Sunday, March 22, 2015

Tips for a writer

Almost 15 years ago, I was mentoring a budding journalist. In the process, I started penning down notes that might orient her towards a writer's way of relating to the world and to his/her work. For reasons I cannot recall now, it was a short-lived effort. It ended after three parts. CAVIEAT EMPTOR: In hindsight, this is an utterly juvenile piece of writing.  I am sharing it in the belief that somebody somewhere might benefit from the effort.

June 22, 2001


What I am writing about is non-fiction writing, journalistic writing. But, a lot of it could be valid for other kinds of writing also.

Writers are not born. There is also no school anywhere in the world with anything like a great reputation as a trainer of writers. Writers train themselves, or are trained by their superiors or mentors.

A part of training yourself as a writer is to seek an answer to the question: “Why do I want to be a writer?” OR “Why am I writer?”  I don’t imagine you will find an answer easily or soon. But, I also believe that no writer of any worth has ever stopped asking this question of himself. I also suspect that no writer has found an answer that remains valid for too long. Writing is a process of self-discovery. It cannot end; nor can it ever be given up.

There is absolutely no contradiction between [**] writing as a process of self-discovery and [**] writing as persuasion. We discover ourselves in the process of persuading our readers. We also persuade others in the process of discovering ourselves.

A note of caution: Don’t deceive yourself into believing that you have answered the question conclusively and finally when you realise that you “write for a living”. If you are honest with yourself, this answer will disappear almost as soon as you have found it.

1. Writing is a persuasive art/ craft. Persuasion belongs to the category of “behaviour modification”. Behaviour modification, as an objective, is constrained by/ governed by existing levels of knowledge/ belief/ involvement related to the subject. To persuade your reader, therefore, you need to be clear about [a] what is the lay of the land you are entering, and [b] what you want to achieve by way of results.

These questions have also been framed differently: [a] Where are you in the reader’s mind? [b] Where do you want to be in the reader’s mind? If you can define point [a] and point [b] clearly, it is easy to write a piece that takes you from point [a] to point [b] in the reader’s mind.

Asking these questions, and answering them, has to become a habit of the mind. If you can adopt it as a formal discipline, it can work even better.

2. You cannot start writing a piece until you have achieved clarity about the “target reader” and the “target response”.

## Who am I writing for? Try to describe your “target reader” in as much detail as possible. The more detailed your description, the better your writing will be. The most important part of the description is your guess about: What do they know on the subject? What do they believe on the subject? What do they feel on the subject?

## What do I want him to do/ know / believe/ feel after reading the piece? The “target response” to any communication is always action / knowledge / belief / feeling. These are not mutually exclusive objectives. Each is connected with the other. Once you have figured out the most important “target response”, the role of the others will define itself.

If you want people to DO something, they will need to FEEL in a certain way to want to DO it; they will need to BELIEVE some things in order to  justify their FEELINGS, and they will need to  KNOW some things to support their  BELIEFS.  All these derive logically from your “target response”, defined in terms of  ACTION.

If you follow the discipline of writing down the objectives in this excruciating detail before you start, the entire process of writing will become easy, and produce satisfying results. Try it once; you will never give it up.

3. The first advantage of clarity in objectives is evident in the research. No matter what your objective, you will find that knowing the subject thoroughly helps.

YOU CAN USE THE INTERNET FOR BACKGROUND INFORMATION ON ALMOST ANY SUBJECT ON EARTH. Did you find out enough about COFFEE before you wrote Coffee Cat? I doubt it seriously. The Brazilian Coffee Board would have given you caffeine poisoning with the amount of information on their website. There could be many more I am not aware of. 

Knowledge of the subject works in mysterious ways. But, it works. Research can include tapping any source – newspaper clippings, books, interviews with people, experts, visits to places. The greater the variety of sources tapped, the better your chances of achieving the “target response”. Even if none of your knowledge is explicitly delivered to your reader, just having the knowledge will make your piece sparkle.

I have also found that, no matter how well I have studied a subject before writing on it, there is always one guy out there – amongst my readers – who knows more than me on the subject. This is unavoidable. Nobody can be the ultimate expert on everything. Not being the ultimate expert is safe as long as my writing doesn’t provoke this smart guy into embarrassing me publicly for my ignorance or folly. Once you have done your research well, you will AUTOMATICALLY adopt a tone of voice in your writing that doesn’t challenge the “smart alecs” to a debate. Knowledge has an amazing way of making people humble, and more acceptable.

4. This is why it helps to specialise on a subject, or a set of allied subjects. Specialisation enables you to develop your knowledge-base ASSETS – in terms of sources, human and other. Research for every piece then gives you valuable knowledge not only for that piece, but also for every subsequent piece. No piece will then be in totally unfamiliar territory. Every piece will become easier to write, and will sparkle with insights and perspectives gained from the research on other pieces.

The most important part of your ASSET will be the networking of people concerned with the field of your specialisation. The same network of people will give you information, authentic and credible quotes, and ideas for subjects. They will also be grateful to you for remaining alive in the public mind through your mentions/ quotes. “Grateful hangers-on” can be useful, too, if you are discerning in your choice of people. Every profession is a give-and-take community of sorts, where those with access to the media enjoy a privileged position.

5. As a career strategy, specialisation is unavoidable. Even if you decide not to specialise on a subject, the market – if it exists for your work – will start demanding more of what you are best at, and drive you towards a specialisation. This will happen because nobody wants just a writer. But, people want experts on something or the other all the time. And, experts, who can also write, will always be in short supply. If you are not a SOMEBODY in a well-defined field, no matter how small the field, you are doomed to being a NOBODY.

6. Develop a sound, but not very complicated, storage and retrieval system for your knowledge / source base. [If you have specialised prudently, the material will never be either vast enough or diverse enough to justify a very complicated storage/retrieval system] Treat your interviews – notes as well as tapes -- with special respect. Tape every interview, and store it. Don’t throw away your interview notes. You can’t tell which interview will provide you with information or quotes for which piece, and when. You cannot assume that the value of an interview done today ends with the publication of the piece based on it. You can’t also tell when you will be the only one living to have evidence of some event that seems innocuous today, but proves to have been historic. Journalism might be history written in a hurry. But, history, it still is. But, your interviews being oral history, they have the potential to play havoc with your career. Interviewees are notorious for denying what they said. If you can’t fling their interview tape back into their faces when they do this, you might one day find yourself thrown out of editorial offices.

7. I have found that there’s two stages of research in writing. One kind of research is done before you start writing the piece – the research that gives you the content of your piece, the facts, the trends, the conclusions, the perspective etc. Once you start writing, you need a different kind of research – research that makes the piece of writing come alive. This research looks for some “telling detail”, something unusual, something memorable, some figure/ number, sometimes just a quotation – anything that puts “life” into the subject and, preferably, drives home the basic point you are trying to make on the subject.

Therefore, you cannot afford to put away your reference material after you have made your notes, and started writing. To write really fine stuff, you will almost certainly need your original reference material repeatedly  – for a different kind of reference – right through the duration of the writing.

8. Don’t trust the magnetic media [computers] as storage devices. Keep back-ups of all your writing and print material – on hard copy as well as magnetic media. Open an archival account on for free storage space. You can download whenever you want, rewrite, edit, re-use, refer.

9. What are you going to do with this piece of writing? Is it worth storing? If it is, print it out, and file it. Reading it two years later could be equally rewarding. Also park it on your FREEDRIVE archival space.

June 23, 2001


I am now sharing with you my understanding of effective writing. There’s no well-conceived structure for this note – there ought to be; but my brain isn’t working well at all today. I am just
haring my experience as it comes to me.

  1. A lot of research has been done on readability of English writing. Different texts have been tested for speed of reading and for ease of comprehension amongst people with different levels of education. The Fleisch Readability Score came out of this research. Never mind how it is calculated. What is important is to know what its components are, and be sensitive to them when you write.

The components are:

[a] Number of sentences per paragraph. Lower the better. Four to five sentences is considered a prudent limit, subject to conceptual clarity of para separations. You and I both know, however, that some of the most powerful paragraphs we have read is just a single sentence. Conceptual clarity. One big idea, emblazoned in its isolated glory, has immense impact.

[b] Number of words per sentence. Lower the better. But, again, it depends on the nature of the text. Literary greats like John Steinbeck or John Gardner achieve eight words per sentence. You and I will neither need to get there, nor ever succeed in getting anywhere close. A legal document may have 50 words per sentence, or more. In journalism, every publication has its own style. I haven’t checked recently. But, Economic Times used to be around an average 21 words per sentence some years ago. The Economist [London] used to do 18 words per sentence. Serious academic journals might go upto 25 or more. If you analyse current journalism of the type you are doing, an average can be determined. This is easily done on a random sampling basis. If you need my help, I can do it for you. I reckon, you will come up with something like 15.

[c] Number of syllables per word. Lower the better. In journalism, the average should be below three.

[d] Number of passive voice sentences to active voice sentences. Lower the better. The human mind appears to read and comprehend the subject-verb-predicate sequence faster and better than predicate-verb-subject.

MSWord sensitises you to these problems, and others, with green lines below the problem sentences. Take a second look at such lines. Until a few years ago, MSWord also used to give you a Fleisch Readability Score. They have discontinued it now, but under TOOLS [Word Count], you can still get a count of characters, sentences, paragraphs. This is a good beginning.

  1. Word length. When you write a full piece, and want to cut it down in length, use the Editing features of MSWord. You just have to specify by how much you want to cut down the length of the piece, and the programme highlights what you can easily throw out. Take clues from this, and edit it yourself. I have found the programme amazingly powerful for almost any subject.

  1. Seduction: The principles of good writing are not very different from those of seduction. Make the reader want more. The headline must make the reader want to read the first para. The first para must make the reader want to read the second. And, so on. He should finish the reading the piece before he realises it’s over.

  1. Sequencing of ideas and information. In conventional writing, say a research report, you start with a problem, discuss its causes, and then move towards its solution. In journalistic writing, you take the inverse route. The first para must have your whole story. In it, you simultaneously discuss the solution and the problem. In the rest of the report, you defend the story [the first para] – how it works, why it works etc.  This logic is based on two assumptions: [a] that the first para should enable the reader to judge whether the subsequent paras are of any interest to them or not [b] that a majority of your readers may not have the time or the inclination to read beyond the first para and this is why a summary of the whole piece should be given to them up front. This is why most good writers write the first para at the end, after the whole story has been written, and then proceed to reorganise the body of the story for a logical flow of ideas.

  1. The same inversion of logic is followed for each paragraph. We would normally structure a paragraph by starting with the premise, and the facts, and then finally state the conclusion. In journalistic writing, the conclusion comes first, and the rest of the paragraph defends the conclusion with the premise and the evidence.

  1. The INVERTED PYRAMID means: The first para of a story is a summary/ conclusion of the whole story. And, the first sentence of every para is a summary/ conclusion of the whole para. The journalistic style is: STATE AND DEFEND. This is the opposite of the “Evidence-to-Argument-to-judgment” logic of the law courts. Why this order? Simply because those who agree with your conclusion/ judgment will read further because they agree; and those who don’t agree with what you state will certainly read further to find out how you came to the conclusion that you did.

  1. If the first para has to be the whole story, it is desirable  – if the subject permits – to focus it sharply on a reader’s [ probable] problem, and give him the possibility of a solution. This will persuade him to read further, if the problem you are discussing is relevant / important to him. This is why, it is excellent practice to compose the first sentence addressing the reader in second person singular. The first three words should contain the word YOU. If you can write the whole piece in second person singular, nothing like it. All advertisements are written, at least in theory, with this notional address. If somebody is paying so much for them, they must be doing something right! And, indeed they are. Everyone loves himself more than he loves anyone else.

  1. The first para should, ideally, make the reader sit up and say: “Wow, I didn’t know this!”. It doesn’t matter whether what he didn’t know  -- and you told him – is good news or bad news. The sheer novelty, the revelation value, will grab him. But, for God’s sake, don’t start a piece with “Did you know…?” except under the rarest of circumstances. Nobody likes being told he didn’t know something. You should merely tell him something he is not LIKELY to have known. That will make him jump.

  1. If the subject you are dealing with is unfamiliar to most readers, try to relate it to something familiar. The human mind is inclined to shut out what is patently unfamiliar. It is willing to consider moving only from the familiar to the unfamiliar, if you show him the rewards of so doing. If your reader hasn’t heard of Mahesh Dattani, a quote from Lyllette Dubey or Naseeruddin Shah will help establish the link of familiarity. Without such a link, the response could be: “Who’s Mahesh Dattani? I couldn’t care less!”. And, you’ve lost your reader. But, if he hasn’t heard even of Lyllette or Naseeruddin, then he’s probably not your reader anyway.
  1. Any piece of writing will generally have three facets of the subject – [a] positive/ pleasing/ encouraging,  [b] neutral/ factual and [c] negative/ limiting/ discouraging. All three categories of information must be presented to do justice to the reader. And, it should always be in this same order [1] positive [2] neutral [3] negative. Don’t, for your own sake and Gods, actually describe any of these as positive/ neutral/ negative in the report. Just categorise and organise the material in this order. The order is important. Once you get people smiling and nodding vertically, it will become a habit, and they will forget to frown, or nod horizontally even when the facts warrant it. At the end, you can thus have an honest report, as well as a satisfied and happy reader. It is a win-win formula. This is good strategy also in personal communications. It takes hard work; but whoever said managing personal relationships wasn’t hard work?

Monday, 25 June 2001


This again is limited by my experience.

  1. Start by determining the wordage you wish to produce – based on what your publisher/ editor says, and the subject on hand. Having a notional word length in your mind from the beginning always helps in minimising the chopping and editing you have to do at the end. It is, obviously, always safer to edit a piece down to the feasible wordage yourself, than risk allowing some semi-literate sub-editor to mess up either the flow of thought, or the argument.

  1. There are, broadly, two ways of putting a piece together. [a] Write the whole piece down in one sitting – the first draft, if you like  – and then start polishing it up with captions etc. [b] Divide the whole piece into chapters/ sections, write each chapter/ section in any order you find convenient, polish up each section separately, and then thread the whole piece together in a sequence that you feel is best for the flow of the argument/ ideas. After you have assembled the components, you must refine the “linkages” between the sections once again to ensure that the flow of thought is smooth.

  1. Both have worked with me. But, I strongly recommend the second approach for several reasons: dividing the piece into sections/ chapters it enforces a conceptual clarity on the effort, permits/ encourages you to achieve a certain level of depth in every section – you won’t be happy with a section until you have achieved it – and leads to a sharper wording of captions. Editing and polishing small texts at a time is also much less painful than editing a large piece in one shot. The most important gain from the second approach is the ease with which the “Inverted Pyramid” structure can be built. Every section/ chapter has to have its own summary up-front. Once you have, say, five or six chapters with their own summaries leading them in, you also have the ideas available for writing a summary of the whole piece and putting it on top as the lead-in of the piece.

  1. Once you have edited the whole piece, and are reasonably happy with it, go back to the difficult/ complex/ uncomfortable/ controversial paragraphs/ sections for micro editing. In this effort, you have to accord special attention to: [a] the possibility of complicated/ confusing sentence structure or of mutually conflicting ideas, [b] the risk of derogatory or pejorative interpretations of some words [c] the possibility of controversy, which you might wish to either avoid or explicitly recognise and [d] the possibility of some ideas having been repeated in the because you were, initially, working on each chapter/ section as a stand-alone piece, trying to make it comprehensive and complete.  I can’t think of any more risks at the moment. But, basically, I am talking about a “risk control” effort.

  1. Once you are satisfied that the whole piece reads well, flows smoothly, and is within the target word length, start work on the “special effects” [SFX] department. The SFX department deals with features and elements in your piece, which will make your piece memorable, preferably, quotable. Some examples are given here:

[a] There could be one or two ideas, or words, in your piece, which capture the essence of the whole piece. There is a danger that such words will have been used repeatedly in the piece. Identify such words, look up a thesaurus for all possible synonyms, and strategically strew them all over the piece as replacement for the excessively repeated word. This helps in two ways: Punaravrutti Dosha is removed, and you are able to project the “atmospherics” of the piece through kaleidoscopic imagery of associated/ similar ideas.

[b] There could be the possibility of introducing a “telling detail” that makes people remember and quote your piece. Sometimes, this detail might merely establish that you have seen your subject “from the inside” – like: “The moon was almost full”. This detail establishes the date of an event within a range of +/- two days. Another example – “I was received at Oman Airport by an ancient, bearded, Bengali gentleman called Abdul Qayyum”. Now, dash it, even if he was a clean-shaven 35 year old, and was a Malyalee, and his name was Ghulam Qadir, how does it matter? You have sufficient detail here to have your reader believe that you were “actually there” – even if you weren’t.

The “telling detail” can also be a perspective on a fact – like: “The value of Indian black-money accounts in Swiss banks is equal to the India’s foreign debt.” Another perspective on similar facts could be – “To pay off India’s foreign debt, the entire population would need to starve for three years.”  Numbers/ figures/ numerals make excellent memory hooks. They activate the mind’s eye by encouraging people to visualise what they are reading.

[c] Try some journalistic “Ustadi”. Throw in, if possible, a couple of words of rare usage -- like: “It’s a CINCH”. Or “The truth of his statement RANKLED.”  If you want to be really wicked, choose words for which very few dictionaries provide a meaning, or few thesaurus’ provide a synonym. If you hunt hard enough, you should be able to locate an anthology of rare usage words in the major bookshops of Bombay/ Pune. An alternative to the rare-usage word is a foreign [French, Greek and Latin is ideal] language word/ term, which is not totally unfamiliar in English – without providing a translation. Just to gently intimidate your audiences, you could use the expansion “Exempli Gratia” [Latin] instead of the common abbreviation “e.g.”, and watch people take note of you. Such Ustadi has to be done very sparingly and judiciously In most cases, just once in a piece is good enough. It’s not enough to avoid annoyance to the reader – you shouldn’t risk giving your editor a complex.

[d] Somewhere in your piece, you could be expressing your own opinion, or conclusions. Make sure that you have avoided the rhetorical question as a device for making such observations. This form tends to be perceived as dogmatic. Consider carefully if you need to add some “attitude softeners” to make your ideas acceptable. These softeners are mostly “tone of voice” devices. You can prefix your observations with “Some might argue that …..” or suffix them with a phrase like “Think about it!”. Opinions/ conclusions stated cautiously, without an air of finality, can become memorable and even quotable.

CAVEAT EMPTOR: Editors have rather dogmatic views on the kind of SFX they will tolerate and the kind they will expunge. It’s a cinch. Read your editor’s mind and stick to the kind that will pass muster. 

  1. When is a piece ready for handing over?  The easiest answer, and the most frequent, is: “When the editor wants it.” But, even if you have some leeway in the matter, you still don’t have a formula. No piece is ever “perfect”.  “There’s not a hand in this world, that has written what another’s eyes cannot fault, and his hands cannot improve” [Reproduction inaccurate, Attribution forgotten]. You have to take this decision yourself. At some point, you will have to say, “That’s it!”, and close the file. Experience advises me NOT to despatch a piece for at least  48 hours after I have said “That’s It!”.

Your piece starts working on you after you have stopped working on it. Give the piece 48 hours to improve itself further. The, after 48 hours of “cooling”, examine it again, add the finishing touches as they suggest themselves to you, and pack it off with a “Jai Hanuman” or similar psychic protection for your work.

End of Part III

P.S. Jai Hanuman. And, all power to you elbow!
There won’t be any more parts – for 48 hours, by when I might remember something I have missed.

 (c) Deepak S Raja 2001