On writing better–Kurt Vonnegut

One could do far worse than to model your writing after Kurt Vonnegut. His mythic stories are simply constructed, easy to read, and stay with you long after you’ve shelved the book (or, better yet, given it away).

In his book of essays Palm Sunday, Vonnegut provides some tips on how to write elegantly, simply, and memorably.

Below the fold, I interpret the master’s advice for the beginning science writer.

1. Find a subject you care about. It’s hard to bring yourself to write if you don’t believe in what you’re writing. We procrastinate for any number of reasons (and perfectionism is one of them). But if you deeply suspect that a thesis chapter isn’t yet ready for prime time, get a reality check.  Present it as a 10 minute talk to your lab group.

2. Do not ramble, though. Outline your argument. Boil it down to the essential points. Then use the outline to construct your topic and summary sentences for each paragraph. It ain’t necessary to point out every possible exception to every generalization.

3. Keep it simple. I was once told that the perfect paper in ecology was 10 pages long and had one good idea that was bolstered by a variety of evidence. Such a paper maximizes the possibility that it will be read and remembered.

4. Have guts to cut. Nearly everybody loves the sound of their own voice. Go through your first draft and ask, of every sentence, “Is this really necessary?”.  This particularly applies to your Discussion. It is not a repository for every thought you have had on the topic. Relate your data to your hypotheses and to the current thinking in the field, honestly confront your limitations in a caveat paragraph, and propose one or two next steps.

5. Sound like yourself. Science writing is not supposed to be boring or flowery.  Write as if you are explaining your study to a colleague.

6. Say what you mean. It is often easy to get lost in the thicket of sentences and paragraphs. Before you sit down for the day’s writing, spend a minute explaining to an imaginary officemate why this paper is worth writing, and what the data mean. Then make sure every sentence advances that message.

7. Pity the readers. The literature is huge and expanding. Clear, concise writing is needed now more than ever.  Whenever you are tempted to leave one murky paragraph, imagine a reader some time in the future (or better yet, a reviewer or editor) wincing and shaking her head. Then buckle down and write what you mean.

ht/ 43 Folders


18 Responses to On writing better–Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Ethan White says:

    Great advice. I’m putting a link to this on my lab wiki.

  2. justopia says:

    When I was a senior in high school, many more decades than I care to talk about (the 70’s), Vonnegut came to my Creative Writing class. He said something that has stayed with me for 34 years. He said that the piece we think is the best. Outstanding. Flawless. Is probably horrible and probably deserves to be thrown out.

    Difficult to swallow, but oh so true.

    Thanks for posting this great info.

  3. diembe says:

    What a fantastic, succinct reference / motivator. A fine post to stumble upon–thanks!



  4. maleesha says:

    Thanks. I love Vonnegut’s books. This is great advice for the editing process!

  5. craig1 says:

    Thanks for the advice!

  6. kataztrophy says:

    -takes notes-

  7. batguano101 says:

    To do it well you must first be a prisoner of war in a city that is fire bombed.

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  12. Al Gorgon says:

    Thanks for the advice!

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  14. paolosilv says:

    Thanks, there are several Vonnegut pieces on writing. Do feel free to send them my way. Bitte.

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