150. Hiding the Gold Coins

Hiding the Gold Coins: A Reflection on Writing Workshop by Hem Raj Kafle
(The workshop happened on Aug, 2014 at King’s College, Kathmandu)

Hem Raj Kafle

He is tall. Very tall compared to my height. He looks into the world through a pair of slightly shaded glasses. Those glasses probably let him filter all the negativity around him and help him see a vision – a vision of a teacher, a writer, and a mentor. He speaks gently and seldom smiles. He stands in the middle of the class, and with his words paints an exciting picture of characters, themes and conflicts; and walks us through the colorful fields full of metaphors, similes and hyperboles.

He is one of those rare teachers who writes a lot. His blog is a testimony of his prolific writing habit. Even his facebook statuses, usually very short poems, reflect his creativity. And I wonder. May be creativity is a verb, not a noun. One has to constantly work at it. It’s just my perception. His creativity could be as natural as breathing.

I had met him back in 2012. He taught me Fiction in my M.Ed. ELT first semester and since then I have had a renewed interest in reading, interpreting, and analyzing literature. I started becoming passionate but critical of the texts I came across. In addition to that, he inspired me to write down my own fiction works.

Naturally, I was pretty excited about the workshop. I had always wanted to be in his classes one more time and the workshop was it. Even though the focus of the workshop was “Academic Writing”, I knew he would have his own twist on it, with a few pinch of strange concepts sprinkled around here and there.

So he started the workshop by asserting that writing is not an isolated activity, but it is an activity integrated with reading, listening and speaking. “The key word is perform. Writing is a performance, it is an action of hands as well as an action of minds,” he added. And most importantly, he continued, “Performance doesn’t mean a writer’s activity alone… it is about a reader’s action also”. This made so much sense that it immediately struck a chord with me. A writer has to let readers perform too. Otherwise, what’s the point in writing at the first place? An effective writer thus leaves enough clues here and there in the text for the readers to come up with their own knowledge.

Writing is a performance because the writer has to make sure that his/her ‘authorial presence’ and credibility are visible in every word and every sentence of the text. Moreover, a writer has to make sure there are both implicit and explicit moments of communication with the reader. He/she has to constantly facilitate the reader towards understanding and creating new perceptions. Similarly, a writer has to represent his/her community and contribute towards adding new knowledge and scholarship. Therefore, writing is not merely scribbling texts on a sheet of paper, it is a performance that involves both the writer and the reader.

Next, he talked about some of the common attributes every writer exhibit in some ways. For instance, the ‘writer’s block’ which he also labeled as the ‘blinking cursor syndrome’ for those who keep staring at the computer screen searching for words to start with. Similarly, every writer has the irresistible urge to tell the background or the whole story. Next, most of the writers can’t decide on the choice of diction – whether to use big or small stock of words, or on the choice of sentence – short sentences or longer sentences.

Coming to the main focus of the workshop, he talked about the process of creating an argument in academic writing and substantiating one’s stance. He gave an instance of Stephen Toulmin’s elements of a proper argument: claim, ground, warrant, backing, rebuttal, qualifier and final claim. A good paragraph is a combination of all or some of the above elements. The concept of ‘rebuttal’ was quite interesting. Apparently, acknowledging opposing views and giving them a small space in one’s argument adds more strength to one’s argument.

At the end, he gave us eleven tips on how to improve one’s writing. I am reflecting on these points from my perspective.

  1. Write aloud.
    It helps shape the quality of writing.
  2. Speak – record – transcribe – Edit
    This is very useful when one is facing the imminent ‘writer’s block’.
  3. Toulmin uncle really works!
  4. Three is enough.
    Three examples, three explanations, three stories.
  5. Keep the big below you.
    This is quite interesting. Start a paragraph with your own sentence and end it with your own. Keep the citations and ‘big’ personalities underneath your first statement. Don’t ever start your paragraph with a citation because this just weakens your stance.
  6. Kill the subordinates.
    If your main info goes to the subordinate clause, rewrite the sentence. Bring your info to the front.
  7. Passive is lousy.
    I also hate sentences in passive voice. I always try to write everything in active voice.
  8. Let the verb stand high.
    Let the verb ‘speak’, rather than ‘be’.
  9. Do not repeat a word if there’s a replacement.
  10. Hear me between the lines
    Make your presence felt. Don’t let the reader forget about the writer.
  11. Dump me if I let you go!
    Challenge: I will not bore my reader. I will not break my reader’s heart, effort, money, etc.

After attending this workshop, I now feel the urge to go back to all my writings and scrutinize them strand by strand – to find my ‘authorial presence’ in them. I had never thought about this aspect of writing – that the author has to be present in the text. Similarly, I am going to try speak-record-transcribe method whenever I feel stuck in the rot. I will also make sure none of my paragraphs start with a citation but with my own sentence. In addition, I will use these techniques in presentations and in writing scripts for speaking as well.

Writing has always been an elusive grape for me. I feel like I am always getting ‘there’ but never near enough. I always go back to my texts, interact with them and revise them. That singer from Rolling Stones is probably right. I can’t get no satisfaction out of my writing. But just like Hem sir once said during his class, “A text is always in the making”. May be it’s not about getting ‘there’ and being satisfied after all. Writing is a process… a continuum… a journey. And our job as a writer is just to enjoy the ride.

(Written on November, 2014)

145. What writing is for

why write

A lot of students ask me what writing is for. Unless they want to be a story writer, or a novelist, or a journalist – which most of them don’t want to be – they question the purpose of writing.

If they are going to open up a coffee shop or an agro business, writing skills will be the last thing they will have to worry about.

And they are right in many ways. Because, they perceive writing as similar to writing essays in exams, or news reports in papers, or speech for programs. They will not be writing academic essays while trying to set up a coffee shop.

But writing is beyond that. And writing doesn’t have to mean – big.

For example: writing a reflection at the end of the day, writing a list of things to do, writing down a phone number, writing an email to your friend, writing a message to your teacher, writing a plan, and so on.

One of my mentors said, “Writing is thinking on paper”. We are thinking all the time and writing helps us store those thoughts because we are not good at memory, especially in this age of information flood.

Writing helps us think better. Writing helps us remember better. Writing helps us make decisions better.

Writing can also help us become better readers. I started reading intently only after I thought I would continue writing.

Bottomline: writing helps us become better in life.

That’s what writing is for.

 

137. Published: 5 BAD HABITS OF WRITING YOU MUST DITCH

(Published on the Republica daily on December 23, 2015.)

five bad habbits

“How many of you think that you are a good writer?” Every time I ask this to my students, I see only a few of them raising hands. I feel disappointed because even the ones who do write well think that they don’t write well enough.

I teach academic writing to grad and undergrad students. And I see a lot of them struggle with writing. A few have a knack of writing well, however, most can’t compose a simple essay. Besides, they take writing as a burden, and even annoyance. As a result, they invest little time in developing this skill.

In general, many think writing is difficult (which is partly true). And I can empathize with them because many a times we all struggle to write. However, just like creating great music or taking amazing photographs, writing is about developing a habit, staying focused and remaining committed.

So here’s my attempt to make wrongs ‘write’. Similar to “writers are born, not made” delusion, these five malpractices might be holding you back.

  1. Starting without an outline

Classic mistake. Many students jump into writing without a plan and come up with “chheu na puchhar ko” essays peppered with disjointed ideas, irrelevant examples and illogical ending. Starting without an outline is like giving the reigns to the keyboard; you won’t know where you’ll end up.

Some may say that outline restricts creativity and natural flow. It’s true. However, for writers who don’t write enough, outline is their best friend as it prevents the text from being loose, out of place and full of holes. An outline can be just a rough plan and it can give your text cohesion and consistency.

Cure: Write a basic outline to support your point. Also, start from the end and build your outline. Follow the plan as you write your first draft. Improvise but don’t drift too far off the plan.

  1. Trying to get perfection immediately

Unless you are Mr. Perfect of writing, your first draft will never be ‘awesome’. And, that’s okay. First drafts are meant to be ugly unorganized heaps of ideas. They are also meant to remind us that perfection doesn’t drop from the sky.

A few gifted people can articulate their ideas in a single attempt. But they are as rare as Devkota. Most of us have to slug – word by word and sentence by sentence – to weave a presentable text. It does get frustrating and quitting looks like a rational choice.

Cure: Only when you give the first draft a rest should you start adding, editing and polishing your text. Remember: every writing is a re-writing. A ‘perfect’ book you read must have gone through a countless re-writing. 

  1. Making an excuse of writer’s block

When writers get stuck in the emptiness and can’t put words on paper, they let themselves sink into a pool of excuses, like Writer’s block. But this is just a myth. You don’t need a mojo to start writing. Neither do you have to meditate in seclusion and wait for a lightening. You need a habit. Or unless you have a decision fatigue or cognitive overload or a real mental condition, writer’s block is just plain procrastination.

You may struggle to find the right word; you may have a solid outline but can’t get started; you may get distracted every 10 seconds – but that’s not a block. You may only be trying to avoid the sweat to get your writing done.

Cure: Don’t beat yourself up for getting stuck. It’s normal when you don’t have a writing habit. One remedy is to take a short break. Go out. Or, read a story. Or, watch Jimmy Carr. Give yourself a deadline. Start writing and finish the text.

  1. Shying away from feedback

We are reluctant to show our text for a review because, as we’ve learnt from experience, people laugh at our mistakes and spelling errors. How can we forget our teachers spreading the red-ink-terror during school days! Yes, it’s scary to think that people will judge our work, and even worse, they will judge us.

But if you want to improve, drink up a can of courage and face the bull. Because, feedback – negative or positive – gives you a reader’s perspective. It can also help you break the spell of dreaded ‘curse of knowledge’. You might learn why readers can’t understand the concepts that seem so simple and basic for you. Feedback can therefore help you express abstract concepts in a clear and meaningful way.

Cure: Print your text and give it to your friends (or to your enemy). Email it to the people in your writing circle. Send it to your teacher seeking improvement. Post the text in your blog and ask for feedback from the readers. There’s nothing shameful in trying to improve.

  1. Seeking unnecessary length

I blame the ‘bibechanatmak uttar’ – long answers for 20 marks we had to write in school days. As a result, most of us grew up with this mindset: if you want to score high, you have to write long answers filling the entire answer sheet. We would repeat the same ideas three times, elaborate the examples in great lengths, and write in endless circles to confuse the examiner.

Your teacher may give you high score (without even reading) for your answer. Your reader may not. One simple reason: everyone’s busy. And even if the reader has free time, she will think twice before reading a lengthy text that sucks energy and causes ulcers. Start with short articles, short stories and short essays. Your reader will love you.

Cure: Follow the KISS formula: keep it short and simple. Unless your teacher demands a 3000 word paper, never write a bloated text. Don’t beat the dead horse; get to the point. Let your reader know where you’re headed, and throw them enough hooks so they go through your lines.

That’s it. Those are the five ‘bad’ habits that hinder your writing and possibly destroy your self-esteem. They have one mission: to pamper you and keep you distracted. Toss them away – you’ll improve your writing. You’ll want to write more often. And, you might just write a perfect text!