Monday, March 30, 2009

Writing, editing and re-writing are different

My dear students, friends and colleagues,

Just when I thought newspaper reporters were becoming an “endangered species” having been swamped and run over by video journalists, my dear friend and colleague Vinita Deshmukh, the editor of one of India’s gutsiest “little weeklies” – the Intelligent Pune – has won the Chameli Devi Jain award for 2008-09.

One of India’s most honest reporters with a conscience, Vinita has fiercely been swimming “against the tide” of celebrity and page 3 journalism. She is known by an enormous body of work, along with the late Prakash Kardaley, while she was at the Indian Express in Pune during 1987-2006. Her editorial work at “Citizen’s Voice” is part of what is called “civic and development journalism” in the syllabi of journalism courses.

Along with the Maharashtra Herald of Pune (estd. 1963), where I started my full-time career in journalism as a sub-editor in 1983 and left in 1996 as an assistant editor, the Pune edition of the Indian Express took up civic issues and campaigns boldly and consistently. Vinita is part of that great tradition of local reporting that is on par with the finest national or international reportage.

Get in touch with Vinita Deshmukh on facebook or by email: vinitapune@gmail.com

*****

With this opening tribute to Vinita, let me proceed. This column consists of two posts. Heeding Gauri, Baruk, the Princess, and others I have arranged them as follows for your reading and commenting convenience:

1. An element of editing: This time on “The difference between writing and editing”.
2. A think-piece, elaborating upon the title of my blog, “Against the Tide”. The inaugural think-piece is entitled, “No no to Nano! Shun the Nano!” Ending with a tail-piece.

With this introduction, I continue with the next post of my column:

The difference between writing and editing

In his classic, “How to write” (reprinted by Jaico), the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock says most people confuse writing with putting words on paper. When you have not thought hard enough and have little to say, no wonder the writing is difficult and you ramble. Writing, he says, is mostly thinking and only a tiny part is actually spent putting pen to paper or typing at a keyboard.

Being able to write implies wanting to think. So is it surprising that those who have interesting thoughts are also likely to be the ones who write well. But while thinking up racy plots or an argument may be a necessary condition to writing, it is not sufficient. For you have to have the correct technique and skills to describe your thoughts or narrate what happens to your characters.

If writing has got so much to do with thinking, then what about editing? Because editing comes after writing, editing also means re-thinking or re-writing. Some gifted writers may revise by themselves. But most are so washed out after expressing ourselves or gathering the facts of a story, that we prefer having another to do the cleaning up, the tightening and tidying up, touching up or boiling down that includes the job of editing – before the piece is served up to the reader.

Editing, as communication, is different from writing, which concerns expression. The complete and exclusive focus on the reader is what distinguishes the editor from the writer. Not that the writer is self-indulgent and ignores the reader. But the editor allows the reader to constantly breathe down her neck, as she sits to edit or re-write.

Just one example of a guide to good writing and editing: the classic “UPI Stylebook”, the authoritative handbook for writers, editors and news directors, says United Press International (UPI) journalists have, since 1942, perfected the craft of writing news “for the ear”. Billy Ferguson, former managing director of UPI, who compiled the UPI stylebook of 1992, is acknowledged as the creator of the broadcast writing style and a master of writing “for the ear.” Learn anything by him and you have a treasure.

I shall return often to the theme of writing and editing. I included a piece by Baruk Feddabonn, “Should you read poetry?” because I wanted journalists to be as sensitive as poets.

Comment, before you proceed to the next post of this column.

“No no to Nano! Shun the Nano!”

I do not hesitate to suggest to those who feel proud about the achievements of the Nano, “Reconsider whether your pride is misplaced”. For, the Nano may make affordable the dreams of middle-class people to own a car. And by doing that, the Nano provides middle-class people the opportunity to abandon the alternative of public transport.

The dislike of the middle-classes to rub shoulders with the sweating masses on buses or trains is legendary. The Nano may create the illusion of escape.

The Nano is, first and last, about private versus public transport. At a time, when the world is going through a climate crisis, making private or personal transport affordable should be the last thing on our minds. We must concentrate on making public transport affordable and comfortable.

That is why I go against the tide and say, “No no to Nano! Shun the Nano!”

I have nothing against the Tatas, who make the Nano. The struggle is ideological and scientific. The inevitable result of an affordable Nano, like all cheap private cars, will be traffic chaos, congestion and misery.

It will not do to loosen our belt by widening roads; with more cars, we get fatter. Mother Earth will be worse off, because the Nano will increase pollution by increasing the cars on roads.

Go against the tide. Join the group "Horn O.K. Nano" on facebook. Make fun of the Nano, mock it, do anything that will help ordinary folk to resist the temptation of buying it.

*****

TAIL-PIECE:

If you see “My Values & Beliefs” I have listed, “People … before Profit”. That is inspired by Noam Chomsky. Now an umbrella organisation called “Put People First” has taken out a huge march in London on 28 March, opposing the same old measures to recover from the recession, which actually caused it in the first place.

*****

Many of you are still sending comments to my personal gmail account, which I use to send you an alert. Please comment on the post itself, as that is a permanent record for all to see.

It is a great pleasure to keep in touch with you and read the lively walls, messages and notes on facebook. They suggest topics for my columns.

Please keep in touch with your detailed comments and emails.

Your support is my strength,
- Joe.

Pune, Monday, 30 March 2009.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

"Shun the fashionable; always be in style."

My dear students,

Thank you for the overall response to my blog so far. Besides your usual praise that never fails to draw out gratitude from deep inside me, as an affectionate teacher or loving friend and colleague, I am happy to notice the points each of you have singled out for mention in your comments.

Most of you have, however, chosen to comment to me directly on my personal account. And so have, deliberately or unknowingly, deprived the others of listening to your voices! Where-ever possible, I have taken the liberty to cut and paste the relevant portions and posted them as your comments to my post, but under my name.

Henceforth, I have decided to post a regular column every week. I shall post it on Sunday, so that you may read it "araam-se" during the week.

Here is an outline of the contents that I propose to cover:

1. An element of editing. (This post has the long-delayed piece on cliches).
2. Comments in passing about what I have been reading and thinking.
3. Elaborating upon the title of the blog - Against the Tide.
4. Bits about books or blogs I've read or you ought to read.
5. A think-piece - listening to the blowing wind or falling rain.
6. A tail-piece, in the style of the old-fashioned column.

Why am I adopting this format? Because I have tired of having to alert you about my posts. I shall, however, persist in alerting each of you who are so kind to comment on my blog or email me.

So here goes.

*****

Cliches: "Shun the fashionable; always be in style."

Cliches are over-used or stereo-typed or stock-in-trade fragments, expressions, phrases, idioms, or sometimes even entire sentences. Lately, examples of entire intros and paragraphs have also emerged as clichés. Video journalists, desperate to create an identity for themselves that is distinct from plain ordinary journalists, are particularly susceptible to cliches.

Five months ago, on 23 October 2008, Gauri Gharpure from the batch of 2007, Department of Journalism and Communication, University of Pune, was the first to ask me about “over-used cliches that can be done away with”.

To say over-used cliches is a redundancy, Gauri, like free gift or brutal murder. I’ll take up redundancy, another media affliction, in a later post. But here I will address the unrecognised need to avoid clichés “like the plague” (itself a cliché).

By the way, read Gauri in her thoughtful blog called “Life Rules”. I was inspired to start “Against the Tide” after I read her blog. I said to myself, “If Gauri can do it, why can’t I?” (cliché) So here I am blogging away “to glory” (cliché).

“At the outset” (cliché), I have unearthed the evergreen Eric Partridge for you, my dear students, because his book, “A Dictionary of Cliches” (first published by Routledge & Kegan Paul in 1940, the fifth edition came out in 1978) is a classic in the field of writing clearly.

Most of the authority with which we claim to speak on clichés can be traced to Eric Partridge (1894-1979), the New Zealand lexicographer who settled in England. I have also picked samples of cliches from my own careful reading of how we (journalists and readers) write daily in India.

By slipping or “sinning gracelessly” into a cliché, like Eric Partridge confesses, we mindlessly repeat the evidence that we are “slack and lazy” in our attitude to speech and writing and that we do not care to speak or write in a “fresh and vigorous” way.

This is THE crime writers and reporters commit when they use a cliché or sub-editors commit when they let a cliché escape their scrutiny as gate-keepers.

*****

Some examples follow that I have culled from books and the papers.

“Generally speaking” (cliché) may be dropped from the start of a sentence, without loss. And “last but not the least” (cliché) may be omitted, as we reach the end of our say. Try it.

The ISRO journey of Chandrayaan-1 to the Moon had its “fair share” (cliché) of tired expressions. Each exploit of the moon spacecraft became the “defining moment”(cliche) in the Indian space programme. Where has the serviceable “milestone” gone?

The corporate world has borrowed “milestone” from the surveying, mapping and road engineers and used it to hype company profiles. But we, journalists, have abandoned “milestone” which is used and understood by ordinary people. Reclaim the milestone – like the pink chaddis are out to reclaim the night from male bullies.

The adverb “most arguably” (cliché) in its superlative form is one of the most abused. An expression like “the mother of all …” (cliché) has become the mother of all clichés. Widely used by western journalists to describe the war against Saddam’s Iraq: “the mother of all battles”, this mother cliché has caught on. All you have to do is fill in the blanks and, unlike the "motherless child" of Stevie Wonder, "lo and behold" (cliche) we have another still-born cliche.

Another all-time cliche from Partridge: “In this day and age” or “at this point in time” becomes simply “at present” or “nowadays” or “now”. A company has the catch-line, “Know. Now.” below their logo and another says, “Make the most of now”.

Cliches from Associated Press Guide to News Writing have also been collected by Rene J. Cappon. Click here. From this list pick out the cliches that you are most likely to abuse as youwrite. And then, "Avoid them, like the plague".

*****

Robert M. Knight in his masterly “The Craft of Clarity: A Journalistic Approach to Good Writing” (Blackwell, U.K.; Surjeet Publications, First Indian Reprint, 2003, Rs. 150/-) calls an entire chapter, “On Being Original”. Fifteen pages with lots of examples, all from American English, but useful; and some exercises with suggested rewrites; also a list of seven reference books. Add Partridge to that list.

I reproduce a warning from Roscoe Born taken from “The Suspended Sentence: A Guide for Writers” (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1986):

“The cliché factory works around the clock. A writer with any pride – and there are no real writers without it – will brace himself constantly against some other writer’s trick phrase or odd use of a familiar word. A phrase that a writer admires may, indeed, be worthy, but he must resist the temptation to adopt it as his own, first because it would be a shameless theft, and second because a thousand other imitative writers are sure to do the same. That is the way to avoid clichés. And the writer who shuns the fashionable will always be in style."

Knight recommends a test to check if your words or phrases are tired: ask yourself if they have “potential comic value”. He cites an example from “When Words Collide” (see the twist in the title of the book taken from the clichéd “when worlds collide”) by Lauren Kessler and Duncan McDonald, who end their section on clichés thus:

“So, as the sun sinks slowly in the Western Sky, be your own best friend and bid a fond farewell to the tried and true expressions that seem to creep into writing like a thief in the night, robbing it blind of its force.”

I hope this piece meets your expectations, Gauri. Cliches are tired, thread-bare, worn-out words -- better left unsaid.

*****

Restore the editing desk

The description of the title of my blog "Against the Tide" does not and can not adequately express, in such summary jargon, what I mean. In these columns, therefore, I shall take up some aspect of my struggle - against the tide.

Let us discuss how sub-editing is currently being devalued.

Since publishers forcibly eloped with computers, (for it is an unholy alliance), I have chronicled how sub-editing is being devalued. Some big newspapers In India started stealthily by discontinuing the standard practice of having a separate desk that edited copy after the reporters had typed their stories: a chief sub at the head of the U-shaped horseshoe desk is today an endangered species.

The owners of daily newspapers cut the desk, NOT because they wanted to devalue editing but because, like mean Scrooges, they wanted an excuse to save money by reducing the number of subs and "encouraging" reporters to sub their own copy!

(Reporters, in any case, have this "war" going with subs. Because reporters have always felt they know how to write and resent the well-meaning efforts of subs to rewrite their copy, they jumped at this chance of getting their creations into print -- without submitting to the mid-wifery of the sub.)

The result is the suffocation of the desk. Clear writing is dying. Readers have begun to notice spelling errors and grammatical mistakes. This is happening not only because the quality of writing has deteriorated in general, but also because owners, owner-editors (a new breed) and managing editors (as opposed to working or writing editors) have conspired to lay down such un-professional rules in printed commodities that are brands, having ceased to be newspapers.

That is why I stand, and I urge my students, colleagues, friends and well-wishers to speak out and stand up "against the tide" that devalues editing. The best reporters and feature-writers will also stand hand-in-hand with the best subs in this struggle to restore the editing desk.

TAIL-PIECE:

My last post referred indirectly to "retirement". Could I have known that a passionate lover of books had actually retired? Please refer to the column "Past and Present" in the Hindu Sunday Magazine dated 15 March 2009, where Ramchandra Guha writes about the decision of Mr. T.S. Shanbhag, "How to retire" to close the Premier Bookshop after four decades of serving the book-lovers of Bangalore.

*****

The first of these weekly columns has become over-long. I promise to stick to my self-imposed 800-word limit in the next column. Would you like to suggest a name for this weekly column? And maybe design a logo for me? Or suggest topics for the think piece? And questions for me to cogitate?

Please comment here itself on the post, so that all can see what you have to say. Remember: I shall alert only those of you to my posts, who comment here. Even a word or a line will suffice to be eligible.

Your support is my strength.
- Joe.

Pune, Sunday, 22 March 2009.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Along the line, at railway gate No. 58

My dear students, friends, colleagues and well-wishers,

Today, 5 March 2009, I complete 58 years. Along the railway line of my life, I stand at railway gate No. 58. For all these years coming freely to me, I am grateful to my mother, the late Amy, and my father, the late Denis, and to our Mother Earth, for whom I know I have not cared enough, when I look at the way I selfishly care for my family, students, friends and work colleagues.

I am also playing my second innings now. For this, I am thankful to modern medicine, the Pune Heart Brigade (phone 1050), my wife Kalpana and daughter Pallavi, neighbours, friends and my brother-in-law Rajeev, who rushed me to hospital. Having survived my heart attack of 2 September 2006, unlike so many of my good friends and relatives, life is new and always fresh.

Sometime back Kajal Iyer tagged me, asking to know 25 random things about me. I took part for fun. But I am now going to rewrite the note I made then, and edit that list to write up this auto-sketch – at railway gate No. 58.

*****

Why at railway gate No. 58? Simply because I am the eldest son of a railwayman, who used to get transferred from place to place. So I know what it is be on the move like a gypsy. And therefore I can appreciate settling down and setting down roots. What would I give in exchange for all the money in the world? A chance to meet even one of my school-mates from that “lost childhood” when I was a little boy in the small railway towns of Jabalpur and Nagpur (1956-57), Solapur (1957-58) and Manmad (1958-61).

As I recall that journey, let me honour my mother, one of India’s greatest playback singers, hailed in the late 1940s as the “Lata Mangeshkar of the Konkani stage” – Amy Pinto, nee Mary Therese D'Cruz (1925-69). I’m older now than her then by 14 years; she died at the age of 44. Nearing 40 years since she died, yet she sings within my heart.

Confined to the four walls of our home, she taught us, her children – her Class of Three; after 1962, it was a Class of Four. I used to be a great one for gathering piles of books as prizes in school, till my mother learned me the lesson, “If you can, compete – with yourself”.

Also let me shower flowers on the fair name of my father, Denis John Pinto (1923-2001), an upright and God-fearing man, who put up with endless pain, suffering and deprivation because … “Honesty is the best policy”. The other person as equally upright is my father-in-law, Prof. K.L. Joshi (born 1922).

*****

When I was in my early 20s and the hippies wore flowers in San Fransisco, I used to have long hair up to my shoulders; later I grew a beard. This was the result of the world-wide protests against the unjust war in Vietnam and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), a part of my growing-up years in school and college – a deep and permanent influence. Also let me mention the dearly-held musical relics, including the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger.

I can’t remember the day when I was not in love – with words. So my first crush was virtual, even before the Personal Computer – Agnes – appearing on the pages of the Charles Dickens novel, “David Copperfield”. Now the love in my life, after my love-marriage wife Kalpana, is my daughter J.K. Pallavi. I remember the three years in the cold and wet of Leeds, Yorkshire, England, taking care of her in a back-to-back basement when she was barely three, while my wife did her Ph.D. (And what of my friends, without whom I could have not known that friendship can match up to love?)

I have spent years, off and on, in Mumbai. First as a little boy in the mid-1950s; then in school, college, etc. (1961-73); again after the Emergency (1977-82). What do I miss about Mumbai (I shan’t call it Bombay as the imperial English did)? The trundling trams, when I was a little boy; uncrowded local trains and red BEST buses on a Sunday morning; the common crows, sparrows, mynahs; the great struggle of the textile workers against the robber mill-owners; red flags in a worker morcha at Azad Maidan; the heady mix of faces and tongues from all over India; the discipline on the roads. Above all, the entwined couples clasping hands in municipal gardens ...

What do I NOT miss about Mumbai? The idle rich, gambling on the stock market, who have raped the city; the skyscrapers that blot out the sky; the private vehicles that kill and maim far worse and more deep than terrorist guns; the curse of the Shiv Sena and their ilk, who have brought shame to the glorious inheritors of Chhatrapati Shivaji ...

To give you some more feel and touch for the passing show of my life, here goes. My favourite movie critic, Pauline Kael of the New York Times, who dubbed the “Sound of Music” as the “Sound of Mucous”. A few of my favourite things: the red mud, swaying coconut trees and the fish curry rice of Mangalore; the lilt of my Konkani mother tongue; a few drops of kaju feni, soft cotton garments. And always, books.

Besides, love and peace, compassion for the poor moves me beyond tears. Alongside this post on my blog, I have catalogued my values and beliefs, as well as quotes from my favourite authors and a list of books and websites, including some by my students.

*****

What made me sketch this auto-bio? In a way, groping to prepare for the reality of aging, at the threshold of retirement. Can I retire? Maybe not, in the sense that I’ll stop working. But I shall retire from doing what I do not like. I am coming to grips with work on different terms.

Along the line, at railway gate No. 58, I also await the student, who may exceed me, who may dare to go beyond imagination, against the tide. To whom I can entrust the torch given to me by my ancestors and teachers.

First, my English teacher from Standard VII in St Stanislaus School, Bandra, Mumbai, during 1962-63. Mrs Philomena D’Souza (nee Valladares) used to give us five topics to write one essay every week; I wrote on all five; Mrs Valladares corrected all five, sometimes rewrote them in her own neat hand-writing! Where have all the great Goan gurus gone?

Second, my Chemistry professor from B.Sc. in St Xavier’s College, Dhobitalao, Mumbai, during 1969-71. Prof V. V. Nadkarny, with his white open shirt, dhoti, and black round topi, taught me not only about organic molecules and carbon chains, but also about facing up to life. When arrogantly, I had refused to apolgise after back-answering a laboratory demonstrator, Prof Nadkarny apologised on my behalf though he was the Head of the Department then. His kind and free classes at his Dadar home, under the benign gaze of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, are with me today, though I do not use the chemistry I learned.

Third, the unlettered mofussil elders of village Kasarpimpalgaon, who taught me, “JoeP of KP”, to speak Marathi and learn of “sanskar” when, as a founder-member of the rural NGO called Vistas, I was working in the drought-prone areas of Pathardi taluka, Ahmednagar district, Maharashtra, during 1973-77.

“Those were the days, my friends,
We thought they’d never end,
We’d sing and dance for ever and a day.
We’d live the life we choose,
We thought we’d never lose,
For we were young and sure to have our way.”


The ones who are no more: Smita Patil, Norman “Vikram Salgaonkar” Dantas, Anna Salve. Now the rest (in alphabetical order): Biplab “Bulu” Basu, Vilma Colaco, Dominic D’Souza, Eric D’Souza, Glynis “Asha” D’Souza, John “Babuti” D’Souza, Lancy Fernandes, Nafisa Goga, Pradeep Guha, Ayesha Kagal, Aspi Mistry, Lakshmi “Buchy” Rameshwar Rao.

Fourth, the late Feriwala Francis and Bhabhi as well as the slum-dwellers of Kaju Tekdi, Bhandup, Mumbai, and my comrades at the CITU unit of Prabhakar Sanzgiri. During this same period, my participation as a founder general-secretary of the Lok Vidnyan Sanghatana not only immersed me in the popularisation of science but also introduced me to my Pune girl Kalpana Joshi, whom I married on 26 January 1982.

Fifth, my scribe seniors – S.D. Wagh, Taher Shaikh, Harry David, Y.V. Krishnamurthy – and delightful colleagues at the one and only “our very own” local English daily of Pune, Maharashtra Herald (estd. 1963), where I joined as a sub-editor on a salary of Rs.600 per month on 2 May 1983 and left as assistant editor in 1996.

Sixth, working since August 2006 with the eminent social worker, Shantilal Muttha, Founder and National President of the Bharatiya Jain Sanghatana on trustee empowerment and training programs.

And finally, my students in Pune where I have been teaching print journalism and communication as a regular visiting faculty since 1987, at the invitation and with the cooperation of Dr. Kiran Thakur, P.N. Paranjpe, Dr. Vishwas Mehendale, Prof M.S. Pillai, Ujjwal Chowdhury, Shashidhar Nanjundaiah, Dr. Keval Kumar and many others. If my students have learned anything from me, I have surely learned a lot from them.

*****

And so, at railway gate No. 58, I come full circle.

The packed local trains are the reason why I left the Mumbai that I love so much. When we were staying at Dadar in the late 60s, I used to travel 10 minutes by train from Dadar to school in Byculla. The locals were getting difficult. But my father was a railway officer and, therefore, we got a free First Class pass, so we missed the crush in the third class bogies.

When I joined St. Xavier's in 1967, the journey only got longer, 20-25 minutes from Dadar till VT. But in the first class it was still bearable. Fortunately, I escaped from the locals of Mumbai in 1973 and worked in village Maharashtra from 1973-77. If not for the horrors of the Indira Emergency, I may have never come back to Mumbai. When I got back, the trains were choking.

Slowly, travelling by local trains became a torture that I would dread. And when I was in Bhandup, the agony became too much to bear. Fortunately again, I got married and decided to move to Pune, where I also became a full-time journalist.

On the brink of 58, I dread travelling in Pune too. There are no trains here that can be packed (though I have heard that the locals to and from Lonavla are worse that the locals of Mumbai!!!).

But here we have our local variant of torture on the cruel roads, what I call the “chhote shaitan” – the two-wheelers that in the end may murder Pune, unless public transport improves.

Now the wheels are turning within the wheels. At railway gate No. 58.

Keep in touch. Take care.

Your support is my strength,
- Joe.

Pune, Thursday, 5th March 2009.