Writers: Respect Your Readers (or, Seven Ways to Improve Your Style)

Many times we forget, as writers, that it is our responsibility to learn more about the craft. Too many times we fall into the trap of believing that the only way to improve our writing is to just keep writing. The good stuff is somewhere inside of me, we often think. It will come out if I write enough words.

This is a failed way of thinking for so many reasons.

Imagine trying to learn how to drive stick shift, but without a teacher. How long would it take you to figure out what the clutch does, or even where it is? Or when it’s time to shift? Or how the clutch and the accelerator must move in this simultaneous, subtle rhythm in order to get to the next gear?

There is no doubt that your writing will vastly improve by repetition and the simple act of putting down more words, but will you ever get out of first gear without a teacher, without studying?

Recently my friend Andi shared this article, written by the great Kurt Vonnegut, regarding style. I’m pulling out the main points, but if you’d like to read it in full, check out the link at the bottom of the page:

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.

I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

2. Do not ramble, though I won’t ramble on about that.

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….

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

4. Have the guts to cut It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. 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.

5. Sound like yourself The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child…I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench…

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have?

6. Say what you mean I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say…And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing, if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.

Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.

7. Pity the readers They have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years…

You can read the full article HERE.

Do any of these thoughts resonate with you? Do you have anything to add about the importance of a writer’s style?

3 Replies to “Writers: Respect Your Readers (or, Seven Ways to Improve Your Style)”

  1. I obviously found this article quite profound, but the point that resonated with me the most was to write about something I care about. I find it awfully easy to get sucked into writing about things that will get me readers or to mimic something I said months ago just because I liked writing about it. But when I write about what incites me to tears or laughter or action, then I find the writing lives fresh.
    Thanks, Shawn.

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