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July 12, 2021

More on writing skills

In response to my previous column ‘Enhancing writing skills’ (July 5), there have been even more emails from readers asking various types of questions. Before closing the discussion in this column, here are some responses that may be helpful to aspiring writers.

One reader, Zeeshan Ujjan, who lives in a rural area in Sindh wants to know how in the absence of any good teacher, he can improve his writing. He tries to rephrase various pieces from English newspapers but cannot show it to anyone because there is nobody in his area who can guide him. I am sure many students face similar problems and my advice to them is as follows: be your own teacher. If you can read English newspapers, you can also access various other sources available online to improve your English.

Mobile technology has revolutionized learning and teaching experiences but most of the users of this technology spend a lot of time on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and various other social media platforms which consume fairly large chunks of their time without actually contributing to their learning new skills such as writing. There are countless websites that offer free online courses to improve your writing. These courses range from grammar lessons and vocabulary building to idiomatic English and composition skills. Then there are pretty helpful videos on YouTube by English teachers who offer valuable advice to enhance writing skills.

Another reader, Kollegode Venkataraman, editor of a quarterly magazine for Indian diaspora, raised some interesting points. He wrote: “In South Asia today, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, college graduates from colleges are [at a] tremendous disadvantage. Those who are ‘convent’ educated in English medium schools, barring exceptions, are cut off from their linguistic literary traditions, and those from ‘vernacular’ background have massive issues with even staid formal writing, not to speak of creative writing. So, people coming from these two groups growing up in the same society often cannot meaningfully and politely interact or communicate with each other, subliminally learn from each other and influence each other, and enrich each other's lives.”

His point about college graduates is relevant to Pakistani students too. College – or ‘intermediate’ education as we call it in Pakistan – is perhaps the most neglected tier of education in terms of writing skills. At this level, there should be substantial focus on imparting writing capabilities to students in at least two languages. But unfortunately, when they pass their intermediate level – especially from a government college – they are barely able to write a coherent piece of writing in any language. This pushes them to ‘tremendous disadvantage’ as Venkataraman put it. Here the medium of instruction plays a decisive role.

But even the so-called ‘English-medium’ students who may be familiar with correct English fail to compose write-ups that present an argument or express an opinion. This is because most of the writing they do is about simply reproducing what they read in textbooks. Expensive schools teaching A and O Levels mostly use past papers as a tool to pass exams. If students write something deviating from the prescribed textbooks and using their own brain, the system punishes them by deducting marks for giving ‘different information’. Such an approach is so detrimental to writing as it puts students in a straitjacket.

Such English-medium students are definitely cut off from their own traditions. To write effectively, one needs to connect with one’s context and traditions. Even if your English is good, what will you write about if you are not interested in the problems your society faces? Being apolitical has to do a lot with this apathy that also reflects in poor writing. If you want to alter the context or modify traditions, you have to be familiar with them. For an aspiring writer who may have good command of English but without an anchor in society, just language proficiency does not make her or him a good writer.

Good command of a local language – or vernacular to some – gives you proper mooring in social realities and helps develop competency in another language. Most poor writers are those who try to jump into a second language without first having a grip of their first language. They end up producing pieces that appear to be suspended and rootless, with correct sentences but no substance. So, writing has to be properly grounded – with some knowledge of cultural and historical context in which an aspiring writer wants to blossom. And this contextual understanding is mostly political, which reveals the power dynamics of a society.

Then there is the problem of staid or stilted writing which is grammatically correct but gives you yawns. Somehow in countries of South Asia which were under the British yoke for long, bureaucratic writing is stuck in the pre-independence days. I remember in my school days we memorized leave applications that started something like this: “Most humbly and respectfully, I beg to state that I have been suffering from fever since last night. Please grant me leave for two days…” And we wrote job applications assuring the employer that “If your good self will be kind enough to give me this job, I will leave no stone unturned to fulfill the responsibilities assigned to me”.

One reason our writing does not flourish is that we are afraid of utilizing new expressions and fear that we may end up upsetting the reader. To counter this, a budding writer needs to be sure about the various nuances or shades of new words and expressions and commit those diverse meanings to memory. Yes, one can ‘commit a crime’ and one can also ‘commit something to memory’; this is what I mean by nuances. Polishing writing skills requires an understanding of diversity in expressions, which breaks the monotony and prevents the reader from yawning.

A good piece of writing is much more than a flawless composition; it is essentially a meaningful piece that encourages the reader to think and understand the substance the writer wants to convey. If a piece of writing is devoid of content, it fails to trigger a thinking process. Again, you can ‘trigger’ a controversy, a fight – and also a thinking process. The confidence to use a word with all its versatility helps you burnish your writing. The primary purpose of any piece of wonderful writing is either to give pleasure to the readers, or to open new avenues for them to look at things differently.

Prospective writers should develop their reading list carefully. A look at any book fair in Pakistan presents a depressing picture in that it is full of titles that will hardly find a place in book fairs in developed countries. Publishers print thousands of books in Pakistan every year, but most of these are intellectually bankrupt. There are books about ‘heroes’ of our history that we eulogize for their barbarities. Then there are piles of books that present distorted history and make our readers even more prejudiced against ‘enemies’.

To sum up, we may revise certain points. One, learn to be your own teacher. Two, access web sources freely available on the net to help you master a language. Three, connect with your own culture, history, and language; grasp their details and question them. Avoid stilted language which gives an officious air to your writing. Develop your content, so that good language does not become an empty vase. Learn to look at events, ideas, people, and words differently and analyze them critically in your thoughts first, before putting that analysis to paper. Good luck again.

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

Email: [email protected]