Thursday, March 08, 2012

Writing Right

The good thing and the bad things about good writing is that there are no such concrete rules out there that can guide you through the process. Sure there are rules for grammar and punctuation, and some basic commandments, for example, clarity, precision, and so on. But these are merely guidelines, and are not formulaic. Although this means academic writers are often lost in blind alleys of words and sentences, not knowing how to navigate their way through the writing process, it also means there is more room for someone to be experimental and creative. Writing blogs or fiction is something, where one has more freedom to ramble on, engaging the reader in the rich intricacies of the language or word play. However, academic writing is different. People write with a purpose, and for a target audience who most of the time are busy, and do not have the time to deal with wordplay. If an academic paper has not caught my attention in the first five lines, chances are less that I will give it the rest of my time. I will skim through it and move on with life.

What do you do as an academic writer under the circumstances? Brevity helps, and so does clarity, but more than that, what helps most is style. A good piece of writing is something that arouses a question in the reader’s mind, and then goes on to answer it in the subsequent lines and paragraphs. You need to help the reader navigate through your thoughts and processes so that by the time they are done reading your paper, they have found almost every question answered within the paper. What we do in the research world might be complicated, but we need to master the art of putting the most complicated things in the simplistic way possible, because our reader has no time or energy to sail with us in our journeys of complications.

How one makes the reader navigate through the questions and answers them in the article is something I do not know. There is no formula to it and it is an endeavor that comes with time and mastery over one’s field. Writing is both a science and an art. It is like anything else, for example, playing a piano or cooking. You start by playing by the rules, and once you have mastered the rules, you play with your instinct. All this fluffy talk aside, I have realized that it is best to keep your target reader in mind when you write. What questions I would have if I were the reader? For example, if I wrote a few sentences about why red is my second favorite color, there should be a mention of what is my first favorite color, because that is what the reader is thinking when he reads about red. Simple and logical writing is often a product of clarity of thought, and not a way to undermine the reader’s lack of knowledge and understanding. In fact, good writing is like doing math. Every piece of your writing is logically connected to one another, and one piece leads to the other.

So how do you learn all this, given years of programming, thanks to good old Calcutta University, where the marks you score is directly proportional to the number of pages you fill up with garbage, and where the best answers score somewhere between 65-75%? Well, you simply unlearn your past learning, and relearn your art and science of writing. You read what good writers in your field write, you learn from your adviser (assuming he is a convincing writer), and most importantly, you write and ask for feedback.


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