How to Write with Style: Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Keys to the Power of the Written Word

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922–April 11, 2007) has given us some of the most timeless advice on the art and craft of writing — from his 8 rules for a great story to his insights on the shapes of stories to his formidable daily routine. But hardly anything examines the subject with a more potent blend of practical advice and heart than Vonnegut’s 1985 essay “How to Write with Style,” published in the wonderful anthology How to Use the Power of the Printed Word (public library) — a superb addition to history’s finest advice on writing.

Vonnegut begins with an admonition against the impersonal sterility of journalistic reporting — something particularly important amidst contemporary debates about how personal the writerly persona should be — and a meditation on the single most important element of style:

Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writing. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.

These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time. Does the writer sound ignorant or informed, stupid or bright, crooked or honest, humorless or playful–? And on and on.

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 reader will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an ego maniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you.

The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don’t you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show or make you think about? Did you ever admire an empty-headed writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.

So your own winning style must begin with ideas in your head.

Vonnegut goes on to outline eight rules for great writing:

  1. Find a Subject You Care About
  2. Do Not Ramble, Though
  3. Keep It Simple
  4. Have the Guts to Cut
  5. Sound like Yourself
  6. Say What You Mean to Say
  7. Pity the Readers
  8. For Really Detailed Advice

Complement with Vonnegut on the shapes of storiesthe secret of happiness, his daily routine, and his life-advice to his children.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, dive into this evolving library of great writers’ collected wisdom on the craft, including Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

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