Naipaul’s seven rules for beginning writers

There’s a lot of advice for writers out there, ranging from the practical to the mystical. I like to read it, but I don’t usually study it closely, trusting that if I encounter a truth about writing often enough, stated in different ways, I will absorb what I need.

Once V.S. Naipaul wrote down seven rules for beginning writers, at the request of the Indian news magazine Tehelka. Being a beginning writer myself (or at least one who is perpetually beginning again), I took a look. They’re pretty good, and I think I may do more than just ponder them.

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 colour, 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.

The rules about short sentences and short words I violate habitually. I don’t know how often I use adjectives and adverbs. I have my own long-standing rule about always backing up a point with one or more concrete illustrations, but I’ve never sat down and scrutinized my writing for abstractness. I am actually a stickler for word meanings, and will often look up words that I am using to carry the weight, not just to double-check my understanding but to look for nuances.

What I particularly like about Naipaul’s rules is that they don’t constitute a law, but rather a discipline. He states clearly at the end that they are to be practiced for a time, as well as a purpose—to rid yourself of bad habits. And that, once mastered, you may go beyond them. But (I assume) they will still constitute a default, that going beyond them will be exceptional in some way, and by mastering the rules you will know when going beyond is needed, as opposed to merely possible.

A large part of why I often violate Naipaul’s rules is that when I write I am frequently exploring possibilities, ways of thinking, ways of getting thoughts down in writing, ways of evoking a response in a reader. I understand that big words and long, complex sentences can work against the goal of communicating—but I want to have written them so that I have a hands-on feel for doing things that way.

But as I enter the final stretch here, I need to lay off the experimentation and use what I’ve learned to get some things done. I’m in a similar position to Naipaul’s “beginning writers”, who surely had much knowledge of the building blocks of writing, words and grammar and such, but were now ready to learn how to deploy those elements effectively, to write in a way that conveys meaning efficiently and accurately and evocatively. So I will look for a way to adopt Naipaul’s discipline for a season.

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