Kurt Vonnegut— 7 Rules from “How to Write with Style”

autumnforestiStock_000015040283XSmallI’ve just come back from a walk in the woods where the changing patterns of autumn colors and sunlight reminded me of this quotation:

“Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as a painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.”

—Truman Capote

Rearranging the rules = Style. Style is the unique way that a writer connects with his or her readers.

Kurt Vonnegut offered seven rules in his essay “How to Write with Style.”

1.  “Find A Subject You Care About. Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

2. Do Not Ramble.

3. Keep It Simple. 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 just 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.

4. Have The Guts To Cut. If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

5. Sound Like Yourself. The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child . . . I myself find that 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 Mean. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledly-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.

7. Pity The Readers. Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately . . .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.”

(You can read Vonnegut’s complete essay HERE.)

If you compare works from Capote and Vonnegut, you will discover two great writers with two distinct styles. How is your writing style unique? How do you rearrange the rules to suit yourself?


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Filed under Tools for Writers, Uncategorized, Writing craft, Writing Style

2 responses to “Kurt Vonnegut— 7 Rules from “How to Write with Style”

  1. I like this, Jean! I’ve seen writers struggle over developing their style, and to me it should evolve organically, with help from these principles. The best advice I ever got about style was to “Relax. It will come.”

    Thanks for sharing. Have a great week! 🙂

    • I agree with you, Karen. I love working with kids because their writing style isn’t dampened yet by rules. As they become more mature writers, I encourage them to incorporate the rules into their writing style rather than make their style fit the rules.

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