V.S. Naipaul Creates a List of 7 Rules for Beginning Writers

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.”

via Lithub

Relat­ed con­tent:

V.S. Naipaul Writes an Enraged Let­ter to His Pub­lish­er After a Copy-Edi­tor Revis­es His Book, A Turn in the South

Writ­ing Tips by Hen­ry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Mar­garet Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writ­ing Clear and Tight Prose

Nietzsche’s 10 Rules for Writ­ing with Style (1882)

Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writ­ers

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.

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  • D. Linden says:

    I find it amus­ing the the author quotes “use short sen­tences, and, adverbs are not your friend,” and then writes the fol­low­ing…
    “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.”

  • Moti Lal says:

    Undoubt­ed­ly, writ­ing short sen­tences help a new read­er to grasp the mean­ing of the sen­tences as longer sen­tences may cre­ate con­fu­sion. Shake­speare has also said: “Let thy words be few”. But some­times it become nec­es­sary to write longer sen­tences like “if claus­es” and oth­er con­di­tion­al sen­tences. After all “Con­junc­tions” are for what? They help us in writ­ing long sen­tences. Any­how, short sen­tences are good in under­stand­ing. Thanks.

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