Vonnegut’s Rules

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:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one idea he or she can root for and take away.
  3. Every idea, even those of your opponents, should have a motivation for which your view can account, and should be there for a reason.
  4. Every sentence must do one of three things—raise an important question, reveal a dimension of the problem, or advance the argument.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. 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.
  7. Write to please just one person.
  8. 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….

2 thoughts on “Vonnegut’s Rules

  1. My favorite Vonnegut moment is in the Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School where he has Kurt Vonnegut write his book report. The teacher than says, “I tell you one thing about the person who wrote this report, he doesn’t know the first thing about Vonnegut.” Which captures the essense of Freshman English teachers.

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