How to write with style

8 non-obvious insights from the master of personality

Hey — it’s Nathan.

3 weeks ago, I wrote about Kurt Vonnegut’s Shapes of Stories theory.

And since then I’ve gone deep down the Vonnegut rabbit hole. Cat’s Cradle, Slapstick, The Sirens of Titan. One of the best writers of the 20th century.

But what stands out is the way Vonnegut writes. It’s so full of personality.

So, when I found his 1985 essay ‘How to write with style,’ I was thrilled. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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Word Choice

Someone asks me, “Nathan, what would you do if you had to start writing online from 0?”

I’d take David Perell’s Write of Passage. But it’s a big investment, so David’s running a free workshop on Sept. 21st to let you try the class before deciding if it’s for you or not.

David teaches writing for the internet unlike anybody else.

  • Unique Expression

  • Personal Monopolies

  • Embracing the Cringe

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You could pick up a blank book and, if Kurt Vonnegut wrote it, you’d know within a few minutes. That’s how distinctive his writing is.

He goes from talking about time travel to ruminating on the meaninglessness of existence to making fart jokes, all in the space of a few pages. But that’s Vonnegut's special talent — getting us to laugh while simultaneously shaking our heads in disbelief.

Without further ado…

Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing with style:

1. Find a subject you care about

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 1 would not be sony 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.

2. Do not ramble, though

I won't ramble on about that.

3. Keep it simple

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 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.

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.’

4. Have the guys to cut

It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. 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. Sound like yourself

The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph 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.

All these varieties of speech are beautiful, just as the varieties of butterflies are beautiful. No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens not to be standard English, and it shows itself when you 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? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

6. Say what you mean to say

I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. 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. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. 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 higgledly-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing if you have something worth saying and wish to 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.

7. Pity the readers

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.

So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. 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.

That is the bad news. 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. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.

8. For really detailed advice… go read The Elements of Style

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.

Next time you feel like your writing’s lacking that special sauce, I hope you return to this.

Have an awesome weekend,


Nathan’s Notes

5 things I found interesting this week:

A Sentence I Wish I Wrote

An idea I firmly believe is you can find as much wisdom, if not more, in fiction than non-fiction. Here’s a line from both a book and a movie. If you’re the 27th correct reply, I’ll send you a copy of Save The Cat.

“I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”

Want to go deeper on storytelling?

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2. To get ahead of the AI curve, check out 90-Minute Novel. It’s a 90-minute mini-course digging into writing fiction with AI. Prompts, processes, and more. We had 180+ students in the live session and it was awesome.

3. If you’re interested in starting or taking your newsletter to the next level, check out The Newsletter Playbook. 100 students and a 9.1 rating. Starts on Monday, Sept 18th.

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