Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Columns and Inches

It has been quite a hiatus for me since my last column in September. I have been out of town, fallen a bit sick, and above all, gotten swayed by the tunes of the newspaper holidays during Dashain and Tihar festivals.

Indeed, the festivals offered some relief for the media outlets, mainly for those in the business of “columns and inches”—the country’s print journalists, newspaper writers, columnists and contributors, from their news (and views) routines.

Yet, things don’t wait for the festivals to end, and there’s already so much in the plate for our news-palate: those presidential coup rumors, stern new deadlines for political consensus, uncertainties regarding fresh elections, the “Fierce One” slapped in the public by one of his own disenchanted cadres, a foreign army chief general in town with a subtle message for our political leadership, the government yet again deferring plan to bring the budget, among many others.

As a columnist, it is easy to be tempted to write a piece on any of the above “hot” issues, or to devote this article entirely to speculate on Prachanda’s misery, his broken glasses, or to predict their political fallout or simply comment on how incessantly our journalists first tweeted and then tried to write about his public humiliation, now dubbed as “slapgate”. But no, I am not writing about these developments here today.

As a journalism-trained writer, I do follow such spiced-up topics, but see how banal, hackneyed and overtly source-and event-driven they are. The last few weeks, away from editorial as well as other deadline pressures, I had some room to reconsider my writing interests and constraints. Like a writer perpetually fixated on that last revision yet again, I found myself daydreaming about totally doing away with any inconsistencies in form and substance, and not dropping a word, or not making a single error in facts, grammar, perhaps thus writing my best piece ever! You are more likely to think about writing, and writing it really good, when you don’t do it than when you are actually doing it.

So between things, now and then, I happened to think through the entire process—how I could best conceive my idea for next Wednesday’s article, how I could research about it, contextualize facts and details, adopt my approach, tone and voice, and write the draft, prune it, rewrite it and refine it.

Sure, some of us in the news and views business have walked this process many times, as journalists, writers, teachers, experts, and students. But any extended interlude can make the process difficult or even impossible to complete. I tried on a number of topics one after another; some maintained as a list of potential story ideas in my computer folders. I got hung up on a few words, and unable to concentrate, wondered about the merits of the Nepali saying “once a journalist, always a journalist”.

I was trying to get over my “word block”, the sudden mysterious blockage in my creativity as a writer; my inability to get the words flowing as in the past! How could it be possible for me that I was not able to spew out a word? And even when I could, what strategies of research and writing would work best for me? Do I write a good copy—and how do I verify that, against what or whose standards?

In other words, these were compelling questions for a column, for example. Next, came the research part. I found reading a piece in the May (2012) issue of the journal The Writer helpful. Arthur Plotnik, a writer himself, sounded consoling in suggesting that the “creative mess” of a writer’s block can be overcome by focusing on the message, writing sections out of order, free-writing, brainstorming on problems and for solutions, and working through motivational efforts. Citing neuroscientists, he observed that “idle fantasies could be part of a ‘creative incubation process.”

How gratifying to know that I was not wasting my time in idle daydreaming, and in fact, it was part of the writing process!

Unfortunately, when it comes to research for contextual facts, observations, or attributions, we see very little of that in our op-ed pages, far more argumentative or speculative than analytical. One key problem is the lack of access to quality information. The handy thing for many of us to do these days is to simply goggle something we are looking for! If you are lazy enough to comb around the vast virtual universe via Google, then there is always Wikipedia! Many newsrooms strictly prohibit the use of open-sources like the latter, but in Nepal no serious thought has been given to its authenticity as a source for articles and columns. It is not rare to see established writers citing Wikipedia in their lead op-ed articles.

Everybody has strong opinions about sourcing via new media. Use Google Scholar more often for specialized writing, I tell my students, you can cut the clutter down to over seventy percent, I bet!

Many writers and journalists do not have access to databases of scholarly journals and first-rate studies. And even if some do have access, materials are lifted without attribution. So much so, these are verbatim, without any rewriting or rephrasing. Increasingly, much of the information in the traditional print media is lifted from the internet, which is also circulated among broadcast stations, verbatim; in a practice some critics have called “churnalism”.

For a writer today, there is thus always the challenge to be original and authentic and at the same time engaging and useful. If I talk big, present facts and data but do not quote them by source, I’m lying or simply plagiarizing them. If I often repeat names of particular people or organizations in my article, or sound redundant time and again, I am most likely doing somebody’s PR work or it’s simply that I am a poor copy editor.

That leads me to the next step in the process—drafting, writing and editing—the crux of this article.

In the pre-digital era, where assembly lines remained intact, to some measure even in Nepal, a good reporter did not necessarily have to be a good editor or writer. Today’s world of mobile journalism (MoJo) aided by technologies and new media puts far greater pressure on journalists, writers and contributors. To survive and to thrive in the changing media landscape, one has to be all-in-one, multi-tasking between reporting, researching, writing, multi-media, editing etc.

These, and in particular copywriting skills are in short supply today. During over half a dozen focus group discussions I conducted with our media practitioners, trainers, educators and consumers this past year, one of the recurring perceptions was that Nepali press is mediocre and poor in its language and presentation.

Individual copy editors concur. Peter J Karthak, one of the most prominent copy editors we have around here, suggested recently to me that copy editing is a vanishing craft, there is hardly anybody to teach and mentor the young professionals. The dwindling number of copy editors, the unsung heroes who work behind the limelight of bylines and events to polish and improve somebody else’s poorly written submissions, remain endangered threatening the quality of media content.

A wider debate among the concerned professionals and writers is necessary on standardizing the copy editing process, as well as on developing editorial guidelines on submissions in our newspapers. Until then, this remains largely an idiosyncratic work, so let me re-read Les Kozaczek’s professional advice “How to write a better op-ed” (The Writer, April 1995) so I don’t put a lot of burden on our colleagues at Republica.

Published November 21, 2012 in Republica.


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