Naipaul's rules for beginning writers

Here's VS Naipaul's seven-point program for beginning writers who want to get better at writing:

1. Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Never use words whose meaning you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.

Click through for the rest. I agree with all of this as an exercise, but think that literature would be poorer if these rules were absolute (though #4 is iron-clad).

VS Naipaul's Advice To Writers (via 3 Quarks Daily)

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  1. I am currently reading the complete works of Lovecraft. He breaks every one of these rules before breakfast. I wouldn’t advise it to other authors, because it does cause a bit of eye-rolling.

  2. (Not sure how an accidental tab, then a space, jumps straight past “preview” to “submit,” whoops)
    You’d never teach a four-year-old to paint like Picasso or Dali from the time they pick up a brush; you have to learn the basics before you go complex.

  3. Out of curiosity, I did a preview of Naipaul’s “A bend in the river,” having not read him before. On the first page alone, he consistently breaks rules 1 and 3 (and perhaps 2, but that is more of a subjective judgement).

    1. As per posting:

      “Here’s VS Naipaul’s seven-point program for *beginning writers* who want to get better at writing”

  4. In this author’s humble opinion, number three should have it’s maximum number of letters increased to … 2+4+7+6+4+6+5+6+4+3+7+6+2+7+8+2 / 16 = 4.9

    D’Oh.

  5. Imagine Proust rewritten that way!

    To be fair the advice is aimed specifically at beginners, but that’s just what I thought.

    “I drank the tea with the cake dunked in it. The taste made me think of something. I couldn’t work out straight away what it was…”

    Also in this context, No.6 from the OP: “Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.” Yeah, I’m looking at you, Marcel.

  6. I think this is beautiful advice for anyone who is doing technical writing, or for anyone who is writing a textbook.

    If you write fiction though, use all the vorpal jabberwockys you want.

    1. Whose advice should I follow? Literature Nobel Prize Winner’s or Boing-Boing anonymous poster’s ?

  7. Beginning writers should be sticking to guidelines like this, the way that beginning artist practice basic skills like perspective, anatomical proportions, and mastery of light and shade.

    Piccasso yes, wasn’t particularly big on perspective, anatomical proportions, or “standard” shading techniques, but a beginning artist isn’t Piccasso either.

    Or, if you prefer, a new driver should work on his basic road and highway driving skills before trying to do stock car racing. You need to know how the car performs at 50km/hr on a predictable road surface before you can try to do 100km/hr on a predictable road surface; you need to master that highway driving before you can go screaming around a track at 80-100km/hr on mixed dirt, mud, gravel, and (former) turf without spinning out or flipping over.

    These are the “safe driving conditions” of writing.

  8. I like it. I am going to use this when I teach writing.

    Vonnegut gives 8 tips for creative writing and then says:

    “The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”

    Great writers break these rules too. The rest of us are probably better understood when we keep it simple.

  9. For what kind of writing? Journalism? sure… creative writing? hell no. Write with your own voice. #4 is pretty much a no brainer, but really who would use a word they weren’t sure they knew what it meant? and how hard is it to look up the word and decide whether or not it is the right word? Beyond all that even, is it not possible for a writer to give new meaning to a word based on context and use? how could a writer not know what the word they’re using means. Doesn’t it necessarily mean something to them unless they’re just spraying noise on paper?

    1. I’ve read dozens of stories where an author mis-used a word. It happens all the time, and it’s not at all okay.

    2. “For what kind of writing?”

      Do you know who VA Naipaul is?

      “Write with your own voice.”

      Oh goodness. Yet another person that believes that nonsense.

      In any case, how do good beginner’s rules mess up “your own voice”[tm]

      “Beyond all that even, is it not possible for a writer to give new meaning to a word based on context and use?”

      Not in general. Language is used to communicate with others, trying to redefine words the way you envision is not a safe way of writting for beginners.

      “how could a writer not know what the word they’re using means. Doesn’t it necessarily mean something to them unless they’re just spraying noise on paper?”

      There are lots of writers that use fancy words without fully understanding what they mean. Mastery of the language is not a matter of wishful thinking, it is a matter of hard graft, which is what the rules imply.

  10. I think the point to bear in mind here is that if you’re preternaturally talented, the rules don’t really apply; but these are very good, valid pointers for those who aren’t Proust or Joyce, i.e. virtually everybody who tries their hand at creative writing. I mean, no set of rules can be anywhere near universally applicable with regard to creative occuaptions, but in so far as you can posit any rules at all, these ones are pretty solid.

  11. “(though #4 is iron-clad)”

    I dunno – people breaking #4 have provided me with some legendary belly laughs. cf. “Oh, if only I had scrod.”

  12. All of these are excellent rules for BEGINNING writers. They’re solid rules that will improve anyone’s writing. Once you’re more experienced, you can start to break some of the rules with knowledge of how and why you’re breaking them.

  13. 1. Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words.

    […]

    3. […] If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. (19 words)

  14. Totally agree with these rules. I’ve graded far too many graduate level papers from students who think they are much better writers than they are. They need to learn how to say something clearly. This is absolutely true for beginning creative writers as well. There’s nothing in these rules that squelch creativity. Indeed, I think having set boundaries encourages creativity.

    It is only when a writer can understand and master the craft within such boundaries that breaking the rules becomes artistic rather than cringe-worthy. Like with all art, breaking the rules is okay, if you know that you’re breaking the rules and why you are breaking them.

  15. No. 4 is an excellent rule, but I think it’s yet stickier than that… consider the frequent misapplication of “jealous” where “envious” would be the correct term.

    Learning correct usage is an ongoing project for all writers, I should think; who knows the OED cover-to-cover?

  16. I’m happy that I don’t write English prose (except for comments on the ‘net). These writers rules are similar to those the authors of regulations and laws have to follow in Sweden, and that is a good thing, and what is used in SwEnglish language EU documents (that have to be easy to translate to/from English/French), but I wouldn’t like to see that kind of simplistic language in any other context.

    1. Swedish rule of thumb. One chain of thought, or thoughts connected by one feeling –> one sentence. If you try to do that in English, usually it is plain impossible due to the rigid sentence structure, or the text either get very wordy, with lots of empty filler words that make the reader get lost, or if you shorten the sentence by removing words, you lose all logic (like a speech by Bush Jr.). English is a staccato language. Swedish sentences are usually as long as English paragraphs (and provide more information). Studies show that experienced Swedish readers have easier to read long Swedish sentences then short ones. Short sentences lack “melody”, perhaps not important in languages that are bitonal, like English, but most Swedish dialects, when spoken, rely more on tonality then anything else to be understood by a listener (unfortunately, tonality is only hinted at in written Swedish).

    2. English is a fuzzy language, I have yet to read one English sentence that state one clear statement. Usually English writers needs lots and lots and lots of sentences and words to express one clear thought. Making English even more of a staccato language and even more wordy.

    3. Big words, what kind? In Swedish, compound words, within limits, is easier to understand then many short words. When you use words with more then 4-8 components, you should consider if your reader will be able to visually scan the word with ease, longer words should always be broken up. But long “fantasy words” (unfamiliar words readers wouldn’t be able to create by them self from very common non-compound words and the Swedish language rules) is harder to understand. In Swedish those long “fantasy words” are loan words, albeit some of them centuries old, it is a good rule to avoid those words. Although most modern English words are “fantasy words” (most of them inherited from historic English and created by word composition rules available at that time), I’m still a bit surprised by this advise for English writers, as the English language contains a (very) simplified Latin (a language within the language), that can be used for primitive word composition, shouldn’t those Latin-like compound words be easier to understand than many short words for an native English reader? Short words == staccato language, to a Swede you sound very angry, stupid, or like you talk down to a child/idiot/deaf.

    4. Good rule in any language. In Swedish it also good important not just what the word mean, but also its historic background, as it is important for how it can be used (different grammar, different contexts et.c.).

    5. Another fault of modern English, again best illustrated by the blather from Bush Jr. In many other languages, you can use adjectives and adverbs without getting incomprehensible. They are important because they allow you to use other words that bring the right (your) feelings and visions to the reader.

    6. Why? Is the reader mentally handicapped? Swedes get insulted if they are spoken/written to as if they were idiots. Or does he by “abstract” mean fuzzy?

    7. Yeah, if you want to become a children’s book writer, or write in English.

    In Swedish we use a readability index called LIX ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LIX ), that (despite its simplicity) measure conformance to all(!) the rules in the article. But it is never so simplistic that a lower index value always provide better readability, it depends on how familiar the reader is to the Swedish language and to the subject at hand. For Swedish text, there have been many studies done as for what LIX intervals is most optimal to what readers in different contexts.

  17. Sigh. The kind of thinking expressed in points 1 and 3 has resulted in shrinking vocabularies and brains that can only handle the simplest of statements.

  18. Imposing constraints on yourself is a great way to improve at something, no matter what your skill level. As a beginner it limits the set of things you immediately need to master so you can improve one thing at a time. Once you’re advanced, it’s a good way to get you to focus back down on one thing, and to encourage yourself to think in new ways, which you can then apply to your “real” problem solving.

    In Starcraft 2, it’s called Funday Monday :)

  19. The problem with #4 is that the people who are inclined to use a word when they don’t know its meaning don’t know that they don’t know the meaning. Usually. It’s basically the Dunning-Kruger effect as applied to vocabulary.

    1. “The problem with #4 is that the people who are inclined to use a word when they don’t know its meaning don’t know that they don’t know the meaning. Usually. It’s basically the Dunning-Kruger effect as applied to vocabulary.”

      I refudiate that.

  20. Giving this kind of advice to budding writers is fine, as long as you temper it with moderation.

    I mean, come on. This is stylistic stuff. He wants all writing to sound like dialogue from Star Trek (TOS) being read by William Shatner.

    In some cases, literature suffers. It dies. Alone. In the dark. There’s no flow to it, no chance to create rhythm with your words.

    My wife, on the other hand, who does hard news journalism, writes like Naipaul suggests. Which is fine, but I wouldn’t want a novel written like that.

  21. Not bad advice. I’ve always been partial to Alan Moore’s 5 Tips for Would-Be Comics Writers:

    ” 1. Don’t
    2. No, really don’t
    3. DEFINITELY don’t — I mean it.
    4.Whatever you might be imagining about a life of writing, it’s not like that.
    5.OK, if you’re going to anyway, if you’re going to be a writer of any quality, you will have to commit yourself to writing — which is something that, when you’re young and idealistic, sounds incredibly easy to do, but you should commit yourself to writing almost as if you were some ancient Greek or Egyptian commiting yourself to a god.

    If you do right by the god, then the god may, at some point in the future, reward you. But if you slack off and don’t do right by your talent or your god, then you are heading for a world of immense and unimaginable pain. If you have a gift that you choose to pursue, then you have to pursue it seriously. Don’t be half-assed about it, but realize what that commitment means.

    Committing yourself to writing will mean, to a certain extent, your writing will become the most important part of your life — and that’s a big thing to say. It can have a distancing effect upon other relationships. It can be sometimes quite a solitary life. If you’re committed to your writing, you’re going to spend most of your life indoors in a silent, empty room, concentrating on a pen and a piece of paper or their equivalent. Be prepared to take it seriously and be prepared to follow where it takes you, even if that takes you to some very strange places.

    This is by no means the most glamorous profession.

    Don’t say that I didn’t warn you.”

  22. Academic writing flat-out wouldn’t work if you tried to do this. OK, so it’s hard to sort through, but isn’t that kind of the point? Some stuff is freaking difficult! Yes, it’s good to have distilled versions that are accessible to non-experts, but the really technical stuff needs to exist too.

    And who wants to read fiction without adjectives? Try The Erasers by Robe-Grillet – he does just that. An interesting experiment to read, but you can kind of see why there wasn’t ‘The Erasers – the Twelve Volume Epic.’

    These rules seem great for anything that no one’s ever going to read.

    1. Academic writing flat-out wouldn’t work if you tried to do this.

      I actually find academic writing that isn’t… academic (for lack of a better phrase) far easier to read. Don’t treat me like I’m an idiot, but don’t treat me like I’m a frickin’ genius either.

    2. I wonder if some of the posters know who Naipaul is…

      Some of the comments are so dismissive that is quite amuzing.

      Dismissing somebody of the stature of Naipaul require more than a dismssive sentence.

  23. Perhaps I’ve just swallowed whole the ironic troll bait, but I wouldn’t recommend this advice.

    The linked article contains the sentence, “It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university.” Writing advice should be exemplary when written, but this breaks at least the first two points. The sentence, “It may rid you of bad language habits picked up at university.”, would be better.

  24. Those who can’t do, preach.

    What’s wrong with using the dictionary and learning and using words that have an exact shade of meaning? Why shut off a large portion of the amazing amalgamation of linguistic roots that is the English Language just because some mythical “average reader” won’t get it.

    Let the average reader watch TV. Oprah can help them find a coloring book. Where Jane has a Dick.

    1. Why shut off a large portion of the amazing amalgamation of linguistic roots that is the English Language just because some mythical “average reader” won’t get it. Let the average reader watch TV. Oprah can help them find a coloring book. Where Jane has a Dick.

      This kind of condescending attitude doesn’t really help anybody. There are amazing writers who write amazing novels with short sentences and easy-to-understand vocabulary. There are awful works consisting of obscure words and winding run-on sentences.

      There’s nothing wrong with books that appeal to the masses, they can be great too. Oprah once recommended “War and Peace” (which, incidentally, was originally published in cheap magazines).

  25. “If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong.”

    At 19 words, that sentence significantly exceeds the suggested 10-12 word limit.

    1. At 19 words, that sentence significantly exceeds the suggested 10-12 word limit.

      Just try to stay within an order of magnitude of the limit.

      1. Just try to stay within an order of magnitude of the limit.

        At least he didn’t round up to the nearest 90.

  26. Is there an unwritten rule against contractions? The list sounds like it was written by Data.

  27. While it’s true that most academic and creative writing wouldn’t work under Naipaul’s rules, the fact is that most academic and creative writing doesn’t work, period. Naipaul isn’t directing his prescriptions to the 1% of writers who are adept at written communication; he’s talking to the 99% who are churning out fuzzy, lazy, and painfully pretentious garbage.

    I like these rules, because they shift the focus of writing from the words themselves to the thought process behind writing — what happens (or should happen) in the writer’s mind before the words even hit the page. Vonnegut wasn’t a good writer because he used plain language. He was good because he knew exactly what he wanted to communicate, and had a keen sense of how to find the quickest, cleanest path to his destination. By the same token, more florid writers like Lovecraft, fundamentally, are no different from Vonnegut — they have a clear sense of what effect they’re going for, and know the right path to that destination.

    The mistake many novice writers make is focusing too much on form — finding the right word, or trying to mimic a particular style, thinking that it’s the words themselves that convey meaning, not the way they’re implemented. Naipaul’s advice forces us to lose the bag of tricks and just say what we’re trying to say. It’s probably a good idea to master that basic level of written communication before moving on to anything fancy.

  28. If you want a much more ‘advanced’ set of really extraordinarily useful writing tips, go here:

    http://classic-web.archive.org/web/20050616003855/http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifehack/fifty-50-tools-which-can-help-you-in-writing.html

    (They’re aimed at journalists but I find a lot of them really handy for technical scientific writing as well. I’m posting a link to archive.org because, although the article is still up on lifehack.org, all the links are broken.)

  29. Ok, I get it, rules for beginners, gotta walk before you run, et cetera, et cetera. However, while reading through this list, I couldn’t help but think what it assumes about the readers. It seems that the author believes that most people don’t read and those who do are not that good at it Therefore, the new author should write for 3rd grade reading comprehension and attempts to eschew obfuscation through careful employment of verbose and descriptive language will only confuse people. I would hope that one can begin to practice writing without dropping back to the metaphorical level of Chicken Jane but, what do I know about word smithy.

  30. This works for Naipaul because, in most of what he writes, the medium (words and paper and such like) is a barrier. What you’re getting, really, is the brain, and to the extent you can get the fudgy little symbols out the way and let the big Naipaullian lobe do its thing you’re gonna be well-served.

  31. None of the authors I like restrict themselves to short sentences and big words. Isn’t it possible this is just a stylistic preference? I understand this is for beginners, so it may simply be that they take practice before you can use these well, but it’s strange looking at advice that would keep me from writing any of the things I enjoy reading.

    (That’s right, that sentence had forty words. And looking back at it, I can’t say I mind that sort of construct at all.)

  32. Sounds like good advice for beginning writers who want to improve their skill. Sounds like a good way for those writers to not get read by anyone but their creative writing professor.

    As a reader, anything over 10 pages of simple statement after simple statement might drive me batty.

      1. :) That was the first novel that I scanned for excerpts, coincidentally. Certainly in the spirit of the guidelines if not by the word of the guidelines. I’m willing to cut Hemmingway some slack on this one seeing how it was his third novel. ;)

    1. James Ellroy. I’d describe some of his writing as ‘terse’, but conversational. Well worth a look.

  33. Everybody complaining about the strictures imposed by these rules obviously haven’t read them to the end:

    7. Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; short, clear, concrete sentences. […] You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.

    For the record, Picasso did a lot of “classical” painting, using anatomy, perspective and all that, before developing his own distinctive manner. (Look up “Early Picasso” in Image Google.) And Proust practiced his prose style for years before trying to publish anything. Among the exercises he did a lot was writing stories in the style of authors he admired, to analyze what mad them good.

    (I’m also amused by the clever fellows who quote “cromulent” or “refudiate” to invalidate rule #4. Naipaul isn’t talking about good writers making up new words for comic effect, but about bad writers who don’t bother with dictionaries, but should.)

  34. I rather enjoy doing the opposite of rules 1 and 3 much of the time, and rule 2 I break in meaningful ways, usually to impose an ironic and/or non-linear subtext. Rule 4 is cromulent, but does it embiggen? I don’t think so.

  35. All this is, is just a guide for the practical aspects of writing, reflecting a typical ‘western’ style approach to the creative. Nowhere is there anything as to how best to bring out the creative side. And as for the poetry in writing, write what pleases oneself. Bring out one’s own poetry, or better yet, Eno’s Oblique Strategies works magic sometimes.

    Anyways, every single writer I’ve heard give the writer’s advice, has something different to say. Which tells me, there are no rules. Never will be.

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