Kurt Vonnegut and #Writing With Style

Back in 1980 (at least according to the PDF I found via Google), Kurt Vonnegut published, with International Paper Company, an 8-point list of how to write with style. Given its age, it’s probably been passed around more times than an Nintendo DS at a 10-year-old’s birthday party, but like that DS — regardless of age, given battery power — this list still has some game left.

In his own words, Kurt explains why examining your writing style is important:

Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, 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.

1) Find a subject you care about.

Find a subject you care about and which in your heart you feel others should care about.

Kurt explains that genuine caring will be the most seductive element of your writing, that the readers will be able to discern it. Though he goes on to clarify that is he isn’t trying to get the reader to write a novel — however as long as you genuinely care about the topic, he “would not be sorry” — I believe there is no better way to write a novel. Especially if the subject you’re writing about is symbolic of a whole other topic; without genuine care or passion, your symbolism and narrative will fall flat.

2) Do not ramble, though.

I won’t ramble on about that.

Being concise is important, even when working with longer works of writing — novel, memoir, autobiography, or instruction manual. Kurt has another quote from the article that might have worked under this heading, as well:

Be merciless on yourself. If a sentence does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

3) Keep it simple.

Simplicity of 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 [sic] and the earth.”

Although Kurt also pulls examples from Shakespeare (“To be or not to be?”) and Joyce (“She was tired.” [From short story “Eveline”]), I thought his concluding thought under this heading was more powerful. The very book that forms the basis for a major world religion opens up with the creative writing strength of a child, which goes on to prove the point that keeping language simple keeps it accessible.

4) Have the guts to cut.

…[Y]our eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head.

Under this heading is where Kurt’s second quote at the second point up there originally appeared — have the brass ones to get rid of what isn’t working. If it’s good writing but just isn’t working in the story you’re editing, clip and save it like a coupon for Ramen [quite the rarity]. Have a scrap file/folder for snippets that have potential but just don’t belong anywhere yet. There are plenty of note-keeping devices, apps, and software to keep every kind of writer organized and primed for cutting the unraveling bits of thread.

5) Sound like yourself.

All these varieties of speech are beautiful, just as the varieties of butterflies are beautiful. No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens not to be standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue.

Even if you’re just an Indianapolis man whose “common speech” reminds some of “a band saw cutting galvanized tin” if only because its vocabulary is “as unornamental as a monkey wrench”, you must be true to yourself. Use the language you know, the language you’re familiar with — and I don’t just mean your mother tongue. Even if you’re trying to establish a voice, you ultimately only have the words, phrases, and concepts that you already know or that you’ve already established. Readers will trust you more when you sound genuine.

6) Say what you mean to say.

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. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable — and therefore understood.

No, Kurt didn’t have John Mayer on his playlist — but Mayer may have taken a cue from Vonnegut:

You better know that in the end / It’s better to say too much / Than never say what you need to say again

Though there might have been some argument over just how much to say, both Mayer and Vonnegut have the same message — if you’ve got something to say, have great thought and intention behind it and just say it!

7) Pity the readers. 

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.

Mismatched pen scratches on a page; lines, dots, and spaces creating words, creating thoughts. The reader, who is an “imperfect artist”, must be given sympathy and clarity at every collection of scratches, lines, and dots. Kurt calls this “the bad news”, but that’s in comparison to the American freedom of being able to write whatever we want. However, this is where I would divert the “Good Time Vonnegut Advice Train” and bring up the concept of respect in opposition to thinly implied condescension.

Though, I praise his view on the difficulty of the art of reading, I would suggest here to respect your readers by really knowing your audience. This is all part of building your authorial platform now, but in a lot of instances avid readers become writers of the genre/style they enjoyed reading to begin with — not writing for yourself, but writing the things you want to read and hoping others want to read it, too!

8) For really detailed advice.

You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself, if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say.

Here, Kurt commends to our attention The Elements of Style written, of course, by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White. Kurt references 1979 MacMillan version, but here’s the Fourth Edition from 1999. There are some “bogus” newer versions on Amazon.com, but they are the “free” versions of the 1918 edition that Strunk wrote alone. If there is a newer Strunk & White, please let me know in the comments!

Which authors do you seek out for writing advice?