc­tive ele­ment in your style. I am not urg­ing you to write a nov­el, by the way — although I would not be sor­ry if you wrote one, pro­vid­ed you gen­uine­ly cared about some­thing. A peti­tion to the may­or about a pot­hole in front of your house or a love let­ter to the girl next door will do.”
  • Keep it sim­ple. “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.”
  • Sound like your­self. “Eng­lish was 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. [ … ] 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 your write stan­dard Eng­lish, the result is usu­al­ly delight­ful, like a very pret­ty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue. I myself find that I trust my own writ­ing most, and oth­ers seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a per­son from Indi­anapo­lis, which is what I am. What alter­na­tives do I have?”
  • Say what you mean. “My teach­ers wished me to write accu­rate­ly, always select­ing the most effec­tive words, and relat­ing the words to one anoth­er unam­bigu­ous­ly, rigid­ly, like parts of a machine. They hoped that I would become under­stand­able — and there­fore under­stood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picas­so did with paint or what any num­ber of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punc­tu­a­tion, had words mean what­ev­er I want­ed them to mean, and strung them togeth­er hig­gledy-pig­gledy, I would sim­ply not be under­stood. Read­ers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they them­selves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.”

While easy to remem­ber, Von­negut’s plain­spo­ken rules could well take an entire career to mas­ter. I’ll cer­tain­ly keep writ­ing on the sub­jects I care most about — many of them on dis­play right here on Open Cul­ture — keep­ing it as sim­ple as I can bear, say­ing what I mean, and sound­ing like… well, a root­less west-coast­er, I sup­pose, but one ques­tion sticks in my mind: which cor­po­ra­tion will step up today to turn out writ­ing advice from our most esteemed men and women of let­ters?

via Bib­liok­lept

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Toni Mor­ri­son Dis­pens­es Writ­ing Wis­dom in 1993 Paris Review Inter­view

Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Tips on How to Write a Good Short Sto­ry

Ray Brad­bury Offers 12 Essen­tial Writ­ing Tips and Explains Why Lit­er­a­ture Saves Civ­i­liza­tion

Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writ­ers

The Best Writ­ing Advice Pico Iyer Ever Received

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (10)
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  • Adrian says:

    I’ve always loved to write. I enjoyed ur advice.I’m 46 I’m inter­est­ed in writ­ing every­body tells me that a I’m a great poet my sis­ter says she does­n’t believe or she does­n’t under­stand why I have I haven’t con­tin­ued on my jour­ney with this.I’ve always been a self sab­o­tage sort of per­son. Well let me just tell u, thanks ur giv­ing me great mate­r­i­al and easy to under­stand.

  • Laura Oliver says:

    Oh, what a gem! I used a whole series of these posters in my first year of teach­ing (1980). Still great advice.

  • E.L. Greiff says:

    Great advice, esp. sound like your­self — not easy to devel­op your own voice as a writer.

  • Leishalynn says:

    “which cor­po­ra­tion will step up today to turn out writ­ing advice from our most esteemed men and women of let­ters?”

    Which cor­po­ra­tion? Who needs them; we’ve got Open Cul­ture!

  • Ronny says:

    I love Von­negut, and I real­ly enjoyed this arti­cle. Great advice!

  • Rain,adustbowlstory says:

    As a writer, I find I always feel com­fort­ed by Von­negut in some strange way. As if he were the benev­o­lent uncle of authors.

  • DANIJELA says:

    i need an easy essey about mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy

  • Hannah says:

    Help! My voice works in short sto­ries, but it’s chop­py. I like it that way, but my dream is to write a nov­el, and I dont know how to imple­ment my voice into a nov­el. How do i do this? Thanks!

  • ajts says:

    Hey Han­nah. I know your com­ment is almost a year old, but here goes noth­ing: Write 12 dif­fer­ent short sto­ries about the same char­ac­ter. Con­grats, you just wrote a 12-chap­ter nov­el using your voice.

  • James says:

    Hey ajts! Your advice is over two years old. But what a won­der­ful advice. I have thought about it. Chap­ters = dif­fer­ent short sto­ries about the same char­ac­ter. Won­der­ful!

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