Everyone in my family was startled when I took up writing seriously, in my twenties: I was a microbiologist by training, and nothing had prepared them (or me) for this radical shift in my career. To turn to writing, after having spent so many years training in a laboratory, seemed a waste. For me, however, writing was a way out of a career I didn’t enjoy, and didn’t necessitate going back to college.
I began by writing health-related articles, since this was the best way to capitalize on my education as a medical microbiologist. Also, being a specialist writer helped me create a niche for myself. Once my articles on lifestyle health began appearing in The Indian Express, I turned my hand to short stories. At some point, I took on the role of Delhi representative for Femina magazine, taking my journalistic career to a new height.
Reflecting on my long career as a writer, I can honestly say that learning to write well takes time, and endless practice. Clear thinking and clear writing are inter-related. Anyone who wants to write well must read well too. Reading well-written narratives and dissecting them is a great way to pick up skills.
Writing is a process with several stages, and trying to bypass any single one impacts the quality of the product. Thinking and planning is as critical as grammar and structure, and figuring out how to get from the first draft to the final is an art.
Here are two books I rely on to guide me and the main message of each author (strangely, both are named William!).
So, in the face of such formidable barriers to reading, how do you take the time out to read? Let’s look at some reading hacks.
#1 The Elements of Style
By William Strunk, Jr. & E.B White
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts,” says William Strunk, the chief author of this slim book, a writer’s bible in the 60s. Co-author E.B White has contributed an insightful section on style. “With some writers, the style not only reveals the spirit of the man, it reveals his identity, as surely as his fingerprints,” says White, offering some golden tips: Write in a way that comes naturally; work from a suitable design; revise and re-write; do not overwrite.
#2 On Writing Well
By William Zinsser
Simplify, simplify, simplify. “The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that should be a short word, every adverb which carries the same meaning that is already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the writer unsure of who is doing what- these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence,” says Zinsser.
Ritu Bhatia is a New Delhi based journalist and writer (www.ritubhatia.in), whose features, columns, reviews and opinion editorials on health, lifestyle and women have appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Outlook magazine, Hindu Business Line, The Indian Express, Mail Today, Deccan Herald, and Elle magazine.