Atanu Dey On India's Development

On Writing Well

This is meta-writing: writing about writing.

Ankan wrote:

You write extremely well. You have very good ideas, but your posts are a joy to read even when I do not agree completely with the ideas.

They say good writing comes as a result of clarity of thought. Is it just that, or can one do something more to improve one’s written ability? Is there any advice you would like to give to someone who wishes to write well?

Thanks for the generous comment.

I am not qualified to give advice on how to write well. Attempting to do so would be presumptuous, as it would imply that I myself know how to write well. By definition, only a few of us can do something well. Much of the time it is a combination of innate talent and years of practice. Little can be done about talent except to accept what one is endowed with gracefully. What one can do is practice enough to become better at something – and perhaps do it well. So what follows is briefly what I believe it takes to become a better writer.

Like the advice on how to get to Carnegie Hall, to become a better writer one has to practice, practice, practice. Whether one becomes a good writer is not within our control.

So first you have to have something to write about. You write about something that you consider important and have thought about. Then you write.

Writing is often a way of revealing to yourself what you know. Writing becomes a learning process. You teach yourself what you already know. It is a process of discovery. In conversations with others, I discover my own thinking. A similar thing happens when I write. It is a way of having a conversation with myself. I am often surprised by what I write. I find myself saying, “Hmmm. I did not think about it that way.” But that is not true. I must have thought about it that way but did not realize it until I tried to communicate my ideas.

The written words are a reflection of one’s thinking. The fidelity of that reflection depends on well one knows a language. Often enough I have had thoughts that I didn’t have the necessary vocabulary to express them. But later, when I did get sufficient vocabulary, I was able to express the thought. So it is absolutely necessary that one commands a reasonable vocabulary. For that you have to love words and concepts. You have to be able to distinguish and discriminate between related words and concepts and be careful to mean what you say and say what you mean.

The best way to learn how to write is to read good writing. It has to be deliberate reading. Not the kind of reading one does when one is hurrying through the daily news. It has to be the slow, methodical, reflective, questioning type of reading that is like having a conversation with the author.

I once attempted reading Nirad Choudhury and found that I could not penetrate his dense prose. It is very impressive but a page is about the most that I can deal with. Sentences that run into hundreds of words leave me gasping for breath. I like to read authors who write clearly and with a light touch.

Bertrand Russell, in stark contrast to Niradbabu, is a pleasure to read. His writing has a precise elegance that reveals complex ideas in words that in their stark simplicity resemble a Zen painting.

To learn from the masters, one can do worse than to read and re-read them enough times that the elements of their style becomes part of your vocabulary. I used to memorize long passages of the writers I admired.

Form is important of course. But the content is what matters even more. As the computer science witticism goes, “Syntax is taxing but it is semantics that tics.” To write as well as you can, you have to think as well as you can. To think well, one has to have knowledge and know logic. Logic is unfortunately not stressed too much in our Indian education system. It is however never too late to learn logic. Like bicycle riding, it is best to learn it when one is young. Also, once you know it, you never forget it.

That is all: Good writing is the product of some very hard thinking. Lazy thinkers cannot be good writers. Read great thinkers, learn a bit and think a lot, ask questions, use logic, learn vocabulary, write carefully. Fight for freedom. Repeat until desired results are obtained.

  • Ike

    Don’t worry. They don’t teach a great deal of logic over here in the USA, either.

  • ghostwriter

    You are quite right about using short, simple sentences – as opposed to wordy and complex prose.

    V.S. Naipaul is my favorite writer of narrative – precisely for this reason. Incidentally, he gave the same advise to a young writer when asked how to write well.

    The goal of writing a blog is to bring awareness to the reader. Awareness – the word used here is different from knowledge, information or data. If you write long-winding sentences – half the reader’s energy is spent in merely recognizing and putting together words. That is an awful waste.

    In the case of Niradbabu – well the man was a scholar and academic, but very pretentious. His writing was not for the people. As an Indian – he gave me no sense of myself. He gave Indians very little knowledge of the world they found themselves in. I could not relate myself to his life and found nothing of myself in his books. Perhaps that is the failure. If you read Naipaul’s book Beyond Belief – you will understand why Pakistanis hate us without ever having gone to Pakistan. You will find a lot of yourself in the characters that he describes in his travel writing about India. That is the mark of a genius.

  • Ike

    One more piece, for those looking for a way to pare it down to the essentials: http://occamsrazr.com/2007/10/17/a-gem-of-a-message/

  • Pingback: Atanu on Writing Well « World is Green

  • Pingback: Belajar Nulis « Feel My Soul