Kurt Vonnegut was not a copywriter … but he could have been.

That’s what dawned on me after reading “How to Write with Style,” an essay Vonnegut published in the 1985 anthology, How to Use the Power of the Printed Word. In it he outlines the eight rules for great writing — rules that can be applied to any type of writing, including copywriting.

How’s this possible? How can a novelist and a copywriter base their work off of the same standard principles?

Because every writer is working with the human condition. That’s why you’re gonna want to read this.

To prove it, let’s take a closer look at Vonnegut’s rules. You’ll notice that I’ve outlined a takeaway under each to highlight how copywriters can use it to command attention and influence action.

The Kurt Vonnegut Guide to Great Copywriting

1) “Find a subject you care about.”

Vonnegut writes:

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others care about. It is genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.”

Takeaway: Whether you’re composing a sales letter, writing a blog article, or sculpting a landing page, if you’re not passionate about the product or service you’re selling, it will come through in your copy. 

How can a copywriter force himself or herself to care about teakettles if they hate tea? Or cat food if they love dogs? Or boat propellers if they’re plagued by seasickness? Here’s what I recommend:

  • Be selective about the projects you take on. If you don’t like guns, writing web copy for a hunting site might not be a good fit for you. That’s a personal call — and it’ll require your brutally honest evaluation.
  • Research like crazy. If you do choose to tackle an unfamiliar topic, get your hands dirty. Dive into your new product, service, or industry headfirst. The more you know, the more you’ll care.

2) “Do not ramble, though.”

Vonnegut writes:

I won’t ramble on about that…”

Takeaway: Good copy is concise. Don’t use three words when one will do.

3) “Keep it simple.”

Vonnegut writes: 

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred.”

Takeaway: Good copy is also clear. Don’t make the reader think. Your message should be easy to understand. If it’s not, you run the risk of losing your prospect. So, how can copywriters keep their message simple?

  • Use clean, short, understandable words. Be incredibly clear. Don’t write “utilize” when you can say “use,” or don’t write “tenebrous” when you can say “dark.”
  • Use clean, short, understandable sentences. Don’t fear periods, go easy on the adverbs, and avoid the passive voice. Here’s a great site that can help you do this.

Keeping it simple isn’t easy, but it’s the right thing to do for your reader.

4) “Have the guts to cut.”

Vonnegut writes:

If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”

Takeaway: It doesn’t matter how beautiful your sentence is, if it doesn’t speak to your target audience and make the reader crave the next sentence, it’s probably best to delete it. A copywriter’s end goal is to fluidly move prospects down the page until they reach a call-to-action, which, then, asks them to move on to the next step of the buying process. Fluff will only serve to disrupt that process. And that negates the whole purpose of copy. So go ahead, cut.

5) “Sound like yourself.”

Vonnegut writes:

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.”

Takeaway: Write naturally. Pick a persona to target and write as if you’re speaking to that one individual and no one else. Sound like yourself and the copy will take on a unique, one-of-a-kind tone.

6) “Say what you mean to say.”

Vonnegut writes:

“I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable — and therefore understood.

And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of Jazz Idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.”

Takeaway: Good copy is, first and foremost, understood. That’s why good, conversion-driven copywriters won’t be caught dead distracting readers with fluff. Respect your readers’ time. Minimize their cognitive expenditure.

7) “Pity the readers.”

Vonnegut writes: 

“Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years.

So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify, whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.” 

Takeaway: You may be a wordsmith and an artist. Your prose may sing. And that’s great … but it doesn’t make it okay to write wordy copy. Successful copywriters know that long-winded copy won’t get the job done. It’s all about being clear and concise because catering to the reader will be rewarded with trust, credibility, and action. So do your readers — and yourself — a favor: Show mercy.

8) “For really detailed advice.”

Vonnegut writes: 

“For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, a more technical sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style, by Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. E.B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.

You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say.”

Takeaway: Always provide readers with value. Fail to do so and all the other rules on this list become obsolete. Value is born when your copy solves a specific problem for your reader. Or when it assuages a fear. Or when it meets a desire.  

Informative content is valuable. So is entertaining content. Ultimately, providing value is fundamental to the success of any piece of copy because in its absence, what’s there to care about?

So next time you sit down to write your next blog article or sales letter or landing page, ask yourself: Who’s this for? What do they want or need? And, perhaps, what would Kurt do?

What do you think of these writing rules? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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