Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) was a famous American writer. He was considered to be one of the most outrageously creative writers of our time, and indeed time figures prominently in much of his work – such as in his semi-autobiographical novel Timequake. His most famous work, ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ came out of his experiences in WWII as prisoner of war.
In 1982, Vonnegut wrote a short piece for the International Paper Company titled simply, ‘How to Write with Style.’ He began his essay by first considering the question of “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 chowder-head — or worse, they will stop reading you.” For me as an both an editor and a reader this is a critical point, because if you, as an author, become incensed easily and become irate at hearing honest opinions from your beta-readers or editors, you are not a professional, you are only writing for your own amusement. If you are doing this only for your ego, then by all means enjoy writing whatever falls out of your head the same naïve way as a child enjoys playing house – do it and have fun, but be aware it’s only pretend – if you can’t take criticism you are only pretending to be an author. Just don’t ask me to tell you what I think of it, because I respect the time it takes out of your life to write far too much to tell you your work is lovely when we all know, every ms has flaws.
2. Find a subject you care about. Let’s be real – if we don’t love a subject with some amount of passion, it is difficult to wax poetic about it. But when you are passionate, you can’t stop discussing it; it takes all your attention and you find new things to say about it every day.
3. Do not ramble, though. What a sense of humor! He was right – keep it brief! Don’t spend 50 words when 10 will do. The longer a sentence is the more opportunity an author has to weaken it. I am terrible at putting this concept into action!
4. Keep it simple. (note to self) Simplicity is the Key To Not Rambling!
5. Have the guts to cut. Sometimes an author is in love with a particular sentence or paragraph – and it may be one which, to an editor, doesn’t really work. You must be prepared to divorce the sentences you are married to! This happens to me all the time – and now I try not to cry when my most beautiful, alliterative prose is given the boot. 9 times out of 10 tossing out the offending gibberish improves the reader’s experience. After all, this isn’t only an ego trip – it’s the reader I am writing for, right?
6. Sound like yourself. You may find this to be a ‘Well, duh!’ moment, but take a moment to think about how you actually speak. Do you say “I shall meet you anon.”? …er…no… probably not. I usually say, “I’ll meet you as soon as I can.” Write it the way it feels most comfortable to say it. (Thank you Carlie Cullen for helping me to understand this concept!)
7. Say what you mean to say. Another ‘Well, duh!’ moment, you might say; but think about how hard it is to express your thoughts when you are trying to verbally describe how to get from your house to the Wal-Mart in the next town over! Use the words which most clearly express your thoughts. Don’t use vague words to describe simple things – don’t say ‘red marks that started to bleed slightly’ if what you mean to describe are ‘bloody scratches’.
8. Pity the readers. Don’t make your readers want to put down your book at the end of the first page. Write the sort of story you want to read – put yourself in the reader’s place. All we dedicated readers really want is the best tale we’ve ever read!
Is that too much to ask?
No, and maybe. We’re only human after all so mixed in with our flashes of literary brilliance are the occasional things which do well to line the bottom of the bird-cage with.
As writers, we struggle to grow every day, and yes, there are times when what we put to paper isn’t our best work. But that is where having the guts to cut is important.
I just hate it when one of my most beautiful turns of phrase during the first draft of a tale become not-so-pretty in the second draft and ends up on the verbage-heap when the editing is done!