What Makes a Good Writing Tip?

Writers are often asked for their top writing tips. Their answers vary considerably because every writer works in a different way. Some are disciplined (‘write 1,000 words every morning’); some are laidback (‘write when you want’); some are meticulous (‘plan everything’); some are spontaneous (‘write, just write!’); some are eccentric (‘write only in pencil’).

For me, the most interesting are those which don’t just offer guidance. They provoke useful questions. One such list is from the author of ‘Slaughterhouse 5’, ‘Cat’s Cradle’, etc., Kurt Vonnegut, who suggests:

  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 heck 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.

Much of what Vonnegut says is good sense: he reminds us that good stories need to engage readers (1, 2 & 7); to have conflict and drama (3 & 6); to use language effectively and efficiently (4).

On the other hand, I’m not sure that 5 is always true, and I almost completely disagree with 8.

Even these two, though, raise useful questions. Where do I start this story and where is the beginning of the end? How much does the reader need to know and when do they need to know it?

Even if you disagree with Vonnegut’s own answers, in other words, he identifies some of the most important questions that writers of all kinds need to address.


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