GWBA: When Vonnegut’s Rules Go Bad: pt 2

GOOD WRITING, BAD ADVICE: An occasional series from a professional on writing, being a writer and how to be better at both. The aim is to promote good writing and debunk bad advice. There’s a lot of bad advice out there, so this could be a long series.


In the last post, I unpacked Kurt Vonnegut’s famous Rule 4 (“Every sentence must do one of two things –– reveal character or advance the action”) and found that it doesn’t work. Today I’m sticking with Vonnegut (he put a lot of advice out there, maybe more than any other writer). This time I'm looking at an item from one of his sets of writer’s commandments.

The context is a piece Vonnegut wrote for the magazine IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, titled “How to write with style”. As with his “Creative Writing 101”, it’s a list of eight rules. The one that catches my attention is:

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.

Warning: following that advice could seriously damage your prose.

There’s a problem here. Vonnegut’s prime example is a misquotation. To be or not to be” is not a sentence, merely the opening of one. The full opening sentence in Hamlet's soliloquy is “To be, or not to be, that is the question—whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune, or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them?” That agglomeration of subclauses is beautiful, memorable, and powerful, but certainly simple or childlike. It isn’t simple grammatically, conceptually or lexically. It doesn’t even fully encapsulate the idea that Shakespeare is conveying – he takes several more gorgeously convoluted sentences to get the whole idea across.

(Digression: Shakespeare complicates things further and sins against style by including a clanging mixed metaphor – chance and fortune are imagined as an army and then, in mid-sentence, changed to a “sea”. Does that mar this great piece of writing? You decide.)

Why would a great writer like Kurt Vonnegut give such bad advice? The answer is that he wrote this particular set of rules with a specific audience in mind, and it didn’t include fiction writers; it was published in (to quote the journal’s own website) a "journal devoted to applied research on professional communication--including but not limited to technical and business communication”. In that context, the advice to “keep it simple” is pretty apt. For creative writers, maybe not so much.

But it’s not all bad; there’s a nugget of good advice buried in Rule 3, in the bit I snipped out of the above quotation:

Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story "Eveline" is this one: "She was tired." At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

That’s priceless. What we take away from this is not that sentences should be kept simple, but rather:

Each sentence should be as simple or as intricate as you, the writer, need it to be.

You have to use your own judgement in making that decision, and your judgements and decisions will improve with practice. There are two main factors involved.

1. Variation and rhythm are part of the key to judging sentence length, as in this well-quoted piece from Gary Provost:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It's like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals--sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

That’s a 101 principle, and leaps immediately to your senses. But getting it right isn’t only about varying the rhythm.

2. dramatic meaning. As in Vonnegut’s example from James Joyce, a short sentence can deliver a powerful punch: in that case, “She was tired.” Now look at the following examples; without even knowing what comes before them, you can feel some of the power in these short sentences:

"… They never came back."

"… It was."

"… She had lied."

“… This time it worked."

If you’re a writer, you’ll have intuitively filled in a precursor for each of those sentences; spend a few minutes and you should be able to whip up a narrative. If you take it further, using your own creative powers to fill in a concept and storyline, you’ll find that you can give that concluding two, three, or four-word sentence its greatest power by preceding it with a much more complex one. And you should find that the short sentence is more more than a longer one would be.

The effect works not just because of rhythm but because of the contrast between complexity and simplicity of the ideas and images.

The same principle can work with opening sentences too. I open my forthcoming biography Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time, with these two sentences:

Dr Barry was dying. He knew precisely how the end would be; in a lifetime’s medical service, Dr Barry had seen it all, cured some of it, and watched hundreds leave the mortal world along the same ugly, degrading path that he was now treading.

It’s the reverse of the same pattern: a four-word sentence to create a strong, simple image, followed up by a longer, more complex one to elaborate upon it. My book Beyond the Call opens with a similar pattern:

Freedom held its breath…

Ten miles east of the Polish city of Lwow, the main rail line, snaking its way through the snow-covered farmlands, passed through a mile-long stretch of forest.

So, we can repurpose Vonnegut’s Rule 3 for creative writers along these lines:

Keep it simple where simplicity is most effective. Be intricate where intricacy is required, and play the two off against one another.

Apply that with thought, care, and artistry and you shouldn’t go far wrong.

Watch out for the next post in this series, in which I’ll continue my examination of Vonnegut’s rules.

Photo by Ulf Andersen / Getty Images

© Jeremy Dronfield 2017