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Letter to a friend about writing: Invite your audience to continue

Published by on 2004-12-15

I thought that I should send you a few thoughts about writing in general, regardless of whether your audience is a college admissions committee, a professor who has assigned a topic for classroom discussion, or wider lay readers. I'm sending these pointers in the hope that you will continue developing as a writer -- even if you choose a different formal profession in life. I hope you don't think that I'm being pushy here, but since I've been a professional writer all my life, the following are some basic tips that you may wish to keep in mind:

1. Always have a very clear focus about your topic. Don't stray from it.

2. Your first task in writing anything -- even if it's a letter to your folks or friends -- is to invite your reader to continue. That means that, from the very beginning, you need to be interesting.

3. Don't assume that your reader will go through everything you've written. That means you must capture the essence of your topic in the first two or three paragraphs.

4. Write short sentences. One idea per sentence is more than enough.

5. Use verbs liberally. (Read Ernest Hemingway to see how a master story-teller makes the verb work.)

6. Cut down on adjectives.

7. Don't just tell. Show and tell. For example, instead of "She was a very tall woman," why not the following: "When she stood up, her head nearly touched the ceiling." Or, "When she spoke to the men gathered around her, they had to look up." This conveys more imagery. Readers like that. They want you to be evocative, to transport them to the scene that you, as a writer, witnessed.

8. Always have a "so what?" paragraph high up in everything that you write. This is also called the "heart-of-the-matter" paragraph. It explains to the readers what the real significance of your topic is, and why they should bother with it. It also provides context. For example, if I were writing about an upcoming dinner that Singaporean Indians are hosting for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, I would include the following as the third or fourth paragraph: "While people of Indian origin number only 200,000 in Singapore, or 5 percent of the island-state's population of 4 million, the community has long been concerned about job and educational opportunities in a multiracial society that's dominated by the Chinese. There has been a steady exodus of Singaporean Indians -- particularly the young educated ones -- to Australia and Canada, in recent years because of better job opportunities abroad. Because Prime Minister Lee took office only last August, the Indian community here is anxious to build bridges to his cabinet, which consists mostly of Singaporean Chinese. Hence next week's dinner is as much in his honor as it is a signal that the Indians here have their own communal and related concerns."

9. Always provide relevant background. Don't assume that your reader is fully familiar with your topic. Even if you are writing, say, about the Taj Mahal -- which one would assume most people know about -- it wouldn't hurt to include a paragraph that says: "The Taj Mahal, contrary to what many non-Indians believe, was not built as a palace. It was raised as a mausoleum for Empress Mumtaz Mahal, the beloved wife of Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan, who died in 1633 while giving birth to his 14th child. He mourned his death so deeply that he commissioned the Taj Mahal in Agra. The marble edifice took more than 20,000 architects, master craftsmen and construction workers nearly 23 years to complete. One thousand elephants were drafted to transport the building materials from all over India and Central Asia, from which Shah Jehan's workers built a perfectly proportioned structure decorated with intricately carved gates and arches. They created graceful sculptures and designed delicate flowers using inlaid precious gems. When it was completed, Shah Jehan named the tomb, Taj Mahal. Some believe that Taj Mahal is a short version of the empress's name, Mumtaz Mahal, which means "Exalted One of the Palace." After his death in 1666, Shah Jehan was buried in the Taj Mahal, alongside the woman for whom he created one of the architectural wonders of the world."

10. Always re-read what you've written. You'd be surprised how much you can tighten your own prose, and how many spelling and grammatical errors you might find. Many years ago, when I asked Sir V. S. Naipaul -- the celebrated Trinidad-born writer of Indian origin -- about the "secret" of his writing success, he replied in one word: "Rewrite." Well, Naipaul is now a Nobel laureate, so his advice couldn't be too bad!

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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