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?

Current Student Spotlight: Madison Butler

Madison Butler is a student of the MPW program at Chatham and a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh. Before attending Chatham’s MPW program, Butler attended Penn State to study Print Journalism and graduated from their program in 2015. In the Fall of 2016, Butler enrolled in Chatham’s MPW program and is expected to graduate this semester.

Butler felt she learned a lot from Penn State’s communication program, but she wanted to continue her education in order to expand her knowledge of writing styles.

“I was drawn to this program because it was unique,” Butler said. “I have always bounced around a lot in terms of learning new skills. I liked that Chatham offers a program that can be completed online and with a variety of classes. This is something that fits really well with my personal style of learning, so I was really excited to begin the program.”

Since beginning the program last fall, Butler has taken a wide variety of classes in the program. She’s explored grant writing, technical writing, blog writing, and social media writing. She’s also taken classes in web development and design and information architecture.

“I was most excited to learn about the more technical styles of writing because I think the formats are widely applicable and can be used in several industries,” Butler said. “These are also specialized styles of writing that you don’t learn about.”

Butler really enjoyed the web development classes with Professor Charlotte Scott since it was a new skill for her, and she plans to learn more about it on her own. Classes with Professor Mike Lavella in information architecture were also of interest for Butler during her time here at Chatham.

“All of these [classes] were extremely helpful in expanding my knowledge of web design and development, which has made me a better writer and blogger,” Butler said.

The skills Butler has learned from her coursework at both Penn State and Chatham have helped Butler in many jobs. Butler said she worked at a flower shop developing social media, design, branding and marketing, and customer service.

Butler said, “I’ve used my knowledge from the MPW program in each position I’ve held. I think the position I used these skills in most was, surprisingly, at the flower shop I worked at. There, I ended up writing product copy, developing a social media presence, and writing a business plan for the owner.”

Butler currently works as a freelance writer. She writes for Graphic Policy, a site focused on comics, and Sidequest, which focuses on videogames.  She’s also currently working on a project of her own where essays dive deep into media; it’s called Critsumption.

“This program has given me tools to be more effective in my workplaces, and to implement more effective practices and methods of communication. It’s pretty amazing that the professional writing field encompasses so many different jobs,” Butler said.

Butler is currently looking for a full-time job outside of the writing she does already. She wants to pursue a position in journalism or social media marketing.

“My ultimate goal is to be in a position where I’m passionate about the things I’m writing about, regardless of what type of writing it is.”

Butler’s advice for new writers is to write first and edit later. Butler said, “As a writer, I tend to get caught up in editing as I go, which makes my projects take much longer than they should. Writing for yourself allows you to get your thoughts down without worrying about audience reception, and since I’ve started writing for myself first, I find that I’m able to distill my writing into a clearer message that’s closer to my original intention.”

Alumni Spotlight | Linda Naughton

As a single mother with a full-time job, Linda Naughton entered Chatham’s Master of Professional Writing (MPW) program in the summer of 2015. At the time, Naughton was looking for a program that allowed her to have a flexible schedule.

“I’m from Pittsburgh, so I was already familiar with Chatham’s reputation as a great school,” Naughton said. “The MPW program offered an interesting variety of courses, and I liked the way you could specialize with the concentrations.”

Naughton entered the program in order to improve her writing skills and to learn more about professional writing.

Her favorite class while in the MPW program was Designing Digital Media. “Since so much writing is ending up on the web these days, it’s important to understand the particular challenges and opportunities of digital media,” Naughton said. During the course of the class, Naughton had to create a blog and post regularly to it. The blog she created was called Self Rescuing Princess, and now, over two years later, Naughton says she still posts to it regularly.

A year after beginning the program, Naughton graduated in the summer of 2016.

Naughton has twenty years of experience as a software engineer and web designer. For her job, Naughton writes technical documents and creates web pages.

“I can leverage the skills I learned in the MPW program when writing and when evaluating usability and graphics design,” Naughton said.

In addition, Naughton blogs and writes as a freelance author in her spare time. She said, “The social media classes have helped a great deal when promoting my work as a blogger and novelist.” She’s working on her second novel now.

Naughton says that her dream job would be to combine the two things she enjoys most: software engineering and writing. She’s like to write software technical guides.

Her advice for writers is to write every day. “Even if it’s just for fifteen minutes, over the course of a year that adds up to a lot of words,” Naughton said.

How to Network with LinkedIn

In April 2017, LinkedIn reached 500 million members, which means it’s a powerful professional networking website. Still, a lot of people on LinkedIn aren’t using it to it’s fullest potential. Are you?

  1. Make sure your profile is complete. Yes, it takes some time to completely set up your profile, but it’s important to put in the time and effort in order to show what you have to offer a potential employer. This also means including many different experiences and not just your education and experience. There are multiple categories you can add to on LinkedIn like volunteering, organizations, awards and honors, etc. There is even a space you can include information about current projects. Be sure to include all this information.
  2. Connect with people you already know. You don’t have to add a bunch of people you don’t know on LinkedIn or start adding potential connections right away. Start with people you know–friends, family, current and former coworkers, former classmates from college or even high school. There is a large list of people out there to begin with, and you’ll probably find that you know more people you thought. If you find someone you know from meeting that one time five years ago, connect with that person. Just customize the message you send to them and remind them who you are and where you’ve met. They might remember you, too.
  3. Connect with people you don’t know. When adding people, check out their profile and then craft a short personal message. That extra personal touch will catch people’s eyes.
  4. Join groups. There are a number of LinkedIn pages for businesses or organizations. Begin joining the networks of the ones you know. Start with your college alumni group and go from there. Think about past experiences, groups you’d already voluteered for, and organizations you’d like to get to know more about. Once you’ve joined groups, be active in them. Post comments on their organization’s posts and other threads.
  5. Stay active and update.  Like any social media account, it’s important to stay active. That means posting links to new posts on your blog, to new publications, or to interesting articles you read. No matter what be sure what you’re posting is going to benefit your image in some way. Don’t post links that will be detrimental to your professional image.
  6. Support your friends, and they’ll support you. In other words, make your friends look good, and maybe they’ll help you out too. Endorse your connections’ skills and comment on their posts. If you’re engaging with them, they’re more likely to engage with you. Those small engagements drive their friends to your page which means your profile reaches more people. Beyond that, write meaningful recommendations for your friends. They more a lot more than endorsements to potential viewers/employers.
  7. Don’t spam people. This one is obvious. Don’t over post on Linkedin or overly message potential connections. Use the site professionally and appropriately.
  8. Put time into it. Networking takes a lot of time in person, which means it should still take a lot of time online. It’s important to put some time and effort into building your own professional connections.

How Good Writing Makes You a Better Employee

Have you ever been scrolling through a website only to see a word misspelled? Have you ever read an ad on Facebook that uses the wrong there/their/they’re? Have you ever been sent a memo that was completely unorganized and just poorly written? Have you ever received an email from a coworker with a comma splice or without any punctuation?

Think back and remember how you felt when you caught those errors or got lost in a professional document because of poor writing. Were you accepting of it? Did your eyes just float over the error? Or did you become hypercritical? Did you search for more errors or think about how you could write it better?

Good grammar and writing  is credibility.

It doesn’t matter what you do for a living; you’re more credible if you can write well. From the moment you send an application in to a job, your writing needs to be impeciable because your cover letter and resume are how you’re presenting your skills to that hiring manager and company. If you’re already working, your writing shows your boss a lot about who you are as a worker.

Writing isn’t just for the writers. There are many ways having good writing skills can benefit you in any job.

It demonstrates work ethic.

Maybe you weren’t paying attention in that 10th grade English class when grammar was being taught, or perhaps you just never learned it properly. Either way, at a certain point, that excuse is no longer valid. If you’re ten years out of high school, and you still can’t distinguish the difference between to and too, then it’s probably a lack of interest issue than a lack of trying.

Proper grammar shows a certain level of work ethic in a person. Are you willing to look up and teach yourself the difference to improve your own communiation skills? Are you willing to work at this skill you’re poor at in order to improve?

It shows attention to detail.

Good writing, especially good grammar, show a person’s attention to detail. Nobody writes every single sentence grammatically correct every single time, so it’s important to have good editing skills. Going back over your writing and checking for those comma errors and misplaced modifiers shows that you are detail-oriented, and details are everything in any business.

It helps you organize your ideas better.

Good writing skills helps your brain to naturally organize information better in your head. When writing a proposal for a job or a memo for the office, you’ll be able to quickly draft the document in your head in a way that would make sense for the reader. This allows your reader to easily process the information you give them.

It helps you communicate more effectively. 

Unless you work by yourself, communication is key in any job, and even if you do work alone, you probably need to communicate with a customer or corporation at some point. Honing your writing skills will allow you to communicate more easily with any customer, coworker, or higher-up both in-writing and in-person. You’ll be able to accurately get your ideas across in writing and present those ideas well in clean prose. It will make you more credible.

Destroy Writer’s Block and Get Working

My undergraduate professor often told her students that there was no such thing as writer’s block. Of course we never believed her. Instead, we’d complain about writer’s block in dramatic and amusing ways. She never empathized. She would say, “Just sit down at your computer, stare at the screen, and type ‘I have nothing to write. I have nothing to write. I have nothing to write…’ again and again.” She guaranteed that we would find something to write after typing it over and over again.

Since graduating a few years ago, I’ve tried this trick about a dozen times when I’ve become stuck in either my creative or professional writing. It works; you really do get sick of typing it over and over again. Still, there are many ways to find a way to the page.

Ways around writer’s block

  • Exercise or go for a walk. If you’re sitting at your desk with nothing to write, walking away for a bit is always helpful. Go get your blood moving a bit and pump some extra oxygen up to your brain. Coming back to the desk will be refreshing.
  • Brew some coffee. Or cocoa. Or whatever it is you most enjoy. The familiar process of making something and then holding that warm cup of whatever will appease the brain.
  • Brainstorm ideas. Make a list of things you could write about or outline what you need to write about. This way, you’ll have a place to begin.
  • Eliminate distractions. Put your phone on silent and out of sight. Use an app to block the internet for an hour or two. Hide anything else that usually distracts you. Without everything begging for your attention, you’ll be able to find some serious time with just the page in front of you.
  • Create a routine. Entering into a routine will help your body and mind get ready to write. Just like a morning routine or a bedtime routine, your body will prepare itself and you’ll become an efficient writing-machine.
  • Find the time you write best. If you’re a freelancer, you have more of a window to write than a writer in an office. Find what time you write well. Are you a rise-and-shine writer or a stay-up-all-night writer? If you have a 9-5 job, consider how you can break up your day. Maybe use the mornings to send emails, and then the afternoons could provide some solid writing time to get the work done.
  • Just write. If all else fails, just write something. Whether it’s ‘I have nothing to say’ over and over again or just free writing for a little while, eventually you’ll find a way into what you need to write.

Don’t enable your writer’s block

  • Don’t procrastinate. It’s easy to find ten other things to do before doing what you need to do. It’s easy to spend a whole day procrastinating. Don’t push it off. Sit down and find a way to the page.
  • Don’t wait until you feel like it. If you wait until you are inspired, until you have the words in your head, you’ll never find the words. So sit down, and tell yourself it’s time.
  • Don’t read articles about overcoming writer’s block. Maybe this article helped you, or maybe you’re mad you spent a few moments of your valuable time reading it. Either way, quit procrastinating. Go write.

3 Ways You Can Write Like Cicero

We can learn a thing or two from the ancient Romans. How to build the perfect stone arch, for example, or how to throw an incredible dinner party.

Writers looking to persuade an audience should take a page from the book of one Marcus Tullius Cicero, an ancient politician famous for his speeches and mastery of rhetoric. And with election season upon us, you will almost certainly hear the same strategies echoed today.

Here are 3 Ciceronian techniques that can help add oomph to clear, concise language:

  1. Anadiplosis: Yes, it sounds a little like a disease. But this trick can help you more effectively link successive ideas to make a point. Anadiplosis is the repetition of the last word of the previous clause, and looks like this:“Fear leads to hate. Hate leads to anger. Anger leads to suffering.”
    -Yoda, the wise mentor in Star Wars
  2. Chiasmus: This term means “X” and describes an A-B-B-A pattern. It helps you emphasize a contrast, like this:“It’s not the men in my life that count: It’s the life in my men.”
    -Mae WestOr, in more presidential terms:
    “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
    -President John F. Kennedy
  3. Tricolon: Ancient speakers knew there was something almost magical about the number 3, and tricolon is simply a set of 3 parallel words or phrases. (How weird does this sound: “Location, Location.” You just need that third one.)Tricolon is one of President Obama’s favorites-consider this snippet from his 2008 victory speech:“If there is anyone out there [1] who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; [2] who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; [3]who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
    -President Obama

    When the third item serves as a climax or exclamation point, it’s called tricolon crescens(crescens means “increasing”):

    “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
    -Benjamin Franklin