Tag Archives: kurt vonnegut

Once Again: 6 Tips for Writing from George Orwell

orwell

Last week, I posted six rules for writing from George Orwell, but that post was swallowed up by the internet. I was quite pleased by the number of people who wrote to ask where the list had gone, so I’ve decided to re-post it.

I loved rules for writing: for instance, here are rules from Mindy Kaling, Kurt Vonnegut, Henry Miller, and Flannery O’Connor.

In one of his most famous essays, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell writes that “the following rules will cover most cases”:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. (I’m charmed by his example: use “snapdragon,” not “antirrhinum.” Snapdragon is so much nicer.)

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I find these rules to be enormously helpful. It’s so easy to use tired, shopworn figures of speech. I love using long, fancy words but have learned–mostly from writing my biography of Winston Churchill–that short, strong words work better. I am ever-vigilant against the passive and against jargon, both of which are so insidious.

However, I have to be cautious with #3. I love to cut so much that I have to be careful not to cut too much. My writing tends to become very dense, so I have to keep some cushion. Sometimes, words that seem superfluous are actually essential, for the overall effect.

One thing that makes me very happy is to have a complicated idea and to feel that I’ve expressed myself clearly. I remember writing the ending to Happier at Home. I wrote the entire book to build to that ending–”now is now”–and what I had to say was very abstract, and yet, I felt satisfied that I managed to say what I wanted to say. One of the happiest experiences I’ve had as a writer was when I typed the final lines,  “Now is now. Here is my treasure.”

How about you? Do you use these rules–or any others?

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  • The holidays approach! May I self-promotingly make a gift suggestion? Happier at Home or The Happiness Project. Both New York Times bestsellers. Buy early and often!If you’d like to make a gift more special by personalizing it, I’m happy to help. Would you like a free, personalized, signed bookplate for copies of The Happiness Project or Happier at Home? Or signed Paradoxes of Happiness signature cards or Ten Tips for Happiness in Your New Home signature cards? Request as many as you want, here. Alas, because of mailing costs, I can now mail only to the U.S. and Canada–so sorry about that. And request quickly, if you want these for the holidays. I can be kinda slow.

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing Fiction

vonnegut_kurt0412I’ve recently become a fan of reading collections of letters (a form which is disappearing, now that we don’t write letters much anymore), and I read a recommendation somewhere to read Kurt Vonnegut’s letters.

From there, I was drawn to a collection of his short fiction, paradoxically named: Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction.

In the Introduction, Vonnegut provides his rules for “Creative Writing 101“:

  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 character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  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.
  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.
  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, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

However, Vonnegut notes, “The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor…She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”

I’m a Flannery O’Connor freak, so I was very happy to see that Vonnegut loved her work, too. In fact, in a weird synchronicity, it was my admiration for O’Connor’s collection of letters, The Habit of Being, that got me reading letters in the first place.

What do you think of these rules?

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My friend Colleen Wainwright, a/k/a Communicatrix, told me about a plan to launch an app camp for girls on Indiegogo. Great project.

Are you reading Happier at Home or The Happiness Project in a book group? Email me if you’d like the one-page discussion guide. Or if you’re reading it in a spirituality book club, a Bible study group, or the like, email me for the spirituality one-page discussion guide.

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