12 October 2011

Kurt Vonnegut on writing

Kurt Vonnegut certainly knew how to write, so any advice from him is certainly worth taking seriously. Here are some tips from him, which were originally published in IEEE Transactions on Professional Communications Vol. PC-24, no. 2 (1980), pp. 66–67 (you can find a pdf of the original here):

  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
The one thing I disagree with is the closing section of his article in which he advises people to go to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style for more detailed advice. To understand why this is really bad advice, one need look no further than Geoff Pullum’s excellent article ‘The Land of the Free and The Elements of Style. His conclusion is worth quoting:
The Elements of Style does real and permanent harm. It encourages the waste of precious resources – time spent by teachers, students, and copy editors; money spent by English departments and publishers. Genuine faults in writing go neglected because time is spent on nonsense like which-hunting. And worse than that, sensible adults are wrongly persuaded that their grasp of their native tongue is imperfect and their writing is incorrect. No good purpose is served by damaging people’s self-confidence in this way.

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