Showing some style

Today’s advice comes from Kurt Vonnegut, but you should also say thanks to International Paper. As part of its 1980 advertising, the big corporation convinced the author of “Slaughterhouse Five” to jot down 1,300 words or so under the heading “How To Write With Style.”

I don’t entirely agree with Vonnegut, which I realize is a dangerous position to take. He found a lot more success with his writing business than I ever did with mine. Even so…

He starts out noting that newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writing, and that this is somehow freakish. Revealing something about yourself is what style is all about, he says.

Well, now. It’s true that reporters and tech writers aren’t supposed to make themselves part of their stories. That’s not quite the same thing as scrubbing your writing of style. I’ve seen news stories and technical writing that simply oozed style. They’re rare, but not because they are undesirable.

Once we get past that misstep, though, I’m squarely in Vonnegut’s camp. Here, then, are the broad outlines of his advice:

  1. Find a subject you care about. If you are writing an angry letter to the mayor about the pothole in front of your house, you’ll do it with feeling. Look for additional things you have feelings about.
  2. Do not ramble, though. Vonnegut’s detailed advice: “I won’t ramble on about that.”
  3. Keep it simpleHamlet’s “To be or not to be” is considered pretty good writing, and the longest word in that opening phrase has only three letters.
  4. Have guts to cutIf a sentence does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.
  5. Sound like yourselfVonnegut describes the common speech of his native Indianapolis as sounding “like a band saw cutting galvanized tin,” but he didn’t try to sound like Shakespeare or even Mark Twain. “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 meanIf you want people to understand you, don’t be coy about your point. Readers have a hard enough job without you trying to do with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what jazz musicians do with music.
  7. Pity the readers. This is really an extension of No. 6. Think of how many years you spent in school learning to instantly identify all those thousands of little marks on paper, all the spelling, all the punctuation. Use the system we’ve been given so that your readers can navigate easily.
  8. For really detailed advice… Vonnegut recommends “The Elements of Style,” by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. My copy is only 85 pages, and that’s pretty concise for a book on writing.

You can read the original, unabridged version here.

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