(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!

136. Reflection of a Procrastinating Researcher


(Originally published in Nelta ELT Forum, December 2015 issue)

just do it tomorrow

I confess: I hate research. Because I am not good at managing time or setting priorities. I feel terrible. But I feel happy knowing that many others too suck at time management and motivation. I am not alone in this world where people wake up screaming in the middle of the night from a recurring nightmare of deadlines, priorities and commitments.

But little did I know that this research – through a painful yet invigorating learning experience – was going to change me into a new me.

Overcoming the inertia

As the final part of my M.Ed ELT program, on October 2014, I kicked off on a research journey with excitement of a teenager in love. However, I landed on the motivational rock bottom so many times that my initial fire cooled off in a few weeks.

To start out, I realized that the concept of language ideologies was very abstract. My topic was: Language ideologies of EFL teachers – beliefs, practices and effects. I felt like I was trying to walk through a vast desert of vagueness. Next, the theme of ideology was something we had not studied during the two-year program. Thus I had to start from the scratch. I started reading articles and books on ideologies, and then, I started losing my mind. To add to my misery, at KU’s library, I did not find any prior research documents related to the theme.

Amid the chaos in my mind, I started swinging from one research topic to another.

May be I should conduct research on pragmatics of English language. Or, may be on student motivation. Or, may be on training of English language teachers. In desperation, I summoned just enough reasons and zeal to crawl out of the confusion and get on with my original proposal. (In an adventure like this, there’s always a yoda, and he kept pushing me until the end.)

Extracting the data

My research participants were seven English language teachers working in private schools of Lalitpur and Bhaktapur. During the interview sessions, I probed into their ideological beliefs about English language teaching. Then, I observed them in their classrooms to explore how their ideologies shape their teaching and interaction with the students. During observation, I also felt their nervousness and awkwardness as a stranger sat in the back of the room taking notes and recording their sessions.

Feedback is essential for personal and professional growth but we hate being judged. Therefore I could relate to what the participants were going through. For most of them, it was the first ever observation of any sort. I knew that they must have felt anxious about me observing them, taking notes about them and judging them. Even though, I was not there to judge them. A participant, after one such session, even told me that she felt like she was taking SLC examination one more time.

Interviewing the teachers and observing their class was a very exciting experience for me, however the fun stopped when I entered the next phase: transcribing, coding and trying to get the meaning from the unorganized mass of information.

Hitting the wall, again

A mountain of tasks stood in front of me and, once again my motivation level plunged to zero. I wished I was a full time student and that I didn’t have to work and take care of my family. And that I had super powers. (Grow up, Umes). And that I had chosen a different research topic. I kept on making excuses. I kept on procrastinating.

Seeing my predicament, one friend even suggested, “hyaa kina dukha gari raa? Shankar Dev agadi ko photocopy pasal ma gayo bhani sabai problem solve huncha”. He meant: go to those photocopy shops near Shankar Dev College in Kathmandu, choose any thesis from a list they provide and pay Rs 3000 to get them customized for you. I was tempted beyond my wits, but I chose the tougher way.

Only after several months did I wake from my self-imposed self-justifying slumber to re-start the dreaded research journey. On a blank sheet of paper, I wrote a proverb and stuck the paper on the wall near my computer. “The best way to eat an elephant standing in your path is to cut him up into little pieces”. This became my mantra. I developed a schedule and promised myself that I would write at least 1000 words every day. It would take me 30 min, sometimes 3 hours but I made sure to reach the word target every single day. And, piece by piece, I gobbled the whole elephant.

Learning the hard way

Besides gaining invaluable insights from the research participants about their ideologies, this research has made me reflect on my own beliefs and practices. It has made me question my decision to be an English language teacher. It has also made me realize why research matters for teachers, especially in language education and in education overall. And, a big lesson on setting priorities.

This research might not create major shockwave in academia. In reality, it’ll get stacked in the lonely KU library and get covered in dust for years to come. But I feel ecstatic knowing that I’ve learnt vital skills on conducting such studies and on writing a research paper. After diving into the chaotic sea of academic research – and almost drowning, I believe I’ve come back to the shore with enough courage to swim across an ocean.

I confess: I still hate research. But now, I know how to eat the elephant.

134. Reflection: Story Writing Session at 20th NELTA Conference

A major late post:) my session 20th nelta2

Let me start my busting some myths about story writing – these myths are based on my frequent interaction with English language teachers and students.

Story writing is difficult.
Stories have to be long.
Stories have to be good.
Only storywriters can write stories.
Stories always start with “Once upon a time…”
Stories are always in the past tense.

I believe story writing can be fun and easy once we understand the basic (universal) framework of all the stories. There are certain elements that are universal – elements like plot, dialog, setting, characters and so on. Similarly, there’s a very familiar framework (plot diagram) that consists of Exposition, Rising action, Climax, Falling action and Denouement. However, story writing can be taught with an even simpler framework and this was the topic of my presentation/workshop during the 20th Nelta International Conference (Feb, 2015).

My session was scheduled on the second day of the conference. The concurrent sessions were maddening as there were almost 12 sessions running at the same time. And I was not expecting more than 10 participants in my session. But I guess luck was on my side (or may be my presentation title was catchy enough) that almost 50 people flooded into my room. I couldn’t have been more ecstatic.

my session 20th nelta1

So I started by sharing my views about story writing: it does not have to be a sweat job. Every one of us is wired for stories and every one of us is inherently a storyteller. We just don’t like taking that step, because many of us think that stories have to be long and epic. However, when we write stories, we should aim not to be the greatest storywriters ever (although we should aim high). We want to be familiar with the story elements and dynamics and may be if we stretch our creativity hard, we could achieve that aim eventually.

I asked the participants: what’s a story? And many raised their hands and with it, many threw their definitions. One participant even came up with the classic Exposition… Denouement definition. All were okay but I showed them Lisa Cron’s definition of a story:

A story is how what happens,
affects someone,
in pursuit of a difficult goal and
how he/she changes (Cron, 2012).

In simple, a story has a character (with a desire, wish, intention); the character comes across a challenge (problem, obstacle) that obstructs his desire; the character then makes a crucial decision and takes an action on how to overcome the challenge; and at last there’s a transformation, a change in the character or the situation.

Character – challenge – action – transformation

And, to illustrate this framework I wrote an impromptu story on the board.

Rakesh always wanted to be an actor (character/wish)
But he didn’t have any talent for acting (challenge)
Finally makes a decision to join an acting institute (action)
He become better at acting and is offered a role in a movie along with Rajesh Hamal (transformation)

This is simple and easy and has all the elements of a simple story. Then, it was the turn of participants to come up with a story based on this “four-sentence story” framework. I asked a few of them to come in front and share their four sentence stories. With these four elements established, they could stretch them into longer versions with dialogs, different settings and multiple challenges.

Then I shared how to tweak this idea in the classroom so that students easily write their own stories. One idea is to play a word-chain (antakshari) game in groups and come up with a bunch of verbs, adjective and adverbs. For instance: students in a group of four can be asked to play word chain for verbs and adjective

Verb: danceeattryyawn
Adjective: beautifullazyyounggorgeous

The point is, the students can ‘create’ their own list of vocabulary and use them in the story. That’s the challenge for them and as Marc Helgesen, one of the conference keynote speakers said, “Students need appropriate level of challenge” (Sousa D, 2011). Creating their own vocab list gives them a cushion as well as a challenge to work on.

Or another tweak – a group forms the first sentence, the second group writes the second sentence and so on. The final story usually turns out to be unexpectedly funny and students love that.

That was all I could share in the 30 minutes time slot given to the presenters. And I think I made my point pretty clear that story writing can be simple and fun. I really appreciate all the positive interaction and encouraging feedback I received from the participants. Thank you, if you were there.


Cron, L. (2012). Wired for story: The writer’s guide to using Brain Science to hook readers from the very first sentence. CA: Ten Speed Press.

Sousa, D. A. (2011). Differentiation and the Brain. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press, p. 114.

133. Then and Now

then and now.001

(Picture concept: Making Classrooms Better – 50 Practical Applications of Mind, Brain and Education Science by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa)

Everything has changed. Transportation. Communication. Banking. Market places. But the structure of the classrooms remains the same.

At least we have classrooms and schools, you might argue. That’s true. But the arrangement of classrooms, with fixed benches and desks, everyone facing the same direction, and made for no movement at all – the classrooms are the most brain unfriendly places in the whole school. The only possible reason the classrooms remain the same is it’s easy for the cleaners/janitors to clean the rooms after the school. Or, from a teacher’s perspective, to keep the students quiet and stationary during the class.

What do you think?

132. A Whole New Brain for Teachers

I’ve been a great fan of Dan Pink since the time I stumbled upon his Tedtalk on The Puzzle of Motivation. His presentation helped me understand the crucial differences between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation, how it could also be related to teachers and in education in general. Then I started reading Pink’s books like a maniac. And this slideshare is a result of reading his “A Whole New Mind”, twice. Even though the book focuses on the business world, there are a lot of insights for teachers like me on how to merge R-directed teaching/learning into the traditional L-directed teaching/learning.

If you’ve read this book too, let’s share some of the learnings.

131. Three Lessons Learnt Outside the Classroom

Originally published in NELTA ELT Forum September 2015 Issue

Hello. This is a short reflection about learning. In it, you’ll find me sharing with you three minor incidents that have significantly shaped my perception about English language and how it should be spoken. These incidents have helped me become more open minded about English language not as the end itself but as a means towards meaning making and understanding. I hope you will feel the same too when you finish reading this.

How to sound American?

Use a lot of “umm…”, “you know”, “kinda”, “sorta” and “right”. Deliberately. Well, this is just a theory that I came up with after watching all sorts of English movies and serials during my teenage days. And, a lot of WWF (wrestling) too.

I started using those expressions a lot while talking with friends. Of course, a lot of talking would be in Nepali but the conversations would be peppered with a range of English words along with “umm…”, “you know”, “kinda”, “sorta” and “right”. I had thought, using these American expressions would make me sound cool and look cool.

Years later, when I started getting interested in public speaking and presentations, only then did I realize that using umm.. after every five words or so kinda disrupts you know the flow of communication. It dawned on me that using these ‘filler words’, only made me look ridiculously arrogant and literally ‘full of air’. If you were my friend back then, you’d probably mumble: what a poser!

It took me some time to stop using those filler words deliberately. Now, when they force themselves out of my mouth – which happens rarely these days – I am not trying to sound American anymore. It’s a cold realization for me but I imagine, what if filler words did make me sound American. Nope. That would be too convenient.

Funny ENGLISH accent! (Nepali movie)

Those of us – so called urbanites who studied in private boarding schools in Kathmandu – we have a general perception of what is good English and what is poor or ‘funny’ English. This attitude is pervasive, especially among the youth who are exposed to American or British form of English through movies and now through the internet.

Here’s one instance. This is a short clip of a Nepali movie uploaded on youtube.com. The link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axGCz_7abcA


It’s a scene from the movie where the two characters are having a very heated dispute during which they are switching from Nepali to English frequently.

Girl: Now you shut up.
Boy: You shut up. Your daddy is not human. He is bloody bastard and gangster. He wants me to kill you.
Girl: It is impossible.
Boy: It is possible.
Girl: Relax, relax, relax.

I want to be honest with you. I almost laughed myself to semi-death when I watched this clip for the first time. Even a bum in the street can speak better English than that – I had yelled. And I was not alone. Just go ahead and read the comments posted below the video, you will find examples of people making fun of these two actors’ English. The comments show how people in general assume that an English graduate should have ‘proper’ English pronunciation and accent. If you don’t have that, you’d better prepare your soul for heavy criticism and mockery.


Yes. I laughed at them and made a joke about them. I even posted the video link on my facebook wall trying to collect more derision and gloat over the comments.

Thinking about it, I’m a little embarrassed that I acted such a snob.

Adrian Underhill’s Pronunciation Masterclass

Adrian Underhill is an icon in the ELT communities all over the world. Since I joined, M.Ed. ELT, I’ve been religiously following his blog and youtube videos. And naturally, meeting him in person was a big thrill for me. I felt really lucky to have attended his workshop during my recent participation of IATEFL Conference 2015. The workshop was on pronunciation and how to use his Interactive Phonemic Chart. After explaining to the attendees how to trace vowels, diphthong, consonants and other sounds through his chart, the lanky ELT legend asked us for a demonstration.


There was my turn and he asked me to tap with a stick through the phonetic symbols for the word “morning”. I was supposed to tap through m – ɔː – n – ɪ – ŋ but I tapped m – ɔ – r – n – ɪ – ŋ.

One of the attendees was quick to correct me, telling me that there’s no r sound in the word “morning”. Then came the divine intervention. With a broad smile in his unshaven face, he said, “If he hears the r sound in his head, then of course the sound is in the word”. I smiled back to him and everyone must have seen how victorious I had felt at that moment.

That statement alone was enough to destroy so many prevailing myths about proper pronunciation and how English should sound like.

Connecting the dots

There’s a proverb in Nepali, which goes like this: naya jogi le dherai kharani dhascha. A new beggar scrubs more ash on his face. Everyone has to go through the ‘new beggar’ phase but mine was filled with an embarrassing yet a very humbling one. From trying to imitate Americans, to mocking Nepali English accent and to learning from one of the best – I believe I have started to understand subtle nuances of English language and English language teaching. The ELT program of M.Ed was definitely the key turning point in my phase. The program helped me develop myself professionally, socially and more so, personally.

I believe that I don’t need ash on my face anymore.