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