Good old Brain Pickings continues to come up with the goods with this gem How to Write with Style: Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Keys to the Power of the Written Word and his points are worth summarising (and committing to memory). The opening comments give a great insight to Vonnegut’s perspective on writing.
Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writing. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.
Being trained to write either for an academic, government or citizen audience, I certainly have learnt the lesson of removing my voice from the writing. This is because the purpose of the majority of my writing activity has focused on conveying ‘objective’ information: either to present an argument or to give factual information to stakeholders and audiences. To write for the purpose of engaging readers is a relatively new experience, and one I hope to develop. Vonnegut offers some excellent guidance for writers and I have learnt a lot via Maria Popova’s posts on Brain Pickings. Here is an abbreviated version of his 8 Keys to the Power of the Written Word :
- 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.
- Do Not Ramble, Though: I won’t ramble on about that.
- 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.
- 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.
- Sound like Yourself: The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish.
- Say What You Mean to Say: I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. 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. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable — and therefore understood.
- Pity the Readers: Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years.
- For Really Detailed Advice: For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, a more technical sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style, by Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White. E. B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.
Another article on Brain Pickings titled Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Great Story is also really helpful in terms of developing characters and writing with purpose. He states that:
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
I love his last point about cockroaches eating the last few pages. That for me is never an issue as I tend to read the last few pages first. I don’t know why, it is a habit that started in childhood that I have never relinquished. There is something about backtracking though a story, that I enjoy as a reader. I also use this process to work out if a book is worth reading – if the conclusion doesn’t draw me in as a reader, then I am unlikely to be engaged in the rest of the story. If the end blows my mind, then I can’t wait to read the rest of the text 🙂