The Beast Tamed

Since I am an editor, you might think that I am an enemy of the organic approach to writing, but that’s not true. I used to be a writer myself, you see, and I know how easily an author can become swallowed whole within the gigantic, months-long effort that writing a book requires. An author’s imagination must be free to roam, because so often the best nuggets of the book are found in unexpected interstices that cannot be discovered in the dogged march to completion. Yet I do think that once a certain amount of exploration is done—at the least, by the end of a first draft—a more disciplined approach needs to be taken.

When I discuss this topic, I always think of the novelist V. S. Naipaul. I saw him speak once, at MIT, of all places. That was back in my later twenties, when I decided I would find out if I really was good enough to be a writer. I liked to go to listen to famous authors when they came to Boston, and I jumped at the chance to see Naipaul, because the forceful prose of his Guerrillas affected me powerfully.

He gave a wonderful reading that night, really spellbinding, but the words I remember most came during the question-and-answer period that followed. A buff guy about my age stood up and asked Naipaul, essentially, whether he felt that writing should emerge from the primal spirit within us. I had felt the same impulse many times. Yet Naipaul could not have been more decisive in his disdain. A true former colonial subject (albeit a brilliant one), he was more staunch than the British. He flatly informed the proud young beast that writing was the highest flower of the English language, and his writing bore no resemblance to primal instincts in the slightest.

After the engagement I returned to my tiny apartment greatly altered (keeping up that British strain). From then on I never looked at writing again the same way. Naipaul was right. Almost all of the writers I admired finely calibrated their every sentence, every word, for maximum impact. At the risk of committing heresy, I’ll admit that I reread Jack Kerouac’s On the Road sometime after that, and I was appalled at how sloppy the writing was. Benzedrine might be good for that first draft, but please, think of your reader. On the next pass, and the next, tighten up your prose. Make every word count. Then maybe your prose will flower as well.

“If you are of the opinion that the contemplation of suicide is sufficient evidence of a poetic nature, do not forget that actions speak louder than words.”
—Fran Lebowitz

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine


  1. Months-long effort? Mine are more like years, sadly. I always think of the 1st draft as word vomit. You just have to toss whatever comes to mind onto the page just to get it down, because you can't work with nothing.
    But, I agree. The word vomit needs cleaned up.

  2. It's true that you just have to get material down on the page first. What I liked especially was how poised Naipaul was onstage, articulating aloud just as well as he writes.


Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.