Vonnegut for business writing

Direction and desire

The American writer Kurt Vonnegut used to tell his writing students to make their ‘characters want something straight away – even if it’s only a glass of water’.

He was talking about fiction, but there is a useful point here that can be translated to non-fiction business writing:

Give your reader a valuable point, straight away.

This model not only engages the reader immediately with something they can use and share, it might also help to provide a focus for your whole book.

Open your book with something that makes your reader’s work life easier, less stressful, or more enjoyable.

Once you have given them that tip, begin the steps to lead your reader to your destination. Take a direct route. Don’t meander through a collection of ideas you have always wanted to put down on paper just because you think – or hope – that you now have an audience.

If you wish to go off on tangents, place them in breakout boxes labelled ‘Thought starter’, ‘Case study’, or perhaps ‘Life example’. That way your reader can choose whether to go off on tangents with you. 

What’s my direct route?

By taking a direct route, I don’t mean you shouldn’t discuss ideas and thoughts along the way. It’s important to elaborate. But, while doing so, think about why you are including this discussion. If it’s not moving your reader closer to your destination – to your core idea – then perhaps it shouldn’t be included. Perhaps that point is more about you working through ideas. If so, please do it in private.

To retain direction and focus for each section or chapter, ask yourself:

What are the essential details I must include here for the reader to understand what I am saying?

It’s important to remember that you are not in the room with your reader. You don’t have the luxury of being able to tap them on the shoulder to explain what you mean. Your writing must stand alone, so being precise and clear is important.