Last year, I received many requests from people who wanted mentorship. They wanted advice on writing, careers and other matters. I could not respond to everyone. I promised however, that I would start sharing thoughts as part of the BSR project's general mentorship programme. This is based on my personal experience with the BSR. It helps you understand the elements and process involved in producing a BSR. This first session outlines the first 10 key points but there will be more in the second session next Sunday. The sessions will go on every Sunday for the foreseeable future.
You must have passion for writing. You must love the experience of writing. You must see writing as an experience, not a task. I love writing. I see words as tools that I can use to work a piece of writing just like a sculptor works a piece of stone into a fine piece of art. Writing once in a while is easy. Doing it on a regular basis, which you must do if you're running a blog, is a more arduous task. You need passion to drive you.
You must have a purpose. Why are you writing? My purpose is to demystify law and politics. As a lawyer I saw how politicians often use law to mystify things in order to carry out their agenda. Because people are left perplexed they are easily hoodwinked. I decided I would use my knowledge to smash myths. I'm driven by a relentless desire to bust these myths. So when politicians do something, when a law is passed or when a court passes a judgment, I want to find out why they have done it, whether they have done it correctly and what must be done to correct any flaws.
Some of the most treasured comments I get go like: "Alex, I disagree with you but I love your writing". It gives me a lot of pleasure because I love writing. When I was at school I had scrap books in which I used to write anything that came to mind. One of my juniors from high school more than 20 years ago says he has kept one of those scrapbooks all these years! I wonder what's in it!
How do you learn to write well? You have to read a lot and practice writing. I did not start writing with the BSR. I have been writing for many years. I suppose being a natural storyteller helps. I don't know if it can be taught. I grew up on folk tales and reading books from an early age. I use the story-telling technique in my work. Stories have a logical pattern, a plot, profound lines, lovely turn of phrase and themes. I always try to ensure that my analysis flows in a logical pattern.
Most people who write have writers who are influential in their style and technique. My writing is inspired by African writers such as Chinua Achebe, Ngugi, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Charles Mungoshi & my clansman, the late Chenjerai Hove. I also love Thomas Hardy's work - he was a master of descriptive writing! I also learnt a lot from opinion writers in British broadsheets, more in sports pages than politics!
Define your area
You must choose your area of interest and strength. Most people want to write on everything, which is impossible. My principal area is law because I studied it also now it teach and research in that area. A lot of the things I write are part of my teaching, so it's easy. Politics tags along because of the connections but it's not really my specialty. I avoid areas that I know nothing about & only venture into economic related areas at a very rudimentary level. I think we should have more writers who demystify economics.
You must go beyond the surface. Don't accept everything you are told especially by politicians. There is almost always a self-serving agenda behind every action/omission. Always ask why. Always try to lift the veil and see what lies behind. Unfortunately we grew up in a society where questioning elders or those in authority was considered rude. Hence many people tend to absorb whatever they are told, even if they disagree and know it's wrong.
I was fortunate to go to colleges where we were taught critical thinking and analysis. Critical thinking helps you see things that most people can't see. You end up looking like a wizard who sees things that others can't see but really it's all because of the ability to think critically. The first stage is to always ask the why question. Read between and behind the lines. Look for the hidden agenda.
The big picture
You must have a view of the picture when you analyse phenomena. It helps you connect the dots historically and into the future. It's one way of saying context matters. When you analyse phenomena, you have to ask what happened before, what else is happening now and what might happen in future. Do not lose sight of this big picture by focussing on whatever thing you are looking at. If you have blinkers you lose sight of the rest of the picture and your analysis will limited in scope.
You must have a sense of balance in your analysis. For every side, there is another side which must be acknowledged. Incidentally, part of my thinking is influenced by Newton's Third Law of Motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. There might not be an equal argument but there is usually an opposite argument.
You must persuade those who hold it why it is wrong but you can only do do by acknowledging its existence. When thy read your work, they appreciate that you at least know their point exists. Most people face stiff resistance and are labelled partisan because they only ever advance one side of the argument and do not acknowledge the other side.
Fairness & objectivity
Whatever views you have, try to be fair and objective. Referees have teams they support & the really good ones do not let it get in the way of their judgment. Likewise, you must be ready to deal with all subjects and to be fair and objective. My political affiliations are known but it does not stop me from criticising the MDC.
The BSR has gained respect across the political divide because they all know that there are no sacred cows. You must be prepared to criticise your friends. If you want to write a cheer leading article then create a party newsletter. Of course you get accused of belonging to one or other faction or party but don't mind those labels. It means you are doing alright if everyone at some point sees you as belonging to a rival faction/party!
Simple & effective writing
You must understand that the purpose of writing is communication. There is no need for big words. Write in simple and clear language that your everyone can understand. I always say, write as you speak. Remember my purpose is to demystify law and politics. This would be defeated if I wrote using complex vocabulary. Maybe sometimes there is one or two big words but overall I try to use simple and easy to read vocabulary.
You must develop a think skin. Do not be scared of criticism. It comes with the territory. You should know that just as there are fans, there will also be critics of your work. Kindly acknowledge them and try to explain your points. Some may genuinely hold different views, others may be motivated by professional envy and petty jealousies but that's life. Don't be side-tracked. Let your work speak for itself.
I have found that it's best not to dwell on the negativity because it's designed to weigh you down. They win if you pay attention to it and get involved in petty fights. One of my tools is my sense of humour. It helps me absorb the jibes. Don't take yourself too seriously. If you do, you end up getting annoyed over the most petty things. This will derail your progress.
Next week we continue with Session 2. But feel free to ask any questions that you would like me to address.