Nabokov’s Writing Method, or the Only Essay Writing Advice You’ll Ever Need

Few things are more tempting to a writer than to write about writing. Having a couple of novels behind me, along with a dozen short stories, hundreds of pages of clickbait headlines (which I am not particularly proud of), as well as a number of academic texts, I know a thing or two about the craft of words.

Vladimir Nabokov knows even more. Famous for the controversial novel Lolita, the Russian-American author was one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, and—dare I say—probably the most cosmopolitan writer of all time. A distinguished novelist, academic, and lepidopterist; trilingual since childhood, Cambridge graduate, professor of literature at Cornel University; resident of St. Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, New York, and Montreux—in his works, as well as in his life, Nabokov transcended the boundaries of nationality, profession and language.

So, how did Nabokov write? Non-linearly, using index cards (which is just a fancy name for a piece of paper sized about a third of a regular page). Before putting anything on paper, Nabokov would have already developed a clear picture of the novel in his mind. Having the entire structure mapped out, he would then approach writing as a painter would approach a canvas, jotting down various pieces of the novel on index cards, filling in the blanks of the narrative in no particular order, following his whim and inspiration—just like a painter, who normally doesn’t work strictly from left to right to complete the picture:

I do not begin my novel at the beginning. I do not reach chapter three before I reach chapter four, I do not go dutifully from one page to the next, in consecutive order; no, I pick out a bit here and a bit there, till I have filled all the gaps on paper. (2)

In the end, after lots of (re)writing and (re)arranging, Nabokov would number the index cards and join them together, dictating the completed book to his wife Vera, who would type it out and proofread it.

Although writing a term paper is in many ways different (and easier) than writing a novel, there are several lessons that can be learned from Nabokov. The most important one comes down to an exceedingly simple, yet powerful piece of advice: HAVE THE STRUCTURE OF YOUR ESSAY MAPPED OUT BEFORE YOU START WRITING. Since the piece you are expected to produce is of academic nature, and not a work of fiction, this advice also implicitly suggests that in order to plan your essay properly, lots of reading needs to be done (In fact, when it comes to academic writing, the lion’s share of your time will usually be spent on reading and research).

In the essay writing process, broadly speaking, two different types of reading can be distinguished. Firstly, there is what I would call general reading: the one that enables you to understand the background of the topic and get the bigger picture; to realize what your essay will look like, what main points will it include, and how will it be organised. The sources best suited for this purpose are usually the ones that explore the topic in a more general and comprehensive way.

After this comes the more specific, targeted reading, aimed to address the specific sections of the essay, putting some flesh and muscles onto the bones of the outline you have developed. This is where the Nabokov method truly comes into play, helping to tie the reading with the writing, at the same time increasing the effectiveness of both.

With MS Word, thankfully, we don’t have to use index cards, but the main idea remains the same: plan your essay beforehand, break it out into pieces, then put it together like a jigsaw puzzle. Once you have the structure figured out, reading and writing should flow simultaneously. Non-linearity is the key to effectiveness: having a clear idea of what goes where, you will be in the position to make the most out of the reading, relating every finding or useful detail to the corresponding section of your paper, producing the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle—the ‘index cards’ (which are essentially nothing but paragraphs)—and setting them into place.

All in all and on the whole, applying the Nabokov method is one of the best ways to increase the flexibility and effectiveness of your writing. By itself, it certainly won’t turn you into a literary magician, but it offers useful guidance that can make the essay writing process a whole lot easier. Keep it in mind for your next assignment, and you won’t get stuck, even if you start with the middle and finish with the beginning. Which reminds me: always write the introduction last. In the research and writing process, some of your premises are almost certainly going to change. The familiarity with the exact outcome of the paper will allow you to formulate an introduction that is clear, convincing, concise and to the point, showing the reader that you know exactly what you’re doing.

Lastly, never underestimate the importance of editing, revising and rewriting. Nabokov himself once revealed that he rewrote every word he had ever published, saying that his pencils ‘outlast their erasers’. There is much more to writing than reaching the word count. If you want your essay to truly shine, get those erasers ready, and be sure to devote enough time to polish your work.

Written by Milan


  1. Image source:
  2. Robert Golla (ed.), Conversations with Vladimir Nabokov. University Press of Mississippi, 2017.

Leave a Reply