If you have been following this blog, you may have noticed that I have not posted anything here for a long while - for almost nine months now (ignoring the couple of pieces written by Thambu that I had put up in between). Nine months is indeed a long gap, especially when you consider the fact that I used to post on average at least one post a month for the past couple of years.
A close friend, who had also noticed this, asked me the other day if I had stopped writing. "I don't see any more posts; or is it because you are too busy?"
I am not any busier than when I was a year ago and I have also not made any conscious decision to stop writing. "Then what happened? Why such a long gap?" - he wouldn't let me off so easily.
Well I must admit, there is probably an element of laziness at play here, but at the heart of it, I guess the answer is simple enough - I just did not have anything much to say. And when you don't have anything to say, then I guess it goes without saying that it is better you don't say anything!
I strongly believe in the sentiment expressed by Fitzgerald, I believe it was, who said, "You don't write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say".
My friend seemed unusually disappointed though, at hearing this. But before I could puff up my chest and soar any higher, thinking of the many readers who would be equally disappointed and who were eagerly waiting for my next post, he brought me down back to earth quite quickly.
His main interest was in trying to gauge the effort that it takes to maintain a blog - how much time one needs to devote to it and if possible understand how I go about selecting the topics that I write about. We had a long discussion, at the end of which, he suggested that I summarize the points that we discussed, because he felt that it may also benefit someone else.
Hence this piece.
This is not normally the process by which I end up selecting the topics that I write about - in fact this is only the second post that I am writing specifically on someone's request; the first being the article on my father's cancer treatment.
To be perfectly clear, I am also not at all under any illusion that I will be sharing any ground-breaking tips here - all I am doing is to shed some light on the process by which I choose the topics that I put up here and some pointers on how I go about framing and structuring the article itself, since this was also something that we discussed at length.
Selecting the topics
Like most people, I also maintain a scrapbook which has quite a few blog ideas - the ideas will usually be just a title or a very brief description. It is advisable that you keep your scrapbook easily accessible since most of the ideas will come to you at the most inconvenient moments! A frequent occurrence for me is when driving. I have been using Google Keep for a long while now and have found that it meets all my basic requirements. It is especially good at keeping a synced copy available for me on my phone and on my laptop. A very handy feature also is the ability to dictate a quick voice note into my mobile phone - this is a great help, especially while driving! And best of all, it is free!
When I get some time on my hands, I go through this draft list of ideas and then create one Word document for each idea that I decide is worth developing further. Over the next days and weeks, each of these Word documents gets slightly more evolved into skeleton drafts of the article-to-be.
Deciding to Write the Article
In my case, there is usually a trigger event which brings a draft topic or idea to the forefront; an event which reminds me of one of the article ideas in my scrapbook. Here are some of the classic examples from my blog - showing how a seemingly unrelated event helped to dust off the cobwebs around an old draft idea and suddenly brought it out into the limelight:
- A house without doors
- A face in the crowd, and following your passion...
- Have you watched yourself walking away?
- Taking off in an airplane
Structuring the Article
My usual template is to begin with very general observations and then dive into the topic that I want to write about. The initial observations though general, will usually have a hook or something that the reader will hopefully find interesting enough to continue reading. After the main subject itself is dealt with, I usually try to end the article with a closing paragraph or sentence that will hopefully leave the reader with something to think about. I always try to use simple sentences and short paragraphs as much as possible, and try to restrict a paragraph to one central idea. As mentioned earlier, there is really nothing new here and this is what any decent how-to-write-an-essay guide will teach you.
Writing the Article
It goes without saying that this is where most of the time is really spent. Now, I have a very strict rule when it comes to the language that I use for my writing. I am very particular that all my articles must be written in the same manner as I would speak it out to someone. I am fairly convinced that people are put off when faced with words and structures that they would not otherwise encounter in a spoken context. If we want people to read what we write, then we need to be writing in the language that we speak*. Having said that, the big assumption here is that what we speak follows basic rules of language and grammar!
I have read many articles written by people I know very well, people who are generally extremely engaging when in conversation. But when it comes to putting words on paper, they use a different language than they would use while talking about the same subject - something seems to convince them that when you write, you need to use more complicated words, phrases and sentence structures. "Apparent" for some strange reason becomes "ostensible", et al. and a few other Latin words creep in almost unnoticed and sentences just seem to go on and on and on - I am convinced that they keep a thesaurus beside them just to help them select the more complicated words!
You really don't need complex words and phrases to express even the most complex of ideas. In fact, I heartily agree with the statement that in most cases, if you cannot explain a concept in very simple terms, then you probably have not understood it well enough. There may be some exceptions to this, especially in a technical context, but I dare say these are very few and far between.
Now, this doesn't mean that spoken language always works best. When you write poems, for instance, where rhythm and phonetic tone is usually as important as the text itself, you may need to use words that you would not otherwise use in a general context. Also, sometimes there may be a specific need to make it difficult for people to understand what you are saying - an example of this would be the material that lawyers typically come up with! But in almost all other cases, I am firmly convinced that spoken language is better.
Even though, it may sound simple, it is not easy for most people to write as they would speak. So, it is important to read through your initial drafts, sentence by sentence always asking the question, "If I had to say this to a friend, is this how I would say it?". If not, think of how you would say it and revise the draft accordingly. Over time, this thought process will become ingrained in the way you write itself and you will not need to revise drafts as much.
Let it breathe
Once I am reasonably satisfied with a draft, I usually let it "breathe" for a few days. During this time, I will usually come back to it once or twice each day, reading it from beginning to end and invariably there will be further revisions - when you realise for some reason that the flow is missing, or that some words just do not sound right, even though it may be appropriate in meaning and context. After these few days of reading and revisions, I am comfortable for the article to be put up on the blog.
That's about it. I am not saying you should follow this process exactly - you should stick to what works best for you, but this is what works for me. If my two cents worth of pointers does help or inspire someone, it would be great if you could drop me a note with a link to your blog.
In the meantime for heaven's sake, please spare me the farrago et al. By the way, what does farrago mean? Don't look at me, because I have no idea and I haven't looked it up - do let me know if you happen to find out!
But for now, just let them words flow, and let them flow as you would speak!
* Unless of course, your name happens to be Shashi Tharoor, of the "exasperating farrago of distortions, misrepresentations and outright lies being broadcast by an unprincipled showman masquerading as a journalst" quote fame.