Writers in the Storm

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June 29, 2022

Top 10 Writing Success Tips from Kurt Vonnegut

Top 10 List

Over the last few years, I've shared "Top 10" lists from several authors on the topics of writing and success.

This list wouldn't be complete without Kurt Vonnegut, one of our great American writers. He has inspired writers around the globe like Norman Mailer, John Irving, Michael Crichton, Margaret Atwood, David Sedaris, and J. K. Rowling.

Plus, he always makes me smile. And his birthday is the day after mine.

Why Kurt Vonnegut Stands Out to Me

This is a man who had a terribly hard life and somehow managed to retain his sense of humor and hope.

He fought in World War II as a very young man and was captured and held as a POW by the German Army. He was held in Dresden and witnessed the Allied bombing that turned the city to rubble, killing more than 135,000 people. He was one of the few who survived. After the bombings there was more horror. The Germans forced him to dig up bodies from all the debris and burn them in huge bonfires.

The horror of that experience drove him to write his most famous book, Slaughterhouse-Five, an anti-war novel he published in 1969. The book was selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all time.

10 Favorite Tips from Kurt Vonnegut

Here are ten of my favorite Vonnegutisms on success, in life and in art.

1. Find a Subject You Care About

He urged writers to, "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."

This is actually one of the most difficult parts of noveling for me. Sustaining an idea, a story, a theme through hundreds of pages...in a way that keeps readers interested. That focus is exhausting for me and sometimes I've gotta stop, take a break, and write a short story or a few chapters in a different story.

(p.s. I guarantee if Laura Drake is reading this, her eye just started twitching. She's all, "story switching...shudders.")

Vonnegut is spot-on with the advice above. If we're interested, the reader is more likely to be interested too.

2. Write and Quit Your Damn Day Job

After selling his first story, Vonnegut wrote to his father and said this:

"I've deposited my first check in a savings account and, as and if I sell more, will continue to do so until I have the equivalent of one year's pay at GE (he was a publicity guy for them)...I will then quit this goddamn nightmare job, and never take another one so long as I live, so help me God."

Many of you have already quit those "goddamn nightmare day jobs." Others like me are still dreaming of the day. Regardless of where you are on the continuum of being able to write full-time, that's some good advice. I also suspect that writers made more per capita back then.

3. Write for your audience.

Vonnegut felt writing craft was important, and that you didn't learn it for you. Here's his take:

"Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your reader will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an ego maniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you."

4. Your reader's time is valuable.

  • Messy pages and lines waste the reader's time.
  • Write with simple language.

There are several bullet points under this one because he felt so strongly about it. He really thought every writer should keep the reader in mind at every stage in the process.

"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. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story ‘Eveline’ is just this one: ‘She was tired.’ At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

  • Write and cut.

Vonnegut had specific thoughts on what to cut from your novel.

"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."

5. Write off semicolons.

"All they do is show you have been to college," he said.

In many ways, this one could probably have been included in the previous point. However, Vonnegut didn't feel you needed to include semi-colons in those finished novel drafts. Ever. Since this made me laugh, it got it's own section.

6. Sound Like Yourself

Vonnegut understood the importance of "voice" and he explains it beautifully.

"The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child..I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.

"I 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?"

I have to tell y'all, that quote of his cleared something up for me.

I naturally slant toward Southern when I write. The voice in my head has a drawl. Since I did my primary and secondary education in California, that has never made sense to me until now. (I spent my early years in Virginia, Texas, and Missouri, interacting with an aunt who had a very pronounced Georgia drawl.)

7. Pity the reader.

This quote made me laugh.

"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."

"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."

8. His favorite style guide was Strunk & White.

"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.

"You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say."

Now I want to write something "perfectly enchanting." Heh.

9. Write stories with defined shapes.

The inspiration for this post came from reading this article and then watching this video a few weeks back. It's worth your 4 minutes. He's so very joyful.

Vonnegut taught writing at several different colleges and writing programs and it's probably safe to say we'd all have loved to be in his class. Amiright?

10. Write for yourself.

Kurt Vonnegut taught college classes but he would also periodically address younger audiences. He'd give them assignments like this:

"Write a six-line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don't tell anybody what you're doing. Don't show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever..OK?

"Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what's inside you, and you have made your soul grow."

In other words, write the stories inside you. Enjoy them. Wallow in them. I hope you get to watch your soul grow.

Have you read any of Vonnegut's work? Which of the ten tips above is your favorite? Which one is the most challenging for you? Please share your wisdom with us down in the comments!

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About Jenny

By day, Jenny Hansen provides corporate communications and LinkedIn advice for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Facebook at JennyHansenAuthor or at Writers In The Storm.


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26 comments on “Top 10 Writing Success Tips from Kurt Vonnegut”

  1. I love #6. I gave a talk at a library, and one of the audience members came up to me afterward and said, "I read your book, and you sound just like that when you talk."

  2. Vonnegut was a great writer. I've read several of his works, my favorite being Cat's Cradle.

    Of all the points you make, #4 is what I'm working hard on - getting rid of that which doesn't move the story forward.

    The one I may never be able to accomplish is #6 as I tend to be a mimic. Too many accents lurk about in my mind.

    The video is awesome. Thank you, Jenny!

    1. I haven't read Cat's Cradle yet, Ellen! But I heard wonderful things about it. Several of us in the comments have already rushed to reserve some Vonnegut books. 🙂 And #4 is hard because writing clearly and concisely is hard. I'm totally with you on that one...

  3. I love and agree with all these, but especially the two-part idea that you should write for you, but always keep YOUr audience in mind. Always. Finding all the cuts, though, that can be a challenge. The video was excellent, thank you.

  4. Vonnegut was a great choice. A great writer. (Though I disagree about semicolons; I think they are useful, in moderation.) Thanks for including the video clip. Gave me a smile and laughter to start my day.

    1. Ha! I see what you did there, Sher. I'd still have separated them into two sentences, but that's because I'm always worried that I'm doing it wrong, not because I don't like them.

  5. Great post. Great video. The more and more I work at this "author thing," the more I realize that we make it more complicated than it needs to be. The simplicity of what he says in the video captures our mission. It's that simple...and yet so hard.

    1. I agree with you, Chris. We just have to write our stuff. Then finish it and get an edit, try to use good structure, etc. But the biggest thing is to write OUR stories (that only we can tell).

  6. Great post, Jenny! Kurt's video never gets old. As Chris Lentz said, we make writing more complicated than it needs to be. I know that on one level, but holy cow bells, how does one relax and let it flow like a zen chant? Yes, to achieve simplicity is VERY hard.

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