Kurt Vonnegut on Writing With Style

"Have the guts to cut"

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007). (Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who died in April 2007 at the age of 84, was one of the most playfully distinctive stylists in modern American literature. He also had some useful stylistic advice to pass along.

In 1982, Vonnegut wrote a short piece for the International Paper Company titled simply, "How to Write with Style." He begins the essay by considering 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 chowderhead--or worse, they will stop reading you.
He then offers seven deceptively simple principles:
  • Find a subject you care about.
  • Do not ramble, though.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Have the guts to cut.
  • Sound like yourself.
  • Say what you mean to say.
  • Pity the readers.


Pity our readers? Vonnegut goes on to explain that 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. That is the bad news." At one time or another we've probably all felt that impulse to "soar"--by extending a brilliant metaphor, perhaps, or stretching a terribly clever sentence. Why do we resist?

Because in the back of our minds we hear our readers insisting, "Come on now, get on with it. Get to the point."

"The good news," Vonnegut continues, "is that we Americans are governed under a unique Constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited."

Finally, what Vonnegut has to say about E. B. White might be applied just as accurately to the author of Slaughterhouse Five and "How to Write with Style": "No one would care how well or how badly [he] expressed himself, if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say."

We'll certainly miss the perfectly enchanting--and provocative and illuminating--things that Kurt Vonnegut had to say.

To find out how other great writers have defined and characterized style, please visit What Is Style?