Last week, in Session 1, we talked about the following as key attributes for effective writing: passion for writing, have a purpose, improve writing skills, define your subject area, use critical thinking, be fair, objective and balanced, always look at the big picture when you analyse, use simple and accessible language and develop a thick skin to deal with negativity. In this second session, we continue with additional factors that can help in your writing endeavours.
Consistency & reliability
When I was growing up, there was a Chawasarira Bus which passed through our village every morning around 10am coming from Harare. Villagers called it “Pinduka” because it would return to Harare in the afternoon, again passing through our village. What defined Pinduka was that it was consistent and reliable. Travellers were able to plan their journeys because they knew exactly when it would come. In fact, it became a marker of time: when Pinduka arrived from Harare everybody working in the fields from the early hours of the morning knew it was time for breakfast! If Pinduka delayed, it would also delay their break, unless of course someone was checking the clock!
Likewise, you have to be consistent and reliable with your delivery. That is how your work develops a loyal following. Humans are creatures of habit. Readers can develop a habit of coming to check your work but they have to believe that you are consistent and reliable in your output. This means you must have a fixed time (day of the week and time of day) when you deliver the article. Readers will get used to it but don't ever let them down. If you are not going to deliver, be polite and warn them in advance. That way, the disappointment will be mitigated.
The Big Saturday Read appears every Saturday, 52 weeks of the year except when I travel to Zimbabwe when I prefer to spend most of my time researching by observing and interacting with people. I get most of my ideas and inspiration from these observations and interactions with ordinary people. I post the articles at or shortly after midnight on Friday. By the time most readers wake up in Africa and Europe, the BSR will be ready.
The BSR is also known to respond quickly to important developments when they happen during the week. These mini-BSRs are designed to provide quick analysis in order to help us make sense of such developments. Again, some readers are now used to this service (vajairira) - they see the BSR as the place where they get prompt analysis of events. When circumstances allow and it's appropriate, we try to serve them but otherwise they all know that their regular delivery comes each Saturday.
Generating a topic
How do you generate a topic and content on a regular basis? This is a question that I often get from people. It is important because it is the foundation of consistency. You can't be consistent and regular when you can't generate content. Most people can write a superb article once in a while but they find it hard to sustain it on a regular basis. That’s alright - don’t push yourself. Do what you can, according to your pace.
Well, remember in Session 1 I said you must define your area based on your specialism? If you focus on things that you know, you will never run short of topics. For me, topics come from my research and teaching in public law. I look at political and legal developments in Zimbabwe and ask myself how they can be analysed using the tools of my trade as a lawyer and academic. As I study and prepare for my lectures and seminars, ideas flow because I’m always relating the material to Zimbabwe. Also, politics is part of our daily lives. A simple perusal of a newspaper will almost always yield a story that can be the basis of an article.
You must also read widely and understand what's happening elsewhere in the world. Whatever is happening to us is happening elsewhere or has happened before. Read the papers, watch the news and documentaries. Sometimes, I get ideas simply from watching a nature or political documentary!
How do you start writing?
This is another question that I get very often. Honestly, I don't just sit in front of a computer and start writing. If I did that, I would probably freeze and not produce anything useful. The reality is that my writing process begins long before that moment in front of the computer.
By the time I sit down, I would already have the sketch of the article in my head. That's because I make a conscious effort to think about what I want to write long before I start writing. Where does this happen? It could be anywhere! It could be as I am watching television or sitting in the car and listening to music while waiting for my son to come out of school! It could be while I’m in the shower!
Meetings, conferences and seminars are actually my best moments of creativity! I use my notebook to sketch my thoughts as they come. Sometimes I leave an event with two or three different topics! I call these the "Eureka moments", when the story actually begins to grow in my mind and sometimes on paper. So that's an idea if you find yourself locked up in a boring meeting or conference :-)
The point is, if you want to write consistently and regularly, create moments of mental solitude, when you are alone mentally, and use them to "write" your article in the head. Remember you can create your own mental space even in a crowded room - it's all in the mind.
Oft-times my opening lines and structure are ready well before I start writing. This is why it takes me a short time to complete an article - I need 30-45 minutes to produce the first draft of a 1,000 word article. When I start writing, I don't stop - it’s like a flood - but that's because everything will already be loaded in the mind and writing will be like a beautiful process of unloading.
One issue and a main point/argument
Last week, I said you must define your area so that you don't write about everything under the sun. Likewise, your article must have one specific issue and a major purpose. There must be a core argument which you want to advance. If I want to write on the appointment of judges, it may be that I want to demonstrate the problems with the process. That is the purpose. I will not, in the same article, write on the appointment of all other public officers. I will stick to judicial appointments.
Define your article at the start so that the reader knows what it is about and what it is not going to cover. These disclaimers are important because they shape the reader's expectations. Having one major argument also means you avoid waffling. You must stay on course, ensuring that everything in your article adds value to your argument. If you try to cover more than one argument or issue you end up only scratching the surface or even confusing yourself and readers.
Therefore, always ask yourself: what point do I want to advance in this article? What is my main argument? How do I support it? Does what I have support the argument? If it doesn't please cut it out, no matter how beautiful it sounds to you.
I often tell my students that they must make sure their essays are as beautiful as they themselves want to be when they go out on a Saturday evening. The point is, your work must be well presented. Use the tools available to make sure the work is good. It must be easy on the eye. The argument must flow in a logical way.
I also tell my students that the paragraph was invented for a very good reason. Please use paragraphs. If you look at the BSR, we try to avoid long paragraphs. Make use of those primary school lessons on punctuation. The simple comma can make a big difference to the meaning of a statement. Grammar and spelling are also fundamental. We don't always get it right at the BSR but we try to minimise errors in grammar and spelling. No one wants to read articles that are cluttered with mistakes. People don't trust work with too many errors. Find someone to help by looking through the article before it's published. We all make mistakes and there are probably some in this piece but it's best to keep them to the bare minimum.
Revise, Chop, Revise
The BSR that you read every week is usually a third version of the original. You have to revise your work and make changes. To do this, you need to write in advance so that there's time for revision. You must be ruthless with yourself. I usually write and leave the first draft overnight or even a whole day before I return to it. Every time I read it again I'm surprised that I wrote it! I always find that there is a better way in which I could have expressed my points. And even then, when I read it for the third time, I again see there is another better way in which I could have expressed some points. These revisions and changes help to produce a more polished product.
Like I said you have to be ruthless with your own work. This means you may have to chop large chunks of your own work when you realise you were waffling. You must be prepared to make drastic changes. Ask the person who checks over your work to do the same. Give them the freedom to make suggestions and to tell you if something in the article is not working. If it's not working for them it probably won't work for others too so listen to what they say.
Our rich language
Although I write in English I derive a lot of wisdom from my vernacular language, Shona. Our ancestors in different parts of the world developed rich languages with which to communicate and express themselves. It would be a shame if we did not make use of this wisdom. Sometimes a point is best expressed through a proverb or metaphor derived from another language. Make use of it but do explain it to the readers so that they are not lost.
As Achebe wrote, “Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten". I love using African proverbs and nature-based metaphors. But you can also be original and create your own analogies from everyday phenomena. You saw above how I used the Pinduka analogy to illustrate the point about consistency and reliability.
A few years ago, I watched a documentary on the rainforest and saw how trees grow so fast and tall as they compete for sunlight. But at some point they grow too tall for their own good and they fall. But when they do, others below take advantage and use the newfound space to grow too. That is how the rainforest regenerates itself. I immediately got the idea of how I could use the rainforest as analogy for politics - that when the old retire, it does not mean the end of politics. It simply means new space for the younger ones. The idea of succession is natural and should not be shunned. So learn to use existing metaphors but use your creative licence to create new ones.
That’s it for this session. Let’s meet again next Sunday.
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