image Kurt Vonnegut’s Advice for Writers

kurtvonnegutadvice

Kurt Vonnegut, author of 14 novels including Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions, wrote an advertisement for the International Paper Company back in 1980 on the importance of the printed work. That may have been 36 years ago, but his words still ring true. Here are my favourite tidbits:

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.”

Have the guts to cut. “It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. 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.”

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.”

These all circle around the same idea: focus on clarity and simplicity. But as you can see from Vonnegut’s eloquence, clarity does not have to equal dullness.

See the full PDF here.

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