10 Rules of Writing

Amitava Kumar 34

When I was promoted to the rank of professor, the library at the university where I was then employed asked me to send them the name of a book that had been useful to me in my career. I chose VS Naipaul’s Finding the Center. The library then purchased a copy, which was duly displayed in one of its rooms, with a statement I had written about the book:

This was one of the first literary autobiographies that I read. Its very first sentence established in my mind the idea of writing as an opening in time or a beginning; it conveyed to me, with its movement and rhythm, a history of repeated striving, and of things coming together, at last, in the achievement of the printed word: “It is now nearly thirty years since, in a BBC room in London, on an old BBC typewriter, and on smooth, ‘non-rustle’ BBC script paper, I wrote the first sentence of my first publishable book.”

This first sentence—about a first sentence—created an echo in my head. It has lasted through the twenty years of my writing life. The ambition and the anxiety of the beginner is there at the beginning of each book. Every time I start to write, I am reminded of Naipaul’s book.

But that wasn’t the whole truth, neither about Naipaul, nor about beginnings. The sentence I had quoted had mattered to me, yes, and so had the book, but what had really helped was Naipaul’s telling an interviewer that in an effort to write clearly, he had turned himself into a beginner: “It took a lot of work to do it. In the beginning I had to forget everything I had written by the age of 22. I abandoned everything and began to write like a child at school. Almost writing ‘the cat sat on the mat’. I almost began like that.”

And I did that too, almost. About a decade ago, soon after I had received tenure, Tehelka asked me to come aboard as a writer. I was visiting my parents in India at that time. It was winter, and I went to the Tehelka office to talk to the editors.

Later, when we were done, I was taken around for a tour of the place. There was a pen-and-ink portrait of Naipaul on the wall because he was one of the trustees. And high above someone’s computer was a sheet of paper that said “VS Naipaul’s Rules for Beginners”.

These were rules for writing. It was explained to me that Naipaul was asked by the Tehelka reporters if he could give them some basic suggestions for improving their language. Naipaul had come up with some rules. He had fussed over their formulation, corrected them and then faxed back the corrections. I was told that I could take the sheet if I wanted.

A few days later, I left India and the sheet travelled with me, folded in the pages of a book that I was reading. In the books and weeks that followed, I began writing a regular literary column for Tehelka, and in those pieces, I tried to work by Naipaul’s rules.  

The rules were a wonderful antidote to my practice of using academic jargon, and they made me conscious of my own writing habits. I was discovering language as if it were a new country.

Like a traveller in a new place, I asked questions, took notes and began to arrange things in a narrative. I followed the rules diligently for at least a year, and my book Bombay–London–New York was a product of the writing I did during that period.

Here then are “VS Naipaul’s Rules for Beginners”:

Do not write long sentences.
A sentence should not have more than 10 or 12 words.

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.

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.

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

The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size and number.
Use as few adverbs as possible.

Avoid the abstract.
Always go for the concrete.

Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way.
Small words; 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.

In their simplicity and directness, I do not think the above rules can be improved upon. A beginner should take them daily, like a dose of much-needed vitamins. Of course, rules can never be a substitute for what a writer can learn, should learn, simply by sitting down and writing. But I offer my own students rules all the time. On the first day of my writing class this year, I handed out xeroxed sheets of rules by Ray Bradbury, not least because he offers the valuable advice that one should write a short story each week for a whole year. Why? “It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

I have also prepared my own list of rules for my students. My list isn’t in any way a presumption of expertise, and is offered only as evidence of experience. I intend to teach by example. These habits have worked for me and I want my students to use them to cultivate the practice of writing.

If you have read this essay so far, you are probably a writer. That is what you should write in the blank space where you are asked to identify your occupation. I say this also for another reason. Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Those words scared the living daylights out of me. I thought of the days passing, days filled with my wanting to write, but not actually writing. I had wasted years.

Each day is a struggle, and the outcome is always uncertain, but I feel as if I have reversed destiny when I have sat down and written my quota for the day. Once that work is done, it seems okay to assume that I will spend my life writing.

Illustration: Hazel Karkaria / By Two Design

Illustration: Hazel Karkaria / By Two Design

Here then are my rules:

1. Write every day. This is a cliché, of course, but you will write more when you tell yourself that no day must pass without writing. At the back of a notebook I use in my writing class, I write down the date and then make a mark next to it after the day’s work is done. I show the page to my students often, partly to motivate them, and  partly to remind myself that I can’t let my students down.

2. Have a modest goal. Aim to write 150 words each day. It is very difficult for me to find time on some days, and it is only this low demand that really makes it even possible to sit down and write. On better days, this goal is just a start; often, I end up writing more.

3. Try to write at the same time each day. I recently read a Toni Morrison interview in which she said: “I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are at their best, creatively.” It works best for me if I write at the same time each day—in my case, that hour or two that I get between the time I drop off my kids at school and go in to teach. I have my breakfast and walk up to my study with my coffee. In a wonderful little piece published on The New Yorker blog “Page-Turner”, writer Roxana Robinson writes how she drinks coffee quickly and sits down to write—no fooling around reading the paper, or checking the news, or making calls to friends, or trying to find out if the plumber is coming. “One call and I’m done for. Entering into the daily world, where everything is complicated and requires decisions and conversation, means the end of everything. It means not getting to write.” I read Robinson’s piece in January 2013, and alas, I have thought of it nearly every day since.

4. Turn off the Internet. The Web is a great resource and entirely unavoidable, but it will help you focus when you buy the Freedom app. Using a device like this not only rescues me from easy distraction, it also works as a timer. When you click on the icon, it asks you to choose the duration for which you want the computer to not have access to the Net. I choose 60 minutes and this also helps me keep count of how long I have sat at my computer.

5. Walk for ten minutes. Or better yet, go running. If you do not exercise regularly, you will not write regularly—or not for long. I haven’t been good at doing this and have paid a price with trouble in my back. I have encouraged my students to go walking too, and have sometimes thought that when I have to hold lengthy consultations with my writing class, I should go for walks with them on our beautiful campus.

6. A bookshelf of your own. Choose one book, or five, but no more than ten, to guide you, not with research necessarily, but with the critical matter of method or style. Another way to think about this is to ask yourself who are the writers, or scholars, or artists, that you are in conversation with. I use this question to help arrive at my own subject matter, but it also helps with voice.

7. Get rid of it if it sounds like grant talk. I don’t know about you, but I routinely produce dead prose when I’m applying for a grant. The language used in applications must be abhorred: stilted language, jargon, etc. I’m sure there is a psychological or sociological paper to be written about the syntax and tone common in such things—the appeal to power, lack of freedom—but in my case it might just be because, with the arrival of an application deadline, millions of my brain cells get busy committing mass suicide.

8. Learn to say no. This applies equally to the friendly editor who asks for a review or an essay, even to the friend who is editing an anthology. Say no if it takes you away from the writing you want to do. My children are small and don’t take no for an answer, but everyone who is older is pretty understanding. And if they’re understanding, they’ll know that for you occasional drinks or dinner together are more acceptable distractions.

9. Finish one thing before taking up another. Keep a notebook handy to jot down ideas for any future book, but complete the one you are working on first. This rule has been useful to me. I followed it after seeing it on top of the list of Henry Miller’s “Commandments”. It has been more difficult to follow another of Miller’s rules: “Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.”

10. The above rule needs to be repeated. I have done shocking little work when I have tried to write two books at once. Half-finished projects seek company of their own and are bad for morale. Shut-off the inner editor and complete the task at hand.

34 Comments

  1. Raj A Iype March 21, 2014 at 7:54 am - Reply

    Thank you Mr. Kumar!

  2. Srikanth June 2, 2014 at 7:33 am - Reply

    Thank you sir.

  3. Mohit parikh June 6, 2014 at 7:30 am - Reply

    Useful. Worth exercising. I am reading Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer and so am at that stage where need to practice these rules.
    Thank-you for this piece.

  4. Nitin October 16, 2014 at 10:46 am - Reply

    Rules are good to follow but it’s very tough to keep following them. I don’t think closing the internet will help. It only depends on how much you are involved in the topic you are writing. Whenever I write, (very less), I get so involved in the topic/story I am writing, that I forget everything else. I agree discipline is good but not sure how to maintain it if writing is not your living but just a hobby. But I really appreciate the ideas you have shared and I will try my best to include a few of them in my writing in the future.

  5. Petra Guerra July 3, 2016 at 10:49 am - Reply

    For me, a Professor, is pretty hard to start writing. Thank you for sharing these fantastic rules. I tend to have too many pots on the stove!

  6. Liz Kiyawasew July 4, 2016 at 6:43 am - Reply

    Thank you.

  7. Anis Rahman July 4, 2016 at 11:23 am - Reply

    Thank you, Professor Kumar!

  8. Rob Jewell July 4, 2016 at 1:00 pm - Reply

    writing has been a key element in my 50 years of commercial life. My writing has always been of fact based opinions reports or letters. These rules would have been helpful. They will help my grandchildren

  9. Bryn July 5, 2016 at 8:19 am - Reply

    Love this!

  10. Fernando July 5, 2016 at 4:36 pm - Reply

    I usually don’t like articles that come up with lists of the ten rules to do this or that. But this one was such a pleasant surprise. Because it has got a lot to say. And it was written with such elegancy. Congratulations!
    ps.: and it just made me want to write more :)

  11. Maria Antonia Garces July 5, 2016 at 5:39 pm - Reply

    Thank you for a great article and wonderful rules! I have a been a professor for 22 years and your rules still make sense.

  12. Shailaja Vishwanath July 6, 2016 at 5:41 pm - Reply

    This was a very lovely piece on the art of writing. As clinical as it may seem, I think good writing emerges from sound practice and sincere willingness to listen to feedback. Setting aside the ego is a big problem for most writers and if one can do that, then writing by itself becomes a pleasure.

    Very happy to have come across this post.

  13. Maria Corazon de la Paz July 6, 2016 at 7:01 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the simple rules.

  14. krish July 6, 2016 at 7:23 pm - Reply

    super… Thank you

  15. Daniel Stebbins July 7, 2016 at 12:47 am - Reply

    I really enjoyed reading your article professor. I found it accurate, well written and inspiring. Thank you very much for sharing that information with me. I’ll put it to good use!

  16. Stephen Papps July 7, 2016 at 1:37 am - Reply

    Many thanks!

  17. Bernardo F Ople July 7, 2016 at 7:41 am - Reply

    Extremely useful

  18. Brikhesh Chandra July 7, 2016 at 5:59 pm - Reply

    Nice, Sir !

  19. jonalyn balome July 8, 2016 at 5:42 am - Reply

    Thank you for this wonderful tips you have shared with us. Honestly, I’m not a good writer but I’m a trying hard writer. I tried hard to send story for my co-students. I want them to read and internalize the story I shared.

  20. Paulino Castro July 9, 2016 at 2:16 am - Reply

    Thank you for sharing your rules in writing. This is very useful and will help me in writing .

  21. AAYUSH July 10, 2016 at 7:13 pm - Reply

    Absolutely helpful…esp writing small sentences. Thanks

  22. Marta Villarreal July 12, 2016 at 10:10 pm - Reply

    Very Helpful. (Human Rights advocate)

  23. Amanda Kay Cruz July 14, 2016 at 9:52 am - Reply

    I love these simple, easy to follow and easy to teach rules. Thanks!

  24. Sulaiman July 17, 2016 at 7:00 pm - Reply

    Thank you Mr Kumar……very enlightening…..

  25. Arun Jha July 18, 2016 at 12:31 am - Reply

    Very helpful for amateurs like me

  26. Mouktar August 4, 2016 at 10:34 am - Reply

    Absolutely wonderful tips you have shared with us. Honestly
    I really enjoyed reading your article professor. I found it accurate, well written and inspiring
    known be goodness with you

  27. cornelia soberano July 5, 2017 at 8:25 am - Reply

    Namaste! All that you said will help me if I ever accede to my friends’ and relatives’ unrelenting twisting of my arm that I write ~ about my life experiences to now and am 65.

    Lawyer/community organizer/better-at-editing-not-writing-I-think because of that fear of imperfection!

    But I just broke one of your cardinal rules!

  28. Nishat July 6, 2017 at 7:08 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing these tips.Much needed by every person who writes.

  29. Lynn Dirk July 6, 2017 at 11:59 pm - Reply

    A well-written work on writing. As a long-time medical editor whose mentor in 1978 was the JAMA Editor Emeritus, Lester King (“Half as long is twice as good!”), I have a rule to add to Naipul’s Rules: Apply all of Naipul’s other rules to grant writing. If that happened, Dr. Kumar, you would only need 9 rules because Rule #7 could be eliminated. Also, grant applications would be much less painful and very likely much more successful. PS, I highly recommend Dr. King’s book on scientific writing: Why Not Say It Clearly: https://www.amazon.com/Why-Not-Say-Clearly-Expository/dp/0316493538/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1499365600&sr=8-2&keywords=why+not+say+it+clearly

  30. L. Perez July 7, 2017 at 9:55 pm - Reply

    Loved your list. Very useful as I’m trying to commit to a routine and write every day. It is hard, it’s been hard for way too long, and this kind of readings get me excited for making it happen once and for all. Thanks so much.

  31. Laura Pruneda July 8, 2017 at 8:30 pm - Reply

    Thank you your article. I am a writer always trying to master my work. Your advice is quiet helpful. I intend to do so in the English language. I hope to read more of you.

  32. Aurora July 10, 2017 at 2:50 am - Reply

    VS Naipul’s rules are basically instructions on how to write like VS Naipul. Fine. But far from being the only way to write. Your own advice is excellent.

  33. Manendra Kumar July 13, 2017 at 1:06 am - Reply

    Sir, this is motivating for learner like us who starts english writing after completing Graduation.

  34. Ravindra July 13, 2017 at 7:49 pm - Reply

    This daily habit helped John Grisham make the transition from lawyer to bestselling novelist

    In the late 1980s, with a busy day job as a lawyer and a couple of young kids at home, John Grisham started to write his first novel…

    http://www.linkedin.com/pulse/daily-habit-helped-john-grisham-make-transition-from-lawyer-glenn
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Grisham

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