Writing Advice from Kurt Vonnegut

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Kurt Vonnegut is one the quintessential American writers of the last century. His works played a large role in inspiring me to be a lifelong reader and constant writer. He himself wrote as a product of his fascination with life. This reached from his mind, through his books and into the imaginations of armies of readers and writers.

During his lifetime, he mastered his art of putting ink to paper. He was gracious enough to give many pieces of writing wisdom in interviews throughout his career. Here are some of my favorites.

“Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”

(From Bagombo Snuff Box)

This particular rule has helped my writing more than any other of his, or anyone’s, advice. It reminds us to cut the fat off our stories. As writers, we must make sure to not waste our readers’ time. The best short story writers craft every sentence carefully and waste no ink. Every word belongs and every sentence does something for the story. In a world of wasted breath, a truly honed sentence is fresh air.

This is one item from his “8 Rules for Writing” list. The list should be reread by aspiring and prolific writers often.

“Sound like yourself.”

(From Writing with style)

One of the common pitfalls for writers struggling to find their own voice is that they often fail to use their own voice. When I first began writing, I spent much of my time trying to write like Jack Kerouac. I read back on these early pieces of mine and cringe now, but at the time I thought I was doing what I needed to become a successful writer. It was only when I finally let go and started writing my own voice the way I think and speak (I don’t bother to write down the “ums” and “uhs”), I found writing came easier.

Writing is already a difficult task. Let’s not throw acting into the mix.

“I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives.”

(From a personal letter)

This is less writing advice than life advice, but any writer would do well to live by it. In a letter he wrote a year before his death, he tells a group of school kids that they need to practice any sort of art, whether it be painting, music, writing, acting—anything. “…no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

Some of us writers get caught up in the attempt to publish and make money. Some of us want to meet Oprah, be number one on the New York Times bestseller list, or be the next great American author. We can’t forget what the point of all this is. We write to know ourselves and to take what we experience, feel, imagine and put in down on paper. Let’s focus less on this arbitrary system and focus more on making our souls grow.

And whatever you do, always be writing.

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