The late Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing short stories. They’re excellent rules for writing any sort of fiction.
I wish more screenplay writers would follow these rules; movies might be a good deal better as a result. When I watch “deleted scenes” on a DVD, my respect for the writers always plummets. It’s always good that the scenes were deleted, and I generally wonder why anyone would have written them in the first place. I usually could add quite a few scenes that ought to have been deleted but weren’t. (A prominent exception: M. Night Shyamalan—a superb craftsman, in my view.)
Analogous rules apply to any kind of writing. Here is my adaptation of Vonnegut’s rules to academic writing. Rules 1, 5, 7, and 8 require no adaptation at all:
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one idea he or she can root for and take away.
- Every idea, even those of your opponents, should have a motivation for which your view can account, and should be there for a reason.
- Every sentence must do one of three things—raise an important question, reveal a dimension of the problem, or advance the argument.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a severe critic. No matter how brilliant your leading ideas, subject them to the most devastating objections you can imagine—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why….