“How to Write with Style,” Part 6

This post is part of a series called ‘The Writer’s Pool.’ I will be drawing from the wealth of knowledge from the world’s greatest writers to explore their advice, techniques, tools, and more.

We get to the next piece of advice from Vonnegut about writing with style, “Have guts to cut.” The author says, “Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”

This is a lot harder than it sounds. And at this point, might be a crushing revelation for some writers. We’ve been trying so hard to perfect our style. We might even think our prose glitters. But now, Kurt is telling us to cut anything that doesn’t “illuminate your subject.” Even sentences we think are really great.

Why does he say this? Because, once again, we are learning that true style is about being understood. And anything that gets in our way of that goal needs to be removed.

He gives us a good standard, though. Anything that doesn’t “illuminate” what you are writing about. What does that mean?

For a story, that means any line, sentence, paragraph, etc. that doesn’t help the reader understand what is going on. In the world of fantasy and Sci-fi, this is critical. Because many novice writers think they need pages and pages of unnecessary description.

It might be fun to detail to the reader just how the walls of the castle look. Or the smell of your spaceship infested with aliens. But is it moving the story along? Does it help the reader understand what is about to happen next?

If yes, then great! Keep it. But if you are being honest and you realize you are just indulging, then it needs to do.

We are no longer living in a time when readers have never seen a castle, or a lion, or a spaceship. Chances are, even those unique alien creatures you came up with look a lot like something they’ve seen on TV.

It might be a sad realization, but movies, TV, and the Internet have robbed us of a chance to impress readers will elaborate descriptions. Only keep the descriptions that help the reader “see” (or hear, smell, etc.) what they’ve never seen before. They’ve seen a sunset before, so keep that brief.

The same can be said of any passage that goes on longer than it needs to be. When I read Enders Game, I skipped over entire pages because Card rambled on and on about the characters’ emotional states and attitudes. I get it, already. Let’s get to where the children murder an entire civilization!

That doesn’t mean you’ll end up with this short, bare story void of all personality. It just means you have more room for the stuff that matters: the actual story. That might be a challenge for you. But if your goal is a story you want others to read and enjoy, it’s something you have to do.