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Kurt Vonnegut on Writing Better

"How to Write With Style" by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt VonnegutIn an essay from his 1981 collection, Palm Sunday, the wonderful Kurt Vonnegut offered simple, sensible advice on improving your writing. Love this bit on learning how to "sound like yourself":

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. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

The seven points, in all:

  1. Find a subject you care about
  2. Do not ramble, though
  3. Keep it simple
  4. Have guts to cut
  5. Sound like yourself
  6. Say what you mean
  7. Pity the readers

[via MetaFilter]

(Ask me about the time in 1986 that Kurt Vonnegut bought me breakfast.)

Update 2008-07-14 09:11:30: If you're curious, [here's my Kurt Vonnegut story](kung fu grippe, which I shared on another site of mine not long after his passing. What a good human Mr. Vonnegut was.

Kung Fu Grippe: "Tonight, I’m thinking about Kurt Vonnegut."

Tonight, I’m thinking about Kurt Vonnegut.

When I was about 17, I read Slaughterhouse-Five for the third or fourth time and, somewhere in there, the author unknowingly flipped a switch that would help make the difference between my going to college versus finding an apartment out by the airport, near the anonymous tan brick building where I could learn how to fix cash registers. (This is true. It was a very close call.)

A couple years after that, at a college that did not teach cash register repair, some friends and I arranged an independent project to read more than a dozen of Vonnegut’s books over seven weeks. Late in that semester, when the author came to speak on campus — and for which visit he collected the entirety of the school’s modest annual speaker’s budget — Kurt Vonnegut took everyone in our reading group out to brunch at the Hyatt. It was one of the best Saturday mornings ever. It was like Palm Sunday but with eggs and actual Pall Malls — with him carrying on about politics and madness and misunderstandings and annihilation. (This is true. He bought us all breakfast and he was really nice and generous and not just a little crazy.)

I’ve barely followed anything he’s done since Bluebeard, but Mr. Vonnegut’s humanity and sensitivity have always been a warm presence for me. He cared about the state of the sorry souls on the planet in a way that marks a lot of people as nuts, but, for this, I imagine he could give a good goddamn what people thought.

And, yeah, I’m sorry that I never got the chance as a grownup to buy him an omelette and say thanks for the words and for saving me from that tan cash register school out by the airport. I owe you one, Billy Pilgrim.

People aren’t suppose to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore. I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt. It begins like this: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” It ends like this: “Poo-tee-weet?” —Slaughterhouse-Five - Wikiquote

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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