Naipaul’s Rules

When V.S. Naipaul was asked by the Indian website Telkeha for writing advice, he produced this list:

“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.
5. The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.
6. Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.
7. Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; short, 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.”

Naipaul is here partly reacting against the verbosity of Indian journalism. (An English friend of mine once worked as a copy-editor for an Indian newspaper, and told me he spent a lot of time crossing out clauses like “It is no doubt presumptuous of me to say, although I nonetheless feel inclined to say it,” phrases which were then inevitably reinserted by higher-ups.) As for practicing writing short sentences every day for six months, that sounds rather like a Brahmanistic ritual...

But the rules in this list aren't only about stylistic discipline. They form an injunction to be honest, to avoid false sophistication -- to purge yourself of adolescent illusions about what being a writer means. They're the work of a writer who has determinedly exorcised his younger self.

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