At this point in your writing journey, you’ve probably read hundreds of writing tips by famous authors.
If you’re like me, you might file away your favorites and take them out whenever you need a dose of inspiration and motivation. Kurt Vonnegut’s 1985 essay “How to Write With Style” is a definite gem to add to your collection.
The author of the best-selling novel Slaughterhouse-Five outlines eight steps you can follow to improve your writing.
Want to learn how to write like Kurt Vonnegut? I’ve taken my favorite quotes from Vonnegut’s essay and presented them in a helpful infographic. Check it out below.
8 Rules From Kurt Vonnegut for Writing With Style
If you would like to read Vonnegut’s essay in its entirety, you can find it online here.
Here is the text of the infographic:
1. 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.”
2. Do not ramble, though
“I won’t ramble on about that.”
3. 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…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 and the earth.’”
4. Have the guts to cut
“Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”
5. Sound like yourself
“The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child…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.”
6. Say what you mean to say
“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. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing, if you have something worth saying and wish to 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.”
7. Pity the reader
“They have to identify thousands of little marks on paper,
and make sense of them immediately…So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify — whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.”
8. For really detailed advice
“For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, in a more technical sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White (Macmillan, 1979). E.B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced…”
Kurt Vonnegut certainly practiced what he preached. Although his fiction is not always to my taste, I do have to admit that he was a master of the craft.
Take the opening paragraph of Slaughterhouse-Five for example (Vonnegut, an American POW during WWII, based the book on his own experience of surviving the firebombing of Dresden):
All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.
The paragraph pulls you right into the story. The sentences are sparse and to the point. There are no unnecessary adjectives or flowery language. It makes you want to read more. Why was a guy shot for taking a teapot? Who were these enemies that this other guy wanted to have killed?
Vonnegut’s style is particularly suited to blogging. In this medium, we want to get our point across quickly. There are so many articles vying for our readers’ attention. If a reader isn’t hooked by the first paragraph, he’s probably not going to keep reading.
And he also won’t keep reading if the writing is too difficult to untangle. It’s important to write conversationally as if you were speaking to a friend: address the reader with the word “you”, use contractions, use short words, avoid the passive voice, and let your personality shine through.
If you enjoyed Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing with style, you might also like his eight rules for fiction writing. And here’s another bonus for all of you Vonnegut fans: a short video of Vonnegut presenting what he believes are the three different types of stories.