25.4.11

 

VS Naipaul’s Seven Rules for Beginners


Following yesterday's post on Alfred Kahn, here is advice from VS Naipaul, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.
VS Naipaul’s Rules for Beginners

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.


Comments:
Aside from 2, 4, and 7, I often have trouble reconciling these suggestions (particularly 5, I'm quite fond of neologistic adjectives) with the desire to avoid ambiguous or redundant language.

Do you know of any good discussions of this tension? Lately I've felt that I'm learning to spot weaknesses in my writing much faster than I'm learning how to correct them. The net result is a steady decline in my composition speed as I iterate furiously, with only marginal perceived improvements in the resulting prose.
 
This is fantastic advice -- it reminds me of the 'plain English' movement in Australia (see their site http://www.plainenglishfoundation.com.au)

It's ironic that throughout university (especially if you're pursuing an English major as I once was) students feel enormous pressure to write in a so-called 'sophisticated' manner. This often results in essays with very poor readability. It's really hard to have to rewire your brain to produce clear, simple, straightforward prose; in a way it's almost revolutionary.

If we look at writers such as Cicero we see this concept in action. I wonder when we began to stray from the path of rhetorical clarity...
 
If you replace "sentence" with "procedure", it's pretty decent advice for beginning programmers, too.
 
It's ironic that throughout university (especially if you're pursuing an English major as I once was) students feel enormous pressure to write in a so-called 'sophisticated' manner.
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