July 14, 2008

"I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis..."

"... which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago."

Writes Kurt Vonnegut, in an excellent and short essay on writing style. He's got 7 rules:
1. Find a subject you care about

2. Do not ramble, though

3. Keep it simple

4. Have guts to cut

5. Sound like yourself

6. Say what you mean

7. Pity the readers
Great rules for bloggers, obviously. In fact, these are rules that seem to say: A great way to write is to blog.

Via Metafilter, where the commenters keep it simple, and somebody links to this cool article on semicolons, which includes the Vonnegut quote:
If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don't have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts. But do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.
Anyway, as Hazel Crosby once said: "Nobody has to be ashamed of being a Hoosier... Hoosiers do all right. Lowe and I have been around the world twice, and everywhere we went we found Hoosiers in charge of everything.... Lincoln was a Hoosier, too. He grew up in Spencer County.... I don't know what it is about Hoosiers... but they've sure got something. If somebody was to make a list, they'd be amazed... We Hoosiers got to stick together... Whenever I meet a young Hoosier, I tell them, 'You call me Mom.'"


vbspurs said...

They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing.

LOL. Fantastic. It also reminds me of two quotes:

"Edward Gibbon lived out most of his sex life in his footnotes"

- Philip Guedalla

I want to live and die by my punctuation

- Oriana Fallaci


Simon said...

Good stuff. I think Twain's critique of Fenmoore Cooper and Orwell's Politics and the English Language are also required reading for any writer, including bloggers.

Simon said...

Victoria, I hope your Guedalla quote isn't a criticism of footnotes. It was in footnotes that I most successfully whored after the affections of Althouse!

(That wasn't my intent, of course. And I really have tried to cut down on the footnotes in recent months.)

chuck b. said...

Pity the readers--indeed!

(I'm thinking about readers of my prose. "Sound like yourself." If I did that, it would be worse.)

This isn't the first rules-for-writing from Vonnegut posted here, is it? There was one that said "Don't keep the readers in suspense". I enjoyed thinking about that.

vbspurs said...

Fear not Simon. I take an unseemly pleasure in over-large footnotes, myself. I do believe it's a little sexual, yes.

It's about wanting more, and wishing it wouldn't end.

Ann Althouse said...

You're right, chuck. Click the Kurt Vonnegut tag on this post and you'll get to it if you scroll down a few.

vbspurs said...

Chuck, sounding like yourself (that is, your writing reflecting your exact speaking style) is actually a very difficult thing to achieve in real life.

If you watch BBC's Top Gear, you'll know that one of its presenters, James May, actually achieves this feat in his weekly in his Telegraph column.

It's a running monologue of things he says in precisely the same way, off-the-cuff.

Baffling, slightly endearing, but also more than a little annoying.

walter neff said...

I am ashamed of Hoosier Daddy.

Richard Dolan said...

"In fact, these are rules that seem to say: A great way to write is to blog."

A few days ago, the question was whether blogging destroys a writer's seriousness (Sullivan being the writer in question). Is this what happens when someone lets loose one of those "transvestite hermaphrodites" in the left hemisphere, (or was it the right)?

Hoosier Daddy said...

I am ashamed of Hoosier Daddy.

Well considering your profile says you're from NY, I would say my work here is done. Mission accomplished if you will.

Paddy O. said...

Learning #4 has entirely helped my propensity towards not following #2.

Number 5 is the hardest, though. Most people don't know what they sound like and so try to mimic other, more popular, voices.

So I guess another key is to do all these and then not care about the response. Art for it's own sake. If there's popularity with that, all the better.

walter neff said...

Oh Yeah. Well Reggie Miller sucks.

So does riding a bicycle.

And Isiah Thomas went to Indiana. There you go. It was plot by you Hoosier assholes to destroy the Knicks.

Chip Ahoy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chip Ahoy said...

Oh, now I get it. Vonnegut --> Indianapolis --> Indiana --> Hoosier. Duh. For a minute there I wasn't making the implied connections.

In Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor has a long rift on his English teacher marking him down for beginning a paragraph with the word "anyway." Through several paragraphs, his line of thought drifts to a girl he pursued and how he struggled with his emotion and all the turmoil he was feeling inside. At length she dumps him giving the reason that he was the coldest most unemotional person she ever met. Then returning to the original subject he begins the next paragraph.

So anyway, ...

I thought I'd mention that since you're dis'n semicolons again. What's up with all this hate'n on the semicolon? Huh? I love me some semicolon. Its usefulness is unparalleled. It serves unique functions; it's less then a colon but more than a coma. What's not to love about that?

That Hoosier bit up there ^^^ doesn't make sense; if Hoosiers are everywhere and in charge of everything, then why would they need to stick together? Insecurity in their ubiquity?

walter neff said...

Hey Hoosier Daddy. When you match you white shoes with your white belt do you always wear red pants or will you switch off to blue every once in a while?

P. Rich said...

"But do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college."

We learned the proper use of semicolons in the eight grade; and believe it or not, there is a proper use. I can still quote the rule. That would have been in 1958.

Yeah, college might be right, if then. Punctuation's been dumbed down along with everything else. I hear commas are on the endangered list; parentheses are definitely retro; and Ebonics only has one punctuation mark called a yomama.

ricpic said...

This is all tripe. Vonnegut was a bloviator.

ricpic said...

I never did trust that Hoosier Daddy. The man is against big government. What a meany.

Mr. Humphrey Throttlemeyer said...

Semi-colons are used to set-off groups of items in a .....LIST.

Anyone who cares about order, and sets of things, needs to utilize semi-colons to differentiate.

Semi-colons are a creative way to change the meaning of a sentence, and give variety and originality to an otherwise staid, and sterile rhetorical style.

1. A woman without her man is nothing.

2. A woman; without her, man is nothing.

3. A woman without; her man is nothing.

Pete Fanning said...

My God, I'm a Hoosier trapped in Wisconsin...what does that make me? :)

walter neff said...

A cheese eating suspender monkey.

Paul Snively said...

Pardon me while I go to see fellow Hoosier Brendan Fraser in "Journey to the Center of the Earth" and "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" this summer.

Axl Rose, David Lee Roth, all of the Jackson 5: Hoosiers. Also John Dillinger and Hoagy Carmichael. Studebaker was founded in Indiana. Indiana continues to house the headquarters of Cummins Engine, a leading manufacturer of large diesel engines.

Hoosiers: we're influential out of proportion to our numbers.

nansealinks said...


posts on indiana, the beatles, are my comments from yesterday inspiring you?

If so, can i share in your kindle cash?

I'm unemployed, y'know. I blog and make comments on Jesus, too. Imagine.

Not to put a damper on a post, but did you also know that Kurt's mom killed herself on Mother's day. Bipolar family.

I'd advocate sport over herbal remedies because they have a dual beneficial effect on me. well, if you overlook my suntan that everyone wants to tell me is unhealthy. Personally, I thought sunburning was unhealthy. but that's just me.

Pete Fanning said...

I hate cheese.

walter neff said...

Don't forget Joyce De Witt and the Rev. Jim Jones. Enjoy the kool aid.

Ann Althouse said...

Pete Fanning said..."My God, I'm a Hoosier trapped in Wisconsin...what does that make me? :)"

It makes you a member of Hazel's karass, but don't worry, because you're probably part of the Althouse granfalloon.

walter neff said...

Nobody has their member in Hazel's karass since Shirley Booth died.

blake said...

Indiana, I confess, is the state I'm most likely to forget.

I sat through "Hoosiers" without realizing what state it took place in. Had you asked, I probably would've said "Kansas".

I never buy that property in Monopoly, either. I have an Indiana blind spot.

William said...

Whatever the pros and cons of the semi-colon, I think we can all agree that only an asshole would use a colon.

matthew said...

I realize that I should listen to Vonnegut; I shouldn't use semicolons. But as much as I want to listen to Vonnegut, it's more important to me to completely disregard any advice on punctuation by Gertrude Stein:

There are two different way of thinking about colons and semi-
colons you can think of them as commas and as such they are purely
servile or you can think of them as periods and then using them can
make you feel adventurous I can see that one might feel about them as
periods but I myself never have, I began unfortunately to feel them as a
comma and commas are servile they have no life of their own they are
dependent upon use and convenience and they are put there just for
practical purposes. Semi-colons and colons had for me from the first
completely this character the character that a comma has and not the
character that a period has and therefore and definitely I have never
used them. But ...

Yes, it goes on for pages like this.

Simon, you should add a book to required reading of "Eats, Shoots and Leaves," by Lynne Truss. Sure, it's more about Victoria's English than ours, but it's quite fantastic all the same.

Beldar said...

I disagree about semicolons. Whoever said they're useless doesn't appreciate how they ought to be used.

Robert said...

The two most important Hoosiers:
Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird. Duh.