Photo by Faizul Latif Chowdhury, via Wikimedia Commons
As even his harshest critics admitted, V.S. Naipaul knew how to write. The death earlier this month of the author of A House for Mr Biswas, A Bend in the River, and The Enigma of Arrival got readers thinking again about the nature of his art. A Trinidad-born Indian who went to England on a government scholarship to Oxford, he eventually achieved a literary mastery of the English language that few of his peers in England — or anyone else there, for that matter — could hope to match.
Like any celebrated creator, Naipaul has long had his imitators. But instead of trying to replicate what they read in his books, they would do better to replicate how he made himself a writer. “It took a lot of work to do it,” Naipaul once told an interviewer. “In the beginning I had to forget everything I had written by the age of 22. I abandoned everything and began to write like a child at school. Almost writing ‘the cat sat on the mat.’” Amitava Kumar quotes that line in an essay on his own development as a writer, influenced not just by Naipaul’s memories of starting out but Naipaul’s seven rules.
“There was a pen-and-ink portrait of Naipaul on the wall,” writes Kumar about his first day working at the Indian newspaper Tehelka. “High above someone’s computer was a sheet of paper that said ‘V. S. Naipaul’s Rules for Beginners.'” Tehelka reporters had asked the famed writer “if he could give them some basic suggestions for improving their language. Naipaul had come up with some rules. He had fussed over their formulation, corrected them, and then faxed back the corrections.” Kumar decided to follow the rules and found they were “a wonderful antidote to my practice of using academic jargon, and they made me conscious of my own writing habits. I was discovering language as if it were a new country.”
Naipaul’s list of rules for beginning writers runs as follows:
Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than 10 or 12 words.
Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.
Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.
Never use words whose meanings you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.
The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of color, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.
Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.
Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward, but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university. You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.
If you’ve read other writers’ tips, especially those we’ve featured before here on Open Culture, some of Naipaul’s rules may sound familiar. “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” says George Orwell. “The more abstract a truth which one wishes to teach, the more one must first entice the senses,” says Nietzsche. “The adverb is not your friend,” says Stephen King. Naipaul’s rules may strike you as overly restrictive, but bear in mind that he composed them for newspapermen looking to make improvements in their prose, and recommended following them for six months as a kind of course of treatment to rid themselves of “bad language habits.”
The seasoned writer, however, can work according to rules of his own. Naipaul once explained this in no uncertain terms to Knopf editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta. “It happens that English — the history of the language — was my subject at Oxford,” he wrote in a letter reprimanding the house for its overzealous copy editing, laboriously adherent to French-style “court rules,” of one of his manuscripts. “The glory of English is that it is without these court rules: it is a language made by the people who write it. My name goes on my book. I am responsible for the way the words are put together. It is one reason why I became a writer.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.