Celebrated U.S. science fiction and all-round weird writer Kurt Vonnegut was born on November 11th, 1922, and to mark the occasion, some sites have been running birthday tributes, including his tips to other writers. For Vonnegut was an articulate and direct advisor to aspirants, in a style almost as straightforward and unadorned as his prose, distilled in his “How to Write With Style,” available in full online, and summarized as follows:
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
On top of this, Vonnegut added an eighth rule: “For really detailed advice. For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, in a more technical sense, I recommend to your attention The Elements of Style, by William 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.”
Vonnegut’s less well-sung rules, on how to write a short story but applicable to longer forms, were a little more acerbic:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
Vonnegut was renowned for the simplicity of his style, resembling George Orwell in this. He attributed this sparse approach to his time as a high school journalist. “The simplicity … of my writing was caused by the fact that my audience was composed of sophomores, juniors, and seniors.” he recalled in conversation with Charles Reilly in 1980. “I worked hard to achieve as pure a style as I could.” So if you ever come across a touch of the sophomoric in his style, at least you can see where it’s coming from, and take this into account.