Saturday September 18, 2021

Enhancing writing skills

Many of my readers have been pretty keen on publishing their writings. They send their pieces to me for publications, and I feel sorry telling them that I have no influence on my editor to get their writings published. Then there are requests to give them feedback on their compositions.

Some have even sent me their MPhil or doctoral theses for advice and editing. For a columnist – or any writer, for that matter – it is a hard task to refuse such requests; so, most such emails go unacknowledged. There is also a burning desire in our youth to compose poetry in English or write short stories and novels. It becomes challenging to tell them that their attempts are still unripe, and it will take a long time before they can produce something worth appreciation. Many readers consider such comments as discouraging and unhelpful.

In response to repeated requests by some readers to guide them about how to improve their writing skills, this column makes an attempt to share with them a couple of personal experiences that have helped me. By the time of my matriculation examination in 1979, I could not compose a single paragraph in correct English; Jamia Millia Malir Karachi where I studied was an Urdu-medium public institution. Even chemistry, mathematics, and physics textbooks were all in Urdu, and English was just one subject or paper to pass. I fainted during my English paper and some people brought me home in a rickshaw.

The desire to learn the English language, took me to the Pakistan American Cultural Centre (PACC) which had a couple of branches in Karachi. The branch located at the PECHS near Nursery had some wonderful teachers who helped me kindle the light on the path to learning English. Mrs Tahira Khan, Mrs Rafi, Mrs Shah, and of course the most respected of them all, Mrs Maya Jamil who was one of the first Muslim girls to become a lecturer in English in Lucknow in the pre-partition days. She gets a mention in one of the books by Qurratulain Hyder.

I remember the day Mrs Tahira Khan told us about the importance of thesaurus; this was a new word for us. When she explained what it was, some of the students collected money to buy one. The bookshops in Malir – where I lived – did not have a clue about it, and the teacher suggested that we could buy one from Liberty Books which was located on Lucky Star in the Saddar area. Thus began a long association with Liberty Books from where I later subscribed to various magazines such as Readers Digest, and even much later The Economist and National Geographic.

In those teenage days, even purchasing an English magazine was hard; thus began a search for old copies that one could buy for a couple of rupees from old book sellers. Mostly, it was self-help reading with a daily use of dictionaries, thesaurus, and grammar books that keep feeding you with new words and expressions. One needs to realize that you cannot write good English unless you read good English, and that applies to all languages. Many prospective writers appear to be lacking in their reading. Can we speak good language without listening to it in the first place? You tell me.

Writing is a skill that requires effort; just like any other skill such as cooking or handicraft, or playing football, cricket or the piano. What do you do to learn these skills, or any skill for that matter? You observe others who are proficient in the skill you want to acquire; then you emulate them, and some people surpass their masters and turn that skill into an art. Can we do it without time and effort? Many aspiring writers put little energy and seem to be in a hurry to get recognition.

Some think that poetry is an easy way to literary stardom, they end up composing lousing English poetry that betrays their lack of proficiency. Just imagination is not enough, you need all the wherewithal to compose not just correct language, but a piece of writing that has ebb and flow to carry the reader with it. Where will this come from? First ask yourself what you want to be proficient in, and then get into it in earnest. If you want to write articles and columns, read not hundreds but thousands of them.

Somebody long ago suggested to me that spending five to ten percent of your income on the passion you carry is beneficial. This enables one to read some of the best articles and columns in international journalism. You cannot enhance writing skills just by reading Pakistani newspapers, though columnists such as Anjum Altaf, Asim Sajjad, Babur Sattar, Harris Khalique, Khaled Ahmed, Najam Sethi, and Pervez Hoodbhoy provide valuable insights into how to construct your write-up. Subscriptions to The Economist and National Geographic are expensive but worth every penny.

Impressive writers use their collocation and diction masterfully. This is more important than grammar, as you may memorize grammatical rules but still struggle to compose a narrative. Correct language and an absorbing style of writing are not the same. Most write-ups may have grammatically correct sentences, but hardly any beautifully written paragraphs. Collocation tells you which word pairs harmoniously with another; such as ‘commit’ and ‘perform’ are both action verbs with similar meanings, but you ‘perform an operation’ and ‘commit a crime’. Again, you don’t learn this from grammar books, you understand this by reading.

Diction has more to do with choice of words; as they say in French ‘mot juste’. The use of an appropriate word or expression at an exact point makes wonderful diction. Just by an expansion of vocabulary, diction doesn’t improve, though it helps to have a vast repertoire of words. One may carry thick tomes of word lists but still be unable to improve one’s diction. If you have memorized a large number of words, you may end up throwing around heavy-duty parcels just to impress the reader, who is seldom impressed and more often put off by your shots.

Diction tells you not to do that, it helps you to be discreet in your choice. Each word is an idea, and as they say “words and ideas are like people, they don’t become your friends unless you spend time with them.” The problem is that we don’t spend time with new expressions and ideas; they slip away, and we remain destitute in both. After collocation and diction comes advanced grammar that helps you play around with diverse grammatical rules and still be accurate and alluring. Here you don’t need to memorize parts of speech and types of sentences.

You buy a book or learn online advanced grammar skills, and you will see the difference. It has more to do with patterns and syntax with which you learn how to structure an opinion using even complex and conditional utterances. And, lastly, aspiring writers pay attention to the usage of language without bothering about how and why it is so. Languages are made by people, who are not always logical, hence not everything in languages is logical. We cannot explain the intricacies of language, we just need to absorb the way people use it.

To conclude, each genre of writing has its own beauty in terms of content and diction. Expertise in one genre demands a high level of devotion to it. Practice is one of the keys but not always. Practice does not make perfect; it simply makes permanent whatever you are doing. If you keep practising wrong without making conscious efforts to make it right, the wrong will become permanent. So, make sure you practice the right, that means read better English to write it better. Good Luck.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

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