Musing about Kurt Vonnegut and writing software

Kurt Vonnegut, who died earlier this year, was that rare breed, a sane and articulate maverick. I’ve read most of his stuff, and enjoyed everything I’ve read. His last book, A Man Without A Country, was a wonderful read.

4.13 Kurt Vonnegut

Some years before he died, as part of a collection of hitherto unpublished short stories called Bagombo Snuff Box, he wrote this:

“Now lend me your ears. Here is Creative Writing 101:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
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.
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.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck 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.”

When I read that, I could not help but think that we need a simple equivalent for software. Something along the lines of:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the user at least one function or facility he or she can root for.
3. Every function should satisfy some user need, however basic.
4. Every screen should do one of two things: reveal new functions or extend an existing function.
5. ………..

You get my drift. Don’t be put off by my paltry attempt, but I was thinking of setting up a wiki with the text and inviting readers to submit their entries and to vote for the best, just for the crack. What do you think? Let me know if I should.

My thanks to Steve Brodner of for the drawing, I really think he captures something of Vonnegut’s attitude in it.

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