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How To Write With Style (1999) (novelr.com)
281 points by mrzool on Feb 9, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 79 comments

I absolutely adore Vonnegut. Reading his works taught me more about writing than any English teacher and formed my world view more than any other author. I wish I could have met him before he passed, but it is hard not to feel like you're conversing directly with him through his books.

I had the good fortune to hear him speak at my university in the late 1990s. Fantastic. Notably, he talked just like he wrote - good-natured, quirky, avuncular, a little bit cynical.

For what it's worth, when you read Vonnegut, you're getting the real Vonnegut. He put his heart into his writings, leaving all of us (and future generations) the richer for it.

That's interesting to hear!

I always felt like Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain were cut from the same cloth, but my impression was that Vonnegut was a bit too cynical (perhaps for perfectly understandable reasons) and his writing was less cynical than his person, whereas Twain came across as more WYSIWYG. It's nice to hear that his 'quirky, avuncular' side was very present in-person.

Hold on, in a comparison between Vonnegut and Twain it ended up being Vonnegut who came off as too cynical? I've had the exact opposite reaction. Twain is borderline unreadable at points due to what seems like a near crippling cynicism just barely holding back from becoming outright whining.

Hmm. I read most of my Vonnegut after Twain, so it's possible that it's rather my own 'relationship' with cynicism that changed. I guess I'll have to re-read something from both!

As someone who hasn't read any Vonnegut, what would you recommend I read first?

The Big Two are Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five. They're the two you're mostly likely to end up talking with someone about, or to have familiarity assumed by an article or something. If we were to make it a Big Three the third one would be Breakfast of Champions.

His worst are probably Slapstick and Timequake, and the latter's so full of references to his earlier works that you wouldn't want to make it an early read regardless.

The short fiction/non-fic collections published during his lifetime are generally great. Big exception for A Man Without a Country which was pretty mediocre overall. Anything posthumous is suspect and should be deferred until you've worked through the earlier stuff, if not avoided entirely. Not that there's nothing good in there, it's just that the average quality is way lower.

Personal favorites of mine that don't generally make best-of lists are Deadeye Dick and Bluebeard. If you're reading him for the sci-fi connection rather than as general fiction, you want the Big Two plus Sirens of Titan (which would probably be #4 in a "big four" as far as importance-to-have-read) mainly.

I've read all the books you mentioned other than Slapstick and agree with your synopsis and recommendations.

I'd personally start with Cat's Cradle over Slaughterhouse Five. Deadeye Dick is strange and hilarious, but probably better after reading a few of his books first. :)

> Deadeye Dick is strange and hilarious, but probably better after reading a few of his books first. :)

Probably true about Bluebeard, too. Both read almost as a review of the major themes and messages of Vonnegut's work, though Bluebeard more so than Deadeye Dick.

Slaughterhouse-five - probably his most well-known work, and at least partly based on his own experiences in Dresden in World War II.

It's a very Vonnegut book, and a great gateway to the rest of his writing.

Second vote for Slaughterhouse Five - the "war backwards" section of the book, to me, is one of the most beautiful passages in any novel I have ever read.


I liked the Sirens of Titan. Here, read a couple of pages: https://www.flickr.com/photos/romasita/2766136797

For some additional context, Sirens of Titan is one of his earlier works. The grammar is also more "standard", and is a more straightforward read than some of his more famous works.

Slapstick was one of my favorites, plenty of sarcasm to go around. I've been trying to get through Player Piano (his first novel) but it's a tad dry.

Cat's Cradle. Not too long. Themes include science, apocalypse, and religion.

I was on a tear with his stuff in my mid 20's until I read Galapagos, which was so depressing, pessimistic and cynical I ended up deciding that would be the last book of his I'd read. He's certainly talented.

Read 30 pages or so into Galapagos as I picked it up on a shelf at an AirBNB I passed through. His point about humans living as long as their teeth has always stuck with me.

This is good advice, but I've seen huge successes by authors and article writers who violate these rules (the recent trend of long literary fiction such as 'City on Fire', which is 900 pages). Nowadays, the trend is towards longer, 'epic' fiction with post-modern themes, whereas in Vonnegut's day (along with Heinlein, Asimov etc.) 'short' was better. Up until as recently as the 90's, 'short' was ideal, but all that changed. Look at Harry Potter and other popular books...all very long. It also deepens on the audience and the purpose...if you're trying to convey technical information , fluff is undesirable

I think authors from the 50’s/60’s/70’s often wrote shorter books because they worked their way up writing for pulps and magazines. After the market for that stuff dried up authors seemed to start writing more open ended stories.

I read Slaughterhouse Five recently and I dunno. Maybe I'm burned out on WW2 or maybe I'm lowbrow, but mostly I was bored. Guy has a bad wartime experience and then goes crazy and something about aliens, I guess. OK, on to the next book.

Slaughterhouse Five has been my least favorite Vonnegut that I've read. However, I've absolutely loved the other few that I've read, most recently Cat's Cradle.

Thank you for the suggestion, I'll have to dig that up.

I have a similar opinion -- though I dislike Timequake more ;)

Both Cat's Cradle and Sirens of Titan I thought were great.

With writing, music, and perhaps even software it is best to know and understand the rules and be able to use them before you start breaking them. When you do, you'll know why and do so for a purpose.

His advice has nothing to do with page count. I imagine that he would think Anna Karenina a work of genius. The book he recommends at the end, The Elements of Style, goes into more detail about exactly how to prune. Here's one of its popular quotes:

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

Of course that just is an introduction. The books goes on with many guidelines and lots of examples that really made it sink in for me.

Bad writers don't follow the rules. Good writers follow all the rules. Great writers know which rules to break when, and why, and have good reasons for doing so.

That trend is absolutely normal and except Harry Potter nothing else is good literature. And Harry Potter is only good literature because it is a great story, a really good adventure epic. The rest are mere products, completely forgettable, in the same way modern pop is not going to be remembered through generations.

I dunno about the trend, but modern novels like Infinite Jest are 900+ pages long. Same with the works of Karl Ove Knausgård, and other, good authors.

Those Russian guys were writing pretty big novels 150 years ago too, though. I will say that War and Peace was a much faster read (at least for me) than Infinite Jest - though I greatly enjoyed both, in very different ways.

The problem for me with Harry Potter, is that it's ALL from his viewpoint. If Harry didn't see it happen, then it didn't happen. There's absolutely no other point of view presented in the novels, and the final two are just simply written diarrhea, with a rushed 'blink and you miss it' ending.

Mechanically, it doesn't work for the reader to inhabit the head of, say, Dumbledore. First, Harry as outsider lets the author introduce new concepts like magic gently and slowly so it's relatable to the reader, and secondly part of the reason you choose first-person perspective is that it lets you keep the audience unaware of the big picture until you want them to see it.

Latter day Heinlein novels are anything but short. And very rambling - still sold in droves though, and are mostly good reads, but nowhere near as sharp and observational as his early work.

I'd like to see a return to the sub-200 page novel. Nice quick reads, one-shot stories, for when you tire of yet another 10 book epic.

I've heard it said now, that Publishers won't even consider your manuscript unless you've already got another two completed sequels in your back pocket. It's all about the money.

Sometimes I think to be able to write with style, have style, and be an engaging speaker you need to have experience and have led an interesting life. No one is just born with any of this, and I don't know of any teacher that can suddenly make someone interesting. And indeed, most of my favourite authors seem to have led interesting lives.

Living an interesting life helps a lot, but being observant is much more important. There are plenty of people with great style who have lived boring lives. Emily Dickinson, Proust, and Wallace Stevens are three of the more obvious examples that come to mind.

I can think of one great example of this. Charles Lindbergh won the Pulitzer prize in 1954 for his Spirit of St. Louis autobiography. He worked on it for 15 years and refused to use a ghost writer, and the result was a masterpiece. Between his poetic writing style and the mountains of fascinating details leading up to the historic trans-Atlantic flight, I wouldn't hesitate to rank it as the most inspiring book I have ever read.


I got a hold of my old copy of the book and wanted to share an excerpt from the first page:

> Searching memory might be compared to throwing the beam of a strong light, from your hilltop campsite, back over the road you traveled by day. Only a few of the objects you passed are clearly illuminated; countless others are hidden behind them, screened from the rays. There is bound to be some vagueness and distortion in the distance. But memory has advantages that compensate for its failings. By eliminating detail, it clarifies the picture as a whole. Like an artist's brush it finds higher value in life’s essence than in its photographic intricacy.

I can flip to any page and find a sentence or two that I've underlined for being as well written as the page above.

I think an interesting life is important. I also think, though, that many people lead far more interesting lives than they realize. Some people are better than others at noticing and extracting the interesting parts of what would otherwise be humdrum everyday tedium.

I disagree - I think it more has to do with being able to recognize and communicate how complicated even the most seemingly simple things are, but in an elegant way.

Maybe that's a byproduct of living an exciting life, but to me, it represents someone who pauses and observes, taking countless mental notes in everyday life, considering things with an open mind from all angles. Then, most importantly, practice communicating all of this. Nobody is born a good writer/speaker, like most things, it's just a lot of work.

Every person has an internal life that is completely unique, and can be vastly complex. Some good storytellers know how to weave their inner tensions and wanderings into a narrative.

Then again, I've met people who can tell the story of eating breakfast and have me eating every word up

Yes! The davesecretary stories [1] are a great example of that. I think good writing is more about the attitude of pulling a fast one on the reader's mind (in the good sense), it doesn't require unusual life experience.

[1] http://tilde.club/~maryr/TIMEFORSOMESTORIES.html

'7. Pity the readers' follows from the curse of knowledge, namely that's it's hard to imagine what it's like not to know what you know. This applies in novels as much as in technical writing. For example, descriptions of landscapes are often ambiguous because the writer already has a picture of the landscape in mind.

I love Vonnegut's generosity and sympathy for his readers. They have a hard job; as writers, let's try to make it easier.

Also, "have guts to cut" is great. Will hang on to that.

In the same line Stephen King says: 'Kill your darlings'.

It's regrettable that he ends with praise for Strunk and White. There probably is such a thing as "good writing", but The Elements of Style does little to direct us to it. Its advice is largely specious. See what Pullum has to say about it: http://www.chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/...

Elements of Style hasn't always aged well, and Pullum's objections all touch on valid points. But I'll rally to EoS's defense in two crucial areas:

1. Strunk & White got it right when they declared: "Good writing is done with verbs and nouns; bad writing is done with adjectives." That is timeless advice. It's inevitable, in our first drafts, that we sketch out our ideas with flabby verbs and then rely on gaudy adjectives to convey energy and conviction. Find the right verb -- usually in the course of editing our own work -- and both problems fix themselves. Overwrought adjectives vanish; better verbs command the show.

2. Omit needless words. This is wiser advice than it seems. If we write first drafts in conversational English -- or corporate English -- we're likely to pad out our sentences with many empty words. Conversational English pelts our writing with "very," "that," "really," "literally," "in order to" and so on. Corporate English loads us up with "systems," "process," "viable," and so on.

If we tried to be as concise as possible in our first drafts, we'd spend all day working on two sentences. Write fast, in whatever dialect of English comes most naturally. Get a first version visible in some kind of form. Then take time to fix it.

From the comments I found the original and the origin in quite interesting.



Kurt Vonnegut: “How To Write With Style”

Bill Cosby (before he became a TV sitcom superstar): “How To Read Faster”

Malcolm Forbes: “How To Write a Business Letter"

Walter Cronkite: “How To Read A Newspaper”

And George Plimpton: “How To Make a Speech,” among others.

Also enjoy Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules


and of course if you love Cormac McCarthy (as I do) no rules appear to apply.


And Faulkner...


I have never read anything by Vonnegut, so my opinion is exclusively based on the linked blog post. I find his writing to be difficult to understand. Usually I can plow through anything at lightning speed but with this post I found my self backtracking several times. Is it just me? All of the suggestions are excellent. But it's ironic that an essay on how to write clearly and with style is a bit difficult to actually read.

I have a similar experience when reading his books. However, I do feel like I should be testing through them much more smoothly. The ideas in them are great though. I think it is nice how he expresses big ideas seemingly very simply (some ideas do take the bigger part of his books to be expressed so simply)

Interesting, I am going to check him out.

It's you. This was not an essay about how to write clearly, it was an essay about how to write with style. Not (necessarily) the same thing.

True, but a large portion was devoted to writing simply and clearly, using everyday words.

I can't believe that this reference to Vonnegut comes up on HN, when I happen to come to a point in Keys to Great Writing by Stephen Wilburs where he mentions his name.

I had never heard of Vonnegut before this. Suggestion for a good book by him to start with?

Proof: https://imgur.com/U0Z2aKp

I highly recommend starting with Cat's Cradle over Slaughterhouse Five, especially if you like thinking about religion (and the silliness of religion, dictators, and technology)

UPDATE: Thank you all for the suggestions. I will pick up Cat's Cradle next :)

By the way, the Keys to Great Writing is an awesome book. It has made me critique everything I write, in a good way. I even thought twice before submitting this comment.

UPDATE 2: Fix: Use the verb critique rather than critic (one who does that).

In the spirit of helpfulness, I think you mean "critique". :-)

Yes! Thanks :)

Oh you are in for a treat! Cat's Cradle is a great one to start with, easy to get into and an excellent balance of clever and funny. Mother Night is superb, gripping and profound.

Cat's Cradle is also excellent. Honestly just dive in.

My favorite of his is Mother Night. The moral being: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

Breakfast of Champions if you want to read something outrageously funny and a little bit sad.

Cat's Craddle is a light and entertaining introduction to Vonnegut's general insanity.

His most famous novel (I think) is Slaughterhouse-Five. I enjoyed it a lot. So it goes.

One thing that stood out for me was: do it for the people (readers).

In my opinion more and more is done with money in mind. And the results suck. And not only does it suck for the users but also for producers because in the end it will eat on them.

Maybe all the advice could be summed up as: be human in what you do.

I highly recommend Steven Pinker's "The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century".

It is full of practical advice. I've read a lot of amateur (students/hobbyists) writing, so I can say his advice addresses a lot of common mistakes.

[] https://www.amazon.com/Sense-Style-Thinking-Persons-Writing/...

The style described isn't a personal style or expression of your personality. It's the style of standard business or technical writing. But it's still a good summary.

I think that, for technical writing which is the majority of the articles read/written by the HN crowd, _Plain Words_ is a better lead to follow.

I think even technical writing, this article is relevant. Sometimes people gloss over the important things and drill down into details that are not as relevant to the reader in technical pieces. It's good to remember, for example, to stay on subject and not ramble.

Sure, but I think reading _Plain Words_ will (take longer &) give a better framework for writing great documentation.

I've had friends praise Vonnegut's writing. For those who have read his works, where's the best place to begin?

The other books mentioned here are also great, but I think Cat's Cradle is the best book to start with.

Mother Night is one that gets less attention, but it's a hell of a book.

I second this. I've read a lot of his books, with Breakfast of Champions being my current favorite, but I'm halfway through Mother Night and I gotta say it's my new favorite.

It might not be the best place, but an easy entry is Welcome to the Monkey House. It's a collection of 25 short stories that were published in magazines in the '50s and '60s.

Slaughterhouse Five is probably his most famous, but I think Breakfast of Champions is his best.

so it goes

> The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique Constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment.


We are because he was.

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