Kurt Vonnegut

Eight rules for writing fiction:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

— Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.

In 1982, Vonnegut wrote a short piece for the International Paper Company titled simply, “How to Write with Style.” He begins the essay by considering why we should strive to improve our writing style:

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.

He then offers seven deceptively simple principles:

  • Find a subject you care about.
  • Do not ramble, though.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Have the guts to cut.
  • Sound like yourself.
  • Say what you mean to say.
  • Pity the readers.

Pity our readers? Vonnegut goes on to explain that 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. That is the bad news.” At one time or another we’ve probably all felt that impulse to “soar”–by extending a brilliant metaphor, perhaps, or stretching a terribly clever sentence. Why do we resist? Because in the back of our minds we hear our readers insisting, “Come on now, get on with it. Get to the point.”

“The good news,” Vonnegut continues, “is that we Americans are governed under a unique Constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.”

Tal Benisty

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