Sunday, August 20, 2006

Writing: A Personal Journey

The other day, a publisher, at my request, sent me the latest edition of The Economist Style Guide. It's a gem, but the cost is ridiculous (the previous edition was Rs 195, the new Rs 250), and can be found hidden away in the 'Reference' rack of any big bookstore -- if anyone cares to look for it, that is.

Over the years, the Economist Style Guide, like many of my books, has become more of a possession than reference/reading material. I rarely pull it off the shelf and bother to spend time with it. But when the latest edition arrived, I went through the pages randomly, more for the smell of the fresh ink that emanates from between every new book. For no particular reason, my eyes fell on an entry under 'U':

underprivileged Since a privilege is a special favour or advantage, it is by definition not something to which everyone is entitled. So 'underprivileged', by implying the right to privileges for all, is not just ugly jargon but also nonsense.

I panicked. Did I ever use the word in my copies? Did I ever use it in my blog? I could not recall, but I certainly had come across the word in copies that had been handed to me for editing and I never pointed it out. And how could I when I did not know myself? Shouldn't I be ashamed?

As a matter of fact, I should be. And I am. After all, it is the sense of shame that keeps me on the right track. I can announce the shame with a sense of pride because I know fellow journalists who would have said: "Big deal! It happens. Even the Economist makes mistakes." Or, worse, "Even I was wondering if we should say 'underprivileged'. But I had a headache that day so I let it pass." Or, even worse, "Of course there is a word called 'underprivileged'! I saw it the other day. Wait a second, where is the dictionary..."

It may work elsewhere, but in writing, you can't cheat, especially when something has been committed to print (or online, for that matter, assuming you don't have the option of re-editing). If a vigilant reader points out, you will have no option but to clean your vomit, unless you are shameless enough to retort: "You know what, I never wrote that. Those guys on the desk always muck around with my copy."

I don't know how good or bad a writer I am. If I am bad, there are reasons for it. I grew up in the Hindi heartland speaking no other language but Hindi (except for Bengali at home). Even though I wrote in English, my thoughts were processed in Hindi. As a result, I would find myself tongue-tied in the middle of 'English' conversations. This, in spite of the nuns making us clean the playground if we were caught speaking Hindi.

And if I seem to be having a way with words, that could be because I grew up with every single magazine that existed during the 70's and 80's. Many of them no longer exist -- Sunday, Onlooker, Mirror, Probe, Illustrated Weekly. Many of them still do: India Today, Society, Savvy, Cine Blitz, Stardust, Femina, Filmfare. The knowledge of sex and 'female-related matters' came primarily from women's magazines, Manorama and Grihashobha. Then there was the magazine that came only for me: Chandamama.

If you put the contents of all these magazines into a blender and turn the knob on, a 'Ganga Mail' type of blog is likely to flow out of the nozzle. That is what you find on this blog -- a bit of this, a bit of that. If someone has a good word, it warms my heart. If someone criticises it, well, never mind, there is always the next time.

But I would like to say a few things about critics, since I am on 'writing' trip. Very rarely, out here, is the criticism constructive. It is usually aimed at demolishing you. One criticism that my writing frequently draws -- from the same set of people -- is that it is too "flaky", "masala", "non-serious." For them, I don't do the serious kind of writing. For them, the benchmark is the editorial page of Hindu. But at the same time, they miss the facing, op-ed page, which is usually filled with serious yet breezy articles from Guardian or New York Times.

I hope my critics read this post, for I am going to explain to them a few things about writing, once and for all, pointwise:

1. There is nothing called "serious" or "non-serious" writing. A piece of writing can either be "readable" or "unreadable". Yes, there is a variety of writing that is called "pompous", the Hindu edit page type, where the writers talk at the reader instead of talking to the reader.

2. I am more obsessed with the craft than the content. Your content might be first class, but if your presentation is boring, if you constantly refer to the thesaurus to replace words like 'theft' with 'heist' just to sound self-important, if you start with a convoluted sentence just to show that your command over English is far superior than others, chances are nobody will read you beyond a sentence. But if you know the craft, you can make a story out of a thesis.

3. The fact that you read me in the first place is a victory. You read me because it requires no effort, and it requires no effort because I work hard at it. What takes you precisely 5 minutes to read often takes me 5 hours to write -- 3 of which go into the first three paras. If that shows what a poor writer I am, so be it.

4. Your criticism doesn't stick because every moment I am criticising myself. Every time I read stuff I had written two days ago, I hang my head in shame: "How could I?" But I can't delete what is already printed. And in the blog I don't delete old posts just out of respect for the labour I had put in.

5. If -- instead of criticising for the sake of criticising -- you take a scalpel and edit my copy, sharpen my sentences, I would acknowledge you as a true critic and not someone who doesn't like my face or is just jealous of me. (I am so tempted to put a 'wink' smiley here, but my posts are out of bound for smileys.)

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

my girlfriend read a couple of pieces in the gangamall and said, "such a clever writer, but he drinks !"
you just cant please all of them, eh ?

Paresh Palicha said...

Wow!! This post has made me less guilty about not knowing proper English. I also grew up using a Khichadi of languages & honed my writing by reading the same magazines you mentioned here.

Anonymous said...

Please continue writing the way u do..... I like the way ur brain works, especially that sense of humour u possess. Though i must admit i had stopped visiting ur blog for some time.... No amount of criticism should deter a writer after all!! As for English.....It is a funny language....right!

anilshankar said...

You are right,BG,I find the stardustmore readable than the HINDU edit page.

ravi said...

Bish i too grewup by reading many of these magzines that u have mentioned in ur post..in fact i shall add a few more in the list..Dharamyug by times publication, Dewana by Tej publication, Parag, Champak, Sarita, Mukta, Saptahik Hindustan etc..but i would like to bring one fact to this Illustrated weekly when Sardar Khuswant Singh was the editor of this weekly..he mentioned abt one interview that he took of RSS pramukh..all of a sudden Sardarji fell short of questions..n at that time he declared kidde mein jhalla sikh teh nai han..another incident i know is this one..there was a horoscope coloumn in this mag n on one fine day..that astrologer went on leave..but Khuswant Singh did nt appoint anyother astrologer for this purpose n infact he wrote this coloumn on his own..in his own way..but i really dont know why this mag was taken out of circulation..but Sardarji became a hit by writing his tastes for wine or scotch and women..i recall one more article in the Dharmamyug that was abt Hindi la do..n nt Hindi lado..n this was by Mrinal Panday..i dont know whether u know it or nt but this is scientific that in speaking hindi movement of tounge is maximam n this fact was told to me by one friend of me who studied at Sanawar..well again i grewup or rather growing up in this blogging circle by reading ur n others blogs..i think somewhere u had mentioned that blogging is like a personal diary..thou one does nt show ones diary in public..but blogs are visible to everyone..n if one particular post if one feels was written at the heat of a moment..and if one feels that it is hurting the sentiment of others then why it shudnt be removed..but again this is a personal choice..u cant be what i am..i cant be what u are..u have ur own style n u r pretty comfortable with it..n infact this is what one says or belives in..live n let live. Why shud be read too much in what one says or writes..i accept that this is ur style but do u?

vandy said...

and there was a weekly called 'Weekend'
Point no 3...true.But that is a sign of a good writer.I think even very hi fi writers write and re-write several times. I remem KS wrote somewhere some thing like this only.

@ the first comment...:-))
Take care.

Deepa said...

I totally agree with you about the criticism, either you are shot down or placed on a pedestal for your writing. Rarely do people tell you what they actually think. And it is this that makes us writers think we are better than we actually are.
I grew up reading The Hindu but never read a single editorial. Half the time I was thinking it was not the English language I had learnt.

Anonymous said...

Your style, prose and grammar are excellent. You captivate the reader right from the first word and hold his/her attention with your witty, thought-provoking writing. Very rarely do I find myself laughing aloud at the written word, but your writing is humorous without being offensive.

Since this blog is about language and editing, as an erstwhile editor and current writer, I should tell you that your use of apostrophes leaves much to be desired. For example, in this post, "every single magazine that existed during the 70's and 80's", there is no need for the apostrophe between 70 and 80 and the s. Quite a few of your posts and articles in the Express have the same errors. In fact, the Sunday Express recently had a headline screaming :"Do's and Dont's". A headline error was an absolute no-no with my DNE. There is no need for the apostrophe between Do and s; the apostrophe comes between the n and t for the next word.

Don't mean to criticise, but a small blot on an otherwise clean copy is jarring at times.

Continue writing in the same style!

Atul Sabnis said...

and even when cleaning the playground, i guess you would curse in Hindi?

a smiley is a support structure, you dont need it.

in2mind said...

1."the Hindu edit page type, where the writers talk at the reader instead of talking to the reader."

I didnt get that "at the reader- to the reader" part.

2.Mags like outlook often do that "thesaurus" type wordings!I hate that.

3."What takes you precisely 5 minutes to read often takes me 5 hours to write -- 3 of which go into the first three paras."

Iam reminded of that quote from Michael Angelo - "If only people knew how hard I...." :)

@Anon: "There is no need for the apostrophe between Do and s; the apostrophe comes between the n and t for the next word."

I doubt if anyone other than editors notice those things!

Dido-seriously said...

well said post.I always think you make the blog interesting by witty quotes.do you know somepeople wait to read your post??

annie said...

A writer who has concern for readers writes best. Bundles of ideas put in one sentence is never appreciated. Writing without humour is boring. You possess almost all qualities required. Out forward criticism itself shows the calibre.

Anonymous said...

"Koi kahe kehta rahe ..."
don't mind the criticism.

u write good stuff..
"A people's writer"

S.Krishnan said...

Hi BG,
Take heart in the fact that some of us (e.g., ravi) are literally using the blender that you speak of. Until you quit mulling over bygone blogs, you will continue to write readable pieces. Bravo !

ravi said...

Bish..i used this piece of Brad pit in my post..n the inputs i got frm ur sunday article on april 9, 2006 which was abt ur rishikhesh yoga journey. This article i read in the train while coming to bhubneshwar frm berhampur..seriously i liked the way u refered abt brad pit there...that u reached there on 5th march..n he had to come on 7th march..the lines following that were very intresting..u meant wish he cud be there on 5th mar so that he too cud see what a fun u ppl were having..n this very feeling i tried to evolve in my own silly way..i know i m nt that much able as u r..but still i tried..another article that i enjoyed was the silly vision..which i read while coming back frm davengere to hubli in karnatka..purely it is a fun to read ur works..i enjoy it..or rather i shall put it in that way..i always love to read ur admiring posts n articles. I m ur fan now. Add me in ur portfolio..just kidding..but surely i shall love to be with u for a round of whiskey..u can always come to my home at pitampur..or if u were there on 15th aug..the day the delhities like to fly kites..what fun it wud be..sitting on roof top..flying kites..having a sip of beer..n shouting..i booow..god bless.

Anonymous said...

Ravi, That was wild. Talking of wild, I can see how Oscar Wilde got into trouble. When BG can afford to buy those expensive brands of whiskey, I am sure he will consider having some personal body guards to protect him from such affectionate fans.

Doozie's Labratory said...

Critics are by no means the end of the law. Do not think all is over with you because you articles are rejected. It may be that the editor has his drawer full, or that he does not know enough to appreciate you, or you have not gained a reputation, or he is not in a mood to be pleased. A critic's judgment is like that of any intelligent person. If he has experience, he is capable of judging whether a book will sell. That is all.

junior editor, Harper's Bazaar, 1866

nilu said...

LOL...

Anonymous said...

Have you tried the Chicago Manual of Style? That's the best!

http://mostexcitingblogever.blogspot.com/

Anu Russell said...

At the Anon person who has mentioned hte chicago style of writing...dude it is used for writing thesis and stuff where people want u to follow a strict format! Not for people who love to write because they love doing it...

Anyhoo, Loved your blog as usual! I cannot be a critic of anything you write because I will have to work a lot to even be as good as you. I love the point how you drive the point home...

Forget the critics...and write because you are good at it and thats where ur heart is...

Anu Russell said...

At the Anon person who has mentioned hte chicago style of writing...dude it is used for writing thesis and stuff where people want u to follow a strict format! Not for people who love to write because they love doing it...

Anyhoo, Loved your blog as usual! I cannot be a critic of anything you write because I will have to work a lot to even be as good as you. I love the point how you drive the point home...

Forget the critics...and write because you are good at it and thats where ur heart is...

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Prakash said...

Your style of writing...makes people who shy away from stiff & serious writing...to stand up and take notice. You are the best. Probable one day you will print the blog into a book form and I will buy it for a rainy day..when I can read it over tea instead of a laptop. Keep it up.

Malar Maalai said...

You said it best when you said this:
"The fact that you read me in the first place is a victory. You read me because it requires no effort, and it requires no effort because I work hard at it. What takes you precisely 5 minutes to read often takes me 5 hours to write --"

I find your prose pieces engaging, intelligent, witty and entertaining. Since those are the qualities that I look for in stuff that I read for fun (as opposed to all the technical and administrative material I have to read for my work - I am a scientist/scientific writer), I am content and happy to read your web journal.

Yes, anything that is written can probably be written better, the same as anything that is spoken, but what of it? "Anyone who thinks that writing is easy is either a liar or a poor writer," paraphrasing what one U.S. Ambassador to India, himself a prolific and a very good writer said once upon a time ....

So, you keep your craft the way you keep it, and I will continue to enjoy reading your prose ... while I am at it, let me thank you for the pleasure this act of reading your prose affords me.

Malar

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Anubhuti said...

But you write well Mr Ghosh, and by now, you have so many ppl telling you that.