Writing Skills

"Writing" in its modern form
"Writing" in its modern form

The need for good writing skills cannot be overemphasized in a shrinking world where communication is key. There are various ways of going about it.

1. Writing / communication courses offered by reputed institutes and colleges provide the most comprehensive and efficient means of building up or upgrading one's writing skills. While the benefits can be considerable there is also a cost angle to it that has to be borne in mind.

2. Books provide a good alternative to those who cannot join up for a course for lack of time or other reasons. It is a fact that most learning is heavily dependent on books and libraries, which are our civilization’s greatest treasure. It’s marvelous how this treasure has been preserved from times immemorial, passed down through the ages and what’s even better – revised and augmented continuously (of late in myriad ways that leave us breathless at times). When I say books and libraries I also imply the digital counterparts scattered over the vast virtual space and providing unparalleled access to information for people from all corners of the world.

3. Learning from life's experiences. Let me confess that while the benefits bestowed by books and libraries is undoubtedly huge, and difficult to estimate, I have found that some great learnings have also come my way from very routine interactions with ordinary people going about their job, with no special claim to erudition or intellectual accomplishments. Life itself is a great teacher but oftentimes because of our stereotyped view of education we turn a blind eye and miss out on some wonderful learning opportunities offered by life itself. What comes to mind immediately is an incident from my school days that left me puzzled and pained to begin with, but gradually as the days and months rolled by, profoundly influenced my understanding of communication.

The good old pen and paper
The good old pen and paper

Life experience

My English teacher was distributing the answer sheets of the latest midterm examination while his ninth class students waited with bated breath to discover how they had acquitted themselves. A few in the class looked forward with some excitement and I was one of them. In fact I was actually awaiting a special mention from my teacher (with a huge round of applause to follow from the class) because I had written what I believed to be an excellent essay. I had worked hard for months and built up a formidable arsenal of quotations and obscure words found only in the best literary classics and this examination was the setting for me to deliver my masterpiece of writing.

Most of the class received their answer sheets and I was waiting for my name to be announced when I realized that all the answer books were already distributed and I hadn’t received mine.

“Sir” I put up my hand, “I haven’t received mine-“

“Meet me after the class” my teacher said.

I couldn’t wait for the class to end and go up to my teacher.  He saw me approaching him and took out my answer sheet and handed it over to me. I grabbed and looked at the top right hand corner and saw a very clear zero. My face turned pale. I felt something was wrong. No way can my answer sheet bear a zero when I was acknowledged as one of the good students.

“Why sir?’ was all I could get to ask.

My teacher smiled.

“I couldn’t understand a word,” he confessed.

“But Sir if you didn’t understand I should get the highest marks. How can you penalize me-“

“Who do you write for my boy?” he asked me.

I didn’t know what he meant by that question.

“The reader, right” he prodded.

I nodded.

“Obviously it has to be the reader. Why would you want to write for yourself unless it’s a diary? And so if we accept that it’s the reader that you wrote for, then let me tell you that this reader didn’t understand a word and therefore you have failed completely in communicating.  Naturally that leaves me with no alternative but to give you a zero.”

I was downcast and silent. I shook my head because I couldn’t see the sense of it leave alone the justice of it.

“Think about it – let it sink in” he said as I walked away unconvinced.

Over a period of time the sense of it sank in and I understood all too clearly that he had a point - I was not communicating. I didn’t reach my reader. Clearly, I had no business to bamboozle or burden my reader just because he chose to read my work. Point taken.

I have never forgotten from this incident the importance of moving into the reader’s shoes and figuring out whether he/she will understand what I am saying. My writing is meant to convey something not to just impress the reader somehow and my success will be determined by how well my reader understands what I had to say.  Of course, all this is relevant for writing as well as other modes of communication.  

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