Sir V.S. Naipaul is the Nobel Prize winning English author The Mystic Masseur and many other works of both fiction and nonfiction. As an aide to a younger writer (who was struggling to overcome the academic-style jargon of the University) Sir Naipaul wrote up seven rules for beginning writers. By following these rules studiously for six months, the young writer was able to reinvent her writing style and publish her first book.
The key here (in my mind) was that the struggling young writer was not truly a beginning writer. She already knew how to write, well enough to at least successfully complete a University education. She was not learning to write, so much as she was learning to write seriously.
I would posit that no one reading my little essay is truly a beginning writer (I doubt many seven or eight-year-olds are reading this.) However, many of us are just beginning to try our hand at serious writing. Writing stories and novels that captivate readers’ imaginations, poetry that describes the indescribable, or nonfiction that makes the universe of reality come alive on the page.
These are the beginners Sir Naipaul wrote his rules for: us.
- Do not write long sentences.
A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words. It’s hard for most readers to keep track of such a complicated string of ideas. It can often be hard for the writer to do that too and it shows in the writing. I call it making the sentence work too hard. Have pity on the poor things.
- Each sentence should make a clear statement.
This builds on the previous rule. A sentence has one job and that is to make a statement, state one truth. By creating complex, intricate, sentences, we are often asking them to do too much. We overtax them. And like anything, when we overtax it, the sentence gets less and less efficient at its job. Short statements have power. Short sentences have impact. They are also much easier to read. If your prose seems confusing or disorganized, one of the first things to check is your sentences. You’re probably asking them to do too much.
- Do not use big words.
If you go back and find your word processor says your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small, common, words forces us to give great thought to what we’re writing. Though it isn’t easy, even the most difficult concepts can be expressed with small words. But it takes more work, more creativity. Do that work. Be creative.
- Never use words whose meanings you are not sure of.
Nothing marks an amateur than misusing words. As the movie said: “I do not think that words means what you think it does.” The writer needs the reader to believe her authority enough to buy in to their story. Using the wrong word kills that authority quicker than anything. We are writers. If want to be respected, we need to be professional users of language.
- Avoid adjectives and adverbs as much as possible.
Most adjectives and adverbs do little for your writing but slow it down and soften its impact. You can’t always make your project work without any at all, but you should try. Your prose will be crisper if you do.
- Avoid the abstract.
The concrete is always more powerful than the abstract. It’s why the folklore of virtually every culture developed fables and folktales. It is a much more effective way of teaching an audience, than simple telling them to follow a rule. Think of the fable of the grasshopper and the ant. The grasshopper lounges away the summer days while the ant works hard gathering and storing food. When winter comes, the grasshopper is starving, but the ant has gathered plenty of food. The tale is much more effective than simply saying: “You need to save for the future.” Concrete is more effective than abstract.
- Every day, practice writing this way.
Small words; clear concrete sentences; one idea at a time. It is training you in the use of the language.
These rules are intended to help with those periods (which we all have, sooner or later) when we get bogged down in some writing project or other. Often it’s because we have lost focus. More often, it’s because we have overestimated our own writing abilities and have tried to do too much. Returning to these basic rules can often show us how to work through our problem. As with much in this life, simple is often better than complex and that’s the gist of these rules: try to simplify.