Pity the Reader: How Kurt Vonnegut Made Me a Better Writer

In his 1985 essay “How to Write with Style,” Kurt Vonnegut writes about seven simple steps for better writing. In his essay, he’s talking about creative writing, but his tips can be easily applied to professional writing, like many writing tips.

  1. Find a subject you care about.

This is sometimes hard in professional writing when often we’re supposed to write about an assigned topic for a job or project, but the first step is to find work that you like to do in professional writing and do that. If you get really attached to a cause, consider lending your skills to different foundations to write grants for them. In getting closer to those subjects, you’ll be able to write meaningful grants. Perhaps you’re deeply interested in medicine or the environment; look for a job writing or editing for a medical journal or an environmental group. There are so many ways to apply writing that you should never feel stuck in a certain position or type of writing.

  1. Do not ramble.

This is essential in creative writing. Nobody wants to hear a narrator ramble on and on about a setting or insignificant information. The same goes for professional writing. Keep the information essential, and keep it tight. Be concise in whatever you’re writing—whether it’s a technical project, a grant, or some type of digital media work. Say only what you need to say. No more.

  1. Keep it simple.

It’s essential for a reader to understand what they’re reading in professional writing. For a technical document, it’s important to understand a process or a technical item. If the language is complex and full of jargon, then the usability of that object drops. Think about the reader—who will be using this and what do they need to know? Then, think about the best way to get that information across in the most simplistic way.

  1. Have the guts to cut.

It’s hard to write a long draft and then realize in revision that you only need half or even a tenth of the information. Yes, that’s incredibly difficult to accept, but it’s important to cut the excess information. It’s important to cut information that doesn’t make sense in order to rewrite it so that it does. Remember, keep it simple.

  1. Sound like yourself.

This one doesn’t really apply to technical writing, but for grant writing and digital media writing, it’s okay to have a bit of a voice. Sharing a story in grant writing is essential. Connecting with the reader through your own personality can make the difference between getting a grant and not. For digital media writing, if you’re writing a blog, an interesting voice brings readers back to the site again and again.

  1. Say what you mean to say.

Vonnegut says, “Readers what 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.” Write accurately. Pick the write words in order to way what you want to most effectively. Make it easier on your reader to understand.

  1. Pity the readers.

This is a phrase I always have in the back of my head while writing. Pity the reader. To me, it sums all the above up quickly and concisely. Vonnegut could have just stuck with this one phrase for the whole list. No matter what you’re writing, think about the reader. How can you make their job easier?

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