12 MIN READ
This week, series editor Tom Robertson reflects on writing and Writing Journeys, and distills everything he’s learned into sound advice.
Why did I want to organize this ‘Writing Journeys’ series? Because writing is a foundation of solid education and strong democracies, and because Nepalis have so few options to reflect upon and practice writing skills in schools and colleges and in the workplace.
When I taught at a US university (for 10 years), few things I taught were more important or long lasting than writing skills. Students will be using these skills the rest of their lives. To me, sound writing goes hand in hand with critical thinking.
I wanted to draw attention to those writing and critical thinking skills in Nepal. Ever since I taught in a public MaVi (Madhyamik Vidhyalaya or Secondary School) 25 years ago, I've had a soft spot for Nepali students and teachers. I know that they both need and want more critical thinking. They do lots of rote, but want real reading, real writing, and real thinking.
From 2017 to 2019, when I ran the Fulbright program in Nepal, I saw that even Nepal's top students — the cream of the crop — lacked good training in writing. This gap would hold them back as they pursued their dreams, even in technical fields. To the bewilderment of some of my higher-ups, I put time and effort into upping their game, so they could compete with anyone on the international playing field.
I am inspired by Nepalis who, despite the odds, care about and create great nonfiction writing. With the Writing Journeys series, I wanted to help them share their powerful stories so that others could, in the future, have the power to share their own stories.
In this article, I will use a list — one of my favorite writing techniques — to describe some of the ideas about writing that animate this series.
Writing is hard but not impossible
I think writing is among the hardest activities humans do. Even experienced writers find it a tough slog. Manjushree Thapa said that she absolutely hates writing the first draft. It's very hard.
Native English speakers often struggle with writing. It's even harder for people who have to write in a second or third language. They (you!) amaze me.
And writing is especially hard if you haven't had teachers to show the way and give lots of practice and lots of feedback. We all need good teachers.
That said, writing is not impossible. It just takes lots of paying attention and focused practice.
Writing is fun
Fun might be an exaggeration, at least for me. Rewarding might be more accurate. Here's what I like about writing:
I find trying to write forces me to dig deeper, to deepen my analysis. To write is to think. To write and tell stories, as Kesang Tseten explains in his Writing Journey essay, is a process of discovery. It is a way, as Kalpana Jha suggests, of knowing the world.
I like what Shradha Ghale describes as the focused attention that writing and re-writing demands.
I also like playing with words.
I like sharing my ideas. Writing can be solitary but it can be social too. Sujeev Shakya makes this point very clearly.
And, although I get scared sometimes sharing my ideas with a lot of people (The Record editor Pranaya Rana once said that sharing writing is “like standing naked before the entire world”). I do like what comes from it: hearing from people, getting feedback, and getting new ideas. Sharing my writing is a way to be part of a larger conversation.
Blame the system, not yourself
Many Nepalis think they are not good writers. They often blame themselves. I reject that view. The problem is not with them; the problem is that most Nepali schools don't teach writing. How can you become a great volleyball player if no one shows you how to play, and you never get the chance to practice?
At best, Nepali schools teach grammar and some English — easily testable subjects. Some might teach a little theory about writing — ‘these are the four parts of an essay’ — but rarely are students given a chance for what Dipak Gyawali called “persistent practice”.
If there's one big point I hope readers get from Writing Journeys, it's that anyone can get better with practice, especially reflective practice. The more you read, the more you write, and the more you carefully examine both, the better your writing will become.
Writers are made, not born
There are learnable skills that make us better writers. Some of these skills demand years of practice, but others you can pick up in a few days — with the right practice.
Many of these skills appear in these essays: Kalpana Jha gives ideas on reading and re-reading, Kunda Dixit on interviewing, Dipak Gyawali on outlining (and colored pens), Manjushree on drafting and conciseness, Sujeev Shakya on teamwork and seeking feedback, Niranjan Kunwar on revising, Janak Raj Sapkota on diary writing, Kesang Tseten on editing. More good ideas are coming in future weeks.
When I was young, I was not good at language and writing. But I liked to read (and had supportive parents) and was lucky to have good teachers who taught me skills. I kept pushing and I improved.
I have taught these skills for a couple of decades to US college students (mostly engineers!) and for several years to Fulbright students and alumni. With some practice, they improve. A few pointers can make a world of difference.
I also explain many of these skills in Nepali with examples in my ‘Mitho Lekhai’ YouTube videos (Don't miss Easy Excellent Essays or Juicy Wild Dogs). Americans — including engineers and doctors — pay a lot of money for this kind of writing training in US universities.
‘I don't need to write. I'm in a technical field.’
Wrong. Doctors need to write. Engineers need to write. Nurses need to write. Architects need to write. Scientists need to write. Computer wizards need to write. Everybody needs to write.
Consider these thoughts from Norm Augustine, chair and CEO of Lockheed Martin, one of the world's largest airplane companies. Augustine employs tens of thousands of people, including thousands of engineers.
“In my position as CEO of a firm employing over 80,000 engineers," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “I can testify that most were excellent engineers — but the factor that most distinguished those who advanced in the organization was the ability to think broadly and read and write clearly.”
That's worth repeating: “the ability to think broadly and read and write clearly.”
Neither of those comes from memorizing a book of random facts about science or geography.
Writing requires critical thinking and advances critical thinking.
Ivy League haruwa
One day a Nepali student — ‘Bikash’ — walked into my office at Fulbright. Bikash was living the dream — he had grown up in Nepal but had studied in the US. Now he was pursuing a chemistry PhD at an Ivy League university, one of America's and the world's top institutions. His future was secure. Fame would be his. Glory too. But, all was not right. There was a problem.
Bikash explained that he had recently learned something crucial about chemistry work. He had been working on a chemistry puzzle. For months, he had spent days and nights in the lab doing experiments. The results showed something important. This was big.
All he had to do was write it up and publish. But he didn't know how to do this. He didn't have experience writing. No one had taught him and he didn't know it was important — until now. He sought help from colleagues and mentors. They all helped but that also meant they added their names to the article. When the article finally got published, their names came first as the main writers and Bikash's came last — the least prestigious position — because he had only done the lab work, not the thinking and interpretation. He had worked the hardest but others got the credit because what was most important was the writing.
Kaam garne kaalu, makai khane bhaalu.
It wasn't that the others knew English and he didn't. Bikash's English was top-notch. It was that they knew how to organize an argument, how to draw from the academic literature, how to create clear convincing paragraphs, how to interpret the results, how to explain everything.
Ever since this event, Bikash has been working on his writing skills.
Good writing is not the same as good grammar
Good writing is different from good grammar. A sentence can have perfect commas and apostrophes, perfect capitalization, perfect verb agreement, and perfect spelling but still be perfectly unclear and confusing. Above all, good writing requires clarity, logical organization, and conciseness.
Unfortunately, Nepali schools give much more time to grammar than to real-life writing practice.
In her Writing Journey, Kalpana Jha put it well: “My school's exam-centric teaching-learning model did not emphasize what made ‘good’ writing but rather what was ‘grammatically correct’ writing. The school emphasized articles, prepositions, and verb tenses, but ignored clarity, flow, and idea connection.”
Grammar and spelling are important, of course. But writing and critical thinking skills are more important. These skills are learnable and teachable.
You can pick up the principles of writing — logical organization, clarity, etc. — fairly quickly. But to actually do them yourself and to make them habits takes more time. Mostly it takes strategic, persistent practice.
Good writing is different from good English
Another fallacy is that good writing comes from strong English skills. I don't agree.
Someone can speak brilliant English and know a lot of words, and still be a poor writer. I have read many an essay in Nepal (and elsewhere) with scintillating vocabulary but vague ideas, confusing sentences, flawed logic, and disorganized paragraphs. Many, many native English speakers write poorly.
On the other hand, with just basic vocabulary, you can write a clear forceful essay. Organization and clarity are more important. Having a limited vocabulary may actually help you be clear and concise.
I won't pretend that strong English skills are useless. Of course they help. But other skills are more important. Read any essay in this series and you will see those skills on display: clarity, conciseness, focused paragraphs, strong verbs, words that paint pictures, powerful short quotations, and even lists.
Sadly, many Nepalis are set up to fail
Before I wrote my master’s thesis, I had written hundreds of essays long and short — all defending an argument. I had also received lots of feedback from teachers. I still found writing the master's thesis hard.
Sadly, some Nepali students go through years of schooling without ever having to write a real argumentative essay. I’ve met many Nepali master’s students who, having never written a short paper, suddenly face the task of writing a long thesis. I feel bad for these students (and for Nepal): they work hard, but have been set up to fail.
It doesn't have to be this way.
Writing and critical thinking create strong democracies
Earlier in this article, I emphasized that good writing skills help people with critical thinking and help them advance professionally. There's another reason I think everyone needs to learn to write and make sound arguments: strong democracies require strong debate.
Making an argument and defending it with evidence is a crucial democratic skill. To have a voice in public affairs, every citizen must learn how to express their views clearly and logically, and back them with evidence. Few things teach this better than essay writing.
In Nepal, the Ranas outlawed schools so Nepalis would not learn to think for themselves and would not question authority. Panchayat schools stressed rote memorization so Nepalis would follow the orders of a king and would not question hierarchy.
Today's multicultural, globalized Nepal deserves schools that teach the building blocks of democracy. Writing is one of the most important of those building blocks.
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'No smoke without fire in Kathmandu’, appeared on March 5 in Nepali Times.
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