Tuesday, December 1, 2009

An Adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's Rules for Writing.

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite writers. In Bagombo Snuff Box, he gives some advice about writing, in the form of eight rules. Although he intends the rules to apply to fiction writers, I find that much of it is relevant, with some modification, to philosophical writing. I find this sort of thing helpful, anyways, and maybe you will, too.
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
This applies to us in a straightforward manner, with one caveat: philosophers are entitled to assume that the stranger is a total nerd with bizarre views about what would count as a waste of time.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Give the reader at least one view he or she can identify with. Then explain why he or she should reject that view and adopt yours.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
I don't know how this would apply to what we do.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
Here I substitute "explain the view or advance the argument."
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
This carries over without modification.
6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
No matter how plausible and obvious your view, subject it to brutal attack—in order that the reader may see what it is made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
Hmm. He paints a picture, doesn't he?
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
I find this one very helpful. I have a tendency to try to build suspense and reader interest by not showing my cards until the very end of the paper. As a result, nobody can tell what I'm up to and everybody gets confused. It works better to be entirely up front about what you're doing. You can save the details for later, but the reader should know right away that this is your preferred view or solution to the problem. The rest of the paper should be devoted to explaining why you like it, not building up to a big reveal at the end.

--Mr. Zero

16 comments:

Glaucon said...

I think the "Bennett Rules" (from Bennett and Gorovitz, "Improving Academic Writing" in Teaching Philosophy, vol. 20 (1997), available at www.earlymoderntexts.com/jfb/bengor.pdf) are pretty good, too:
Verbs are better than nouns.
Adverbs are better than adjectives.
Favor the Anglo-Saxon.
Banish 'very' and its ilk.
Abstract nouns should be fought like the devil.
Avoid undue repetition.
Be careful with commas.
Attend to the sound.
Use technical notation cautiously.
Question acronyms.
Attend to problems of order.
Avoid prose in footnotes.
Read with charity, report with more charity.
Prepare abstracts.
Deliberate about divisions.

Anonymous said...

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

I suppose that this claim can be taken as recommending charitable interpretations of opposing views: every view has something to be said for it.

Asstro said...

"3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water."

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of twater.

Better?

Anonymous said...

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

Anon 9:42 said:

"I suppose that this claim can be taken as recommending charitable interpretations of opposing views: every view has something to be said for it."

I would take this to mean, don't use straw men, but for similar reasons. Every view you consider should have a reasonable job to do--not just to be knocked down.

Anonymous said...

I noticed that the phylo job wiki is down (not the PhilosophyPositions wiki, however).

Great. Here we go again...

Stephen Heleker said...

'3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.'

Perhaps every view you put forward should have some important implications, even if no one but a philosopher will care about them.

Although I do appreciate the twater, ha.

Anonymous said...

Can we stop having boring posts and get some gossip up in here PPPULLEEEZ!!!

Elizabeth said...

Re: #3 -- like Stephen Heleker, I think the analogous rule is that there must be something important at stake in the dispute. Just as each character must have something at stake in the story.

Polacrilex said...

This is completely off-topic, but perhaps you would be willing to post this as a separate thread. I am curious about others' points of views with regard to the following situation:

This year I have been teaching as a VAP at a university with various graduate programs (no philosophy, however), and while here I decided to enroll in an applied ethics course in another department in order to expand my knowledge-base of the subject. I will here refer to it as the Ethics of $. Mind you, this is a graduate level class in a non-philosophy dept.
Here is my problem: the course has been, quite simply, a complete waste of time. Not only that, but the professor teaching it is what one could refer to as an 'applied ethics charlatan.' She has no business teaching such a class. The entire history of ethical theory was boiled down to a handout the first day of class. That was it! Ethical theories were never again mentioned! No deontological arguments. No consequentialism. No utilitarianism. Not even naive hedonism. The rest of the semester has been devoted to discussing "issues" in the Ethics of $, which all end in the statement: "Well, your ethics are just your personal philosophy." Seriously. When she assigns case studies, she wants to know how the students "feel" about the issues. That's it. No arguments.

Trust me, this PhD (I will not mention what subject) is a piece of work. She makes statements like, "It's not that I hate homosexuals. I just don't believe in homosexuality," and "I don't force my beliefs on anyone, but I do think non-believers are going to hell" [this is a state university, btw].

I must mention that I do have a background in other areas of applied ethics, but nothing in the Ethics of $. The entire semester I have kept quiet about this issue, but now I believe something must be done about this sham of a class (that is required of all of this department's graduate students).

Any suggestions on what to do in this situation (aside from the obvious; trust me, her department is getting a multi-paged, pre-typed evaluation)?

[Plus, this gives you all something else to think about for a second between checking the job wiki.]

Anonymous said...

You kidding, right? I can see how those rules can appeal to high-school kids, but to PhDs in philo...

Anonymous said...

Polacrilex, I would write a letter to the dean explaining the situation. Someone should speak up.

Anonymous said...

Polacrilex: You could try... well... presenting an argument? Just a thought? Assuming your goal is to become a philosopher and educator, especially in a field like applied ethics, you're going to face naive relativism every day, even from very educated people. If you think this is a mistaken position (and I agree that it is), make an argument against it. If you sit there stewing silently, you're effectively complicit in their ignorance.

Anonymous said...

I'm with 8:38 on this one. I think you should pipe up with loud, clear, rigorous arguments and show this woman why such a position is intellectually irresponsible. Then fill out an evaluation. Then maybe go talk to the dean.

Polacrilex said...

Anon 8:38 - Although I agree with making an argument, such an argument would be fairly useless in the context of the class. First of all, remember that I am acting as the student within this context, which is one of the reasons I gave the professor the benefit of the doubt (that and hoping that things would take a turn for the better). Second, I'm not dealing with a person who comprehends logical argument. An argument that falls on deaf ears does absolutely nothing beneficial. In fact, when I have raised logical points, I have been met with emotional resistance, as well as (and, yes, sadly I am being serious) "Just remember who determines your grade!"

Although I appreciate the suggestion, I think the argument is going to have to be delivered to an administrative party, not this dingbat instructor.

zombie said...

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

The suspense comes from your readers wondering whether or not you're going to pull off that clever philosophical maneuver you're promising. So tell them about it up front. Give them a reason to root for you (or against you). But definitely tell them what's coming. This is one of those skills that I never seemed to acquire in writing phil papers in grad school. So I had to learn how to write an intro, and an abstract while trying to finish my diss. They're useful skills.

Anonymous said...

Polacrilex, I sympathize with your situation and disagree with those who say, 'Just give her a good argument.' One shouldn't expect a good argument to persuade those with severely low standards of rationality. I think some philosophers are simply ignorant of how low those standards actually are among some university instructors.

Petitioning some higher-up sounds wholly appropriate, but I wouldn't restrict the expression of your criticism to that avenue alone. You could help redeem that sham of a class by expressing your criticism in class. Even if the instructor isn't willing to entertain your argument(s), the other students may be. From the sound of things, that by itself would elevate the pedagogical utility of the course. A class is never simply about the officially designated content; it's also about the spirit of rational reflection which is either promoted or discouraged by the conduct of both the instructor and the students.