“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. I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.”

“As for your use of language: 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 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.”

“English was Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. 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. [ … ] No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens to not be standard English, and if it shows itself when your write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue. I myself 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?”

“My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. They hoped that I would become understandable — and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.”

Source: Kurt Vonnegut Explains “How to Write With Style”


4 responses to “Vonnegut on Writing Great Short Stories”

  1. mimispeike Avatar

    At work last night I read a few pages of a book, 4 3 2 1 (that’s the name). It has few dialog tags, uses no quotation marks, I wasn’t trying to follow the story so I didn’t care. It has tremendous comments in the front sales section, the cover says ‘Shortlisted for the Mann Booker Prize’ – I wanted to see why. Why is this man hailed as a near genius?

    I’ll have to read more of the thing. It’s almost a thousand pages! One blurb says, an important example of Realism. I want to see what this thing consists of, but a thousand pages? Of the growing up of a kid from Newark (I think)? Maybe a few chapters will tell me what I want to know.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. curtisbausse Avatar

    There are many things I care about but I don’t know if I’d use them as a starting point for a book. I start with a story line and some characters, and during the writing there’ll always be a place for the other things I care about.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Sue Ranscht Avatar

    I think writing is fundamentally different from visual art in terms of the way we interpret them. While we understand the basic building blocks of both (the vocabulary, syntax, and rhythm of one, and the colors, shapes, and movement of the other), we crave to understand fiction and non-fiction, but are satisfied with a purely emotional reaction to visual art even if we have no idea what drove the artist or what — if anything — it’s supposed to mean.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. mimispeike Avatar

    I’m still thinking about this. I never choose a subject that I care about. I find a character that I care about. And I let him tell me his story. And I often don’t know what that story is going to be.


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