Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 writing tips

Though intended for authors of fiction, these guidelines can help anyone stringing words together to convey a message. So it goes.

I’m a writer, so it’s natural that I’m also a book collector. Not your serious antique, first edition, autographed kind of book collector—just a guy with a penchant for good books. But I did have my once-in-five-years find at an antique store in northern Alabama: a pristine, leather-bound, 24-karat-gold-embossed, Easton Press edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s Bagombo Snuff Box, numbered to 1,700 and signed by Vonnegut (with a certificate of authenticity). Even better? I paid $19 for this treasure.

Interesting anecdote, but what’s in it for you? Well, in the introduction of his book, Vonnegut includes his eight creative writing tips. (See them online here.) Though they were drafted with creative writers in mind, they are applicable to content writers, marketing agencies, and business owners:

No. 1: “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”

Isn’t this what content writing and marketing are all about? Providing value? Writers are givers, natural sharers, and the best ones don’t have to ask for anything in return. Whether you’re hiring a team of content writers for your business or doing it all yourself, make sure the information that you put before an audience is chock full of value.

By the way, that’s the only way to get repeat readers and subscribers.

No. 2: “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.”

That “character” doesn’t have to be your business. I would encourage you to spotlight people/places/ideas/things that are not your business in at least half of your content. Writers who focus on themselves and their own business all the time are dull. Showcase something extraordinary that your readers would be interested in, and then get them behind it. Nashville-based blogger Jeff Goins does a great job of pushing other people’s agendas, in addition to his own.

No. 3: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

Every single story (literary, business, or otherwise) can be characterized by desire. Make sure your writing shows desire, feeds the desires of your readers, and encourages people to take action. In the marketing/content writing game, we refer to this as a call to action, an art of persuasion.

No. 4: “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”

Every sentence, Vonnegut? Really? Every sentence? Maybe there’s something to this idea. I can’t see it going over well with Proust or Malcolm Lowry, but when it comes to content writing, word economy is everything. Don’t go Seth Godin on us with your brevity, but make sure every sentence counts.

No. 5: “Start as close to the end as possible.”

I know I’m guilty of lengthy, overwritten introductions (perhaps even in this post), but getting as close to the “end” as possible is key for content writers and marketing agencies. For a depressing but challenging read, check out this piece from The Guardian on Internet readers’ attention spans. Convincing, isn’t it?

No. 6: “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

As a marketer or writer, you know this rule isn’t necessary. Awful things will happen to your clients (or you). When that does happen, follow Mr. Vonnegut’s advice and take it as an opportunity to show your audience just how awesome your company or client is.

OnlyWire, a company we rely on for services, sent an email that lives and breathes this attitude:

Bad things happen to every company on occasion. OnlyWire did the right thing and stepped up to make it right through a clear and direct email.

No. 7: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

Your blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc. can’t target everyone. Pick the audience you’re looking for, and then have your content writers create information that this target demographic will love. It’s much better than getting the shoulder shrug from an “audience” twice the size.

No. 8: “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

I can’t tell you how many business websites I’ve come across where it takes at least 30 seconds to figure out what the company even does. I’m sure you can relate. Direct and succinct content writing, if you haven’t caught Mr. Vonnegut’s theme yet, is what it’s all about.

What would you add to this list of rules for creative content writers?

Ben Richardson is a freelance writer, poet, and blogger in Nashville, Tenn. He blogs on these subjects and more at Man the Desk. When he isn’t writing for himself or Content Equals Money, he’s probably exploring Nashville or the trails of middle Tennessee. A version of this article first appeared on Content Equals Money. (Image via)


Ragan.com Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from Ragan.com directly in your inbox.