Wednesday, September 19, 2012

V.S. Naipaul's advice for beginner writers

One of the first things I tell my students is that it helps to follow a formula when you are starting out as a writer.

For example, when aspiring journalists try their hand at writing a news report, they should keep in mind the inverted pyramid structure and divide (loosely) their story structure into intro, explanation, corroboration, and qualification.

I also tell my students that there are a million ways to say the same thing so, once they become confident about their writing, they should experiment, and break the rules if necessary. The only thing that matters, I try to impress upon them, is the reader. As long as the reader is hooked, it does not matter what formula has been used.


Now here's some advice for beginner writers from Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul. He may have novelists in mind, rather than journalists, but this list, which was compiled at Tehelka's request, contains advice that media novices will benefit from, too:

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, practise 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.
  • I discovered this list when I was going through India Uncut, the blog published by novelist and journalist Amit Varma.

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