Three Longs & Three Shorts

How to write with style

Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Source: IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication (

At Marcellus we care deeply about thinking, talking and writing clearly. Not only does it allow us to communicate better with the outside world, it also forces us to clarify our thinking. So, when we found a piece by one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Kurt Vonnegut, on how to write well, we had to share it with you.
Vonnegut says that to write well you need to get a few things lined up:
  1. “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.” This explains why for many of us our first writing (outside of high school essays) tends to be about the first love in our adolescent life.
  2. Do not ramble. Keep it terse. “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.”
  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 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.”
  4. Sound like yourself: “The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child.”
  5. Say what you mean to say. Avoid jazz-style writing. Avoid imitating other writers: “…write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously…”
  6. Keep in mind that your reader is likely to be a busy person. The harder you make it for her to understand the thousands of words you have scribbled on the page, the less likely she will be to take to your writing.
  7. If you care about writing well then train yourself to write well. Vonnegut recommends reading “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr and EB White.