Authors Distill Their Writing Advice to Just a Few Words

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It has been nearly 20 years since the night in a newspaper office in Delhi when I came across a copy of a fax V.S. Naipaul had sent in response to a reporter asking for his rules of writing. (“Avoid the abstract; always go for the concrete.”) I found those rules useful. In recent years, I have had a mantra of my own: “Write every day, and walk every day.” A modest goal of 150 words daily and mindful walking for 10 minutes.

I suspect writers are more likely than, say, firefighters or doctors or second basemen to seek professional advice from those they admire. This is because writing is regarded as a magical act, its mysteries parted, if only temporarily, by the adoption of some practical rules about point of view or the use of revealing details. The truth, of course, is that writing is a wholly individual, idiosyncratic practice. When I started asking writers I knew or met at literary festivals to sign their books with a piece of valuable advice, I began to see it not as self-help but, instead, as a glimpse into that particular writer’s mind.

Having asked dozens of writers this question, I have now arrived at what I myself want to inscribe in the books I’m asked to sign: “Language is your closest ally and if you align it with your desire for freedom, you will be able to live forever.”

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