12 MIN READ
This week, we will do something different. This week's article will describe four skills that my lockdown writing groups — all Nepali professionals, including some PhDs — have found the most useful. I learned these skills in college and graduate school. When I taught at a US university, I routinely shared these skills with my students.
These skills show that, with careful attention and practice, you can become a better writer. Writers are made, not born.
I wish Nepali schools taught less grammar and more of these writing skills.
Next week we will return to our regular Writing Journeys reflections with an essay by Kalpana Jha.
1. Learn to read like a writer
Lots of people say that to learn to write well you need to read a lot. That's true, you need to read a variety of different things. The more the better. But you also need to read smarter. You need to read more strategically. You need to study good writing. How do good writers do what they do? What makes their writing effective? If you start paying closer attention to not just what they say but how they say it, you can begin to use some of their methods in your own writing.
In one of my favorite writing books, Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark devotes an entire chapter to how to read. He writes:
“When you find you can’t put a story down,” he says, “you should put the story down. Put it down and think about how it works. What magic did the writer conjure to propel you from paragraph to paragraph, page to page, chapter to chapter? Smart writers…learn by reading work they admire again and again ‘to see how it works.’”
While reading, here are some things you can pay attention to: opening strategies, verbs, transitions and signposts, quotations, sentence length, paragraph length, new sentence structures, word choice, argument building techniques, strategies for keeping reader interest alive, and strategies for ending effectively.
If you want to change your writing technique, you need to change your reading technique.
2. Use simple, strong verbs to juice up your writing
This may be the favorite tip of the Nepali professionals in my writing courses. Strong verbs make a big difference and the concept can be learned quickly. By replacing a few weak ‘is, are, was, were’ verbs and passive verbs with strong verbs, you can quickly see your prose grow more concise and more powerful.
“A sentence can crackle with energy or it can just lie there, listless and uninteresting,” writes Constance Hale in the New York Times. “What makes the difference? The verb.”
Here is the basic idea:
Examples from Shradha Ghale's The Wayward Daughter:
“Late risers, they had not seen how laboriously Ganga collected water every morning, how she sweated and panted and ached as she pulled the water-pump handle up and down. "Thuli, Kanchi, please go, you've done enough," she would implore her cousins.”
Strong verbs help readers see and hear the action. In Shradha Ghale's sentences, we can see the sweat rolling down Ganga's forehead, we can hear the pump's squeaks. Verbs do this work.
Read how Harka Gurung uses verbs to bring Devghat alive for us in Vignettes of Nepal:
“The people huddled around camp-fires and cooked, drank, gossipped and sang. Here was a group swaying in the religious chant, there another group singing folk tunes and further beyond a duet song in full swing. The rhythmic beat of the Jhankri drum reverberated in the forest night…”
Trishna Rayamajhi, a professional currently getting a master's degree in the US, explained the power of strong verbs this way: “Using vigorous verbs will shorten your sentences magically and add more flavor. One can paint a picture with the right verbs. It is hard to find relevant vigorous verbs. But if you find one, you will know the difference.”
For examples, see my essays. Or study the verbs in the New York Times or The Economist. Look at articles in The Record.
Few things show better that writers are ‘made not born’ than verbs. Few things can be learned as quickly, and few things can improve your writing as much.
I learned this powerful tip about verbs late in my academic career — while writing my PhD thesis. I wish I had learned it earlier. You can learn in high school or college. It's easy but takes a little practice.
3. Learn to use lists to organize paragraphs and essays
Lists can help you organize a paragraph or even an entire essay easily and effectively. And yet, most people don't use them.
These examples show the power of lists:
Seira Tamang on gender hierarchy in “Resist hierarchy, ‘ladies’”, The Record, July 30, 2019
“I end by sharing two thoughts reached over years of attending seminars, workshops, and conferences. First, I’ve learnt that asking for feedback on a paper if you’re a woman in Nepal, and especially a younger woman, is an exercise undertaken at one's own peril. The audience and other speakers will invariably be dominated by high-caste men, eager to benevolently bequeath their bountiful stores of knowledge regardless of direct relevance or utility. And secondly, I have become increasingly convinced that not only Buddha, but mansplaining, was born in Nepal.”
Niranjan Kunwar on New York City in Between Queens and the Cities:
“I will never forget those streets, as if I had magically entered a Hollywood screen. Skyscrapers shooting up, the blaring horns, the mad rush."
Anthropologist Sherry Ortner on Sherpa mountain climbers in Life and Death on Mount Everest:
Sherpas “are the usually silent partners to the international mountaineers, carrying supplies, establishing routes, fixing ropes, cooking, setting up camps, sometimes saving the climbers' lives, and sometimes themselves dying in the process.”
Some people think that lists are inelegant. But lists are clear, and nothing is more important for a writer than clarity. I'd rather be clear and clunky than elegant and confusing. Seira Tamang, Niranjan Kunwar, Sherry Ortner, Sujeev Shakya, and Pratyoush Onta know what they are doing.
Finally, here is an advanced tip: When speaking, numbered lists are a powerful way to organize your thoughts.
Using lists in essays
For organizing essays with numbered lists, see these examples:
4. Write a lockdown journal
The best way to improve your writing is to write regularly. A journal, also called a diary, is a great way to do so. If possible, write each and every day, at the same time if possible. You want it to become a kind of daily ritual. Write for 10-15 minutes each day.
Lockdown is a special time in Nepal's history. Write about what is happening around you. How is life different from before? What do you see and hear about? Things that don't seem interesting now will seem very interesting years in the future when you look back. That's true for everything you write, not just lockdown.
Janak Raj Sapkota, one of the writers in the Writing Journeys series, kept a diary when he was growing up.
“From my school days,” he writes, “I had a habit of writing a diary. Near or far, whenever I went out, I somehow wrote a summary of my travels. Many find writing a diary boring. Many think that only important people write a diary. But in this world, even things considered small carry special value... Many things can go into the diary: everyday changing feelings and perceptions, the stories you have seen or experienced, your shifting habits, and the stories you hear.”
Writing routinely helped him become a better writer.
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'Why are Sherpas always happy?' appeared in the May 29 edition of Nepali Times.
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