Grandma's Tales

March 23, 2007

Grammar – 32 What is good writing? 1

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 9:57 pm

My first, not-too-well-considered response is “readability”. By that I mean, a choice of words and phrases that would make the sentences clear to you. Want an example of a sentence that is “unreadable”? Here it is: Let us dimensionalize your value proposition … operationalize a disruptive portfolio for sustainable global competitive advantage.”

The point is, if what you write must be understood by a large number of people (isn’t that why you are writing?), keep your writing simple. Use technical words if you have to. Sometimes they are necessary. If you are writing a technical paper, and if it is meant for a technically expert audience, then go ahead. Your arguments and propositions will be followed by that small group of readers.
But good writing is more than that. To me, it is the ability to make even difficult concepts and theories easy to follow. Years ago, I used to watch Carl Sagan’s TV editions on Astronomy, a subject I had little interest in. I sat glued to the box during these episodes only because this amazing man made it so interesting with the way he presented it! The language he used was simple, everyday. The examples he gave were ones that I was familiar with. He followed the classic way of teaching – from simple to complex, from known to unknown, from abstract to concrete.
Talented are those who can do it. But can this skill be developed? Yes! Not all of us can write with wit. Not all of us can write moving prose that finds a lasting place in the reader’s memory. Not all of us can write authoritatively on subjects we are not familiar with. But all of us can put down in “readable” prose what we want to say.
We will see how, step-by-step.
[1] Write something you feel strongly about. Strong emotions translate well into writing if you choose the right words. Some writers conf”use” exclamation marks for writing with passion. Such marks are at best crutches. Use them only when they are absolutely essential. Your words should be strong enough and appropriate enough to convey your feelings.
Putting down your feeling – anger, surprise, joy – makes for good practice in writing. Try that as often as you can. Write the incident that brought on this strong feeling. Something must have happened to make you angry, right? When you do it, take care to build the suspense. Don’t give the ending away. Remember, this is a story. Keep your reader guessing.
One last clue. When you describe a strong emotion through a short narrative, try not to mention the feeling upfront. Think of it as a quiz or a riddle. You are going to narrate a short incident and the reader has to guess how you felt at the end of it. You write it in such a way that there is no need to say, “I was furious!” Let your reader have the joy of interpreting, of finding out for himself. He will love you (and your writing)  for that.
Now, that would be good writing. Take this quiz.
I stopped in the school yard and watched the children play. Memories of twenty years ago came flooding, blurring my vision. It was as if nothing had changed. I stood for a while and then, slowly, crossed the yard and climbed the stairs. I walked down the corridor, hesitantly looking at the doors on either side. Finally, I stopped in front of the door that bore her name. How many times I’ve stood here, wondering what was in store for me?
I knocked, pushed the door, and stepped in. There she was, my favourite teacher, red pen in hand, head bent over a note book. She looked up, and her eyes crinkled. But that was only for a second. Her face broke into a broad smile. She stood up, nodded, and still smiling, came near me. She knew who I was! She had recognised me! Without thinking, I fell at her feet.”
Is that one emotion or a range? What are they?


  1. Write something what you feel strongly about – First point. Totally agree and that’s why i believe blogs are much more interesting than certain newspaper articles.

    Is there a grammatical reason behind the order of words e and i in bel’ie’ve and rec’ei’ve?
    Always got them wrong in dictation:)

    Comment by Jose — March 24, 2007 @ 9:25 pm | Reply

  2. Hi Jose, good to see you here. True, I guess. But blogs cannot be limited to venting your spleen. If I were to do that, you wouldn’t be reading all these tips, right?:-)
    Your question: You shouldn’t be getting the spelling wrong here. Just absorb this dictum: “i” before “e”, except after “c”. That is, in general, if “i” and “e” happen to be together, it is “i” first – “ie”. As in “believe”, relieve”, achieve, mischief”, etc. Once you have a “c” before “ie”, the rule changes. It is now “ei”. “Receive, “perceive”, “deceive”, etc. The only reason I can think of is the pronunciation. You write “ie” after a short, consonant sound (“l”, “ch”). You write “ei” to continue with the long “c” sound.
    Now, Jose, where is the answer to the quiz in the end?

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — March 24, 2007 @ 10:06 pm | Reply

  3. Ma’am,
    That was a lovely piece of writing (one of yours?). There are a range of emotions — nostalgia, joy at being recognised, respect and love for the teacher

    Comment by bravi2 — March 26, 2007 @ 5:16 pm | Reply

  4. Ma’am,
    That passage was a lovely piece of writing both the tips and the extract. There are a range of emotions — nostalgia, joy at being recognised, respect and love for the teacher.

    Comment by bravi2 — March 26, 2007 @ 5:18 pm | Reply

  5. Hi bravi2, thanks for stopping by and thanks for those words of appreciation. The basic idea for the piece is my young friend G. Ramakrishnan’s. I just re-wrote it to bring out the emotions. I’m happy that you find the tips useful. It is this thought – my experience in writing is of use to young people like you – that keeps me banging at the keyboard night after tired night. And yes, you got them right! Nostalgia, joy, love – ok! Just one correction though. It’s “There is a range of emotions” – “range”, a collective noun, the subject, being singular. “Emotions” is just the object of “of”. Start the sentence with “A range” and you will know what the verb should be.

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — March 26, 2007 @ 5:43 pm | Reply

  6. Hello,

    “i” before “e”, except after “c” – nice one, so how is DECAFFEINATED explained if it’s simply not an exception ??

    Have a good weekend.


    Comment by Gayathri Chakravarthy — April 14, 2007 @ 1:07 am | Reply

  7. Good point, Gayathri. But “caffeine” is not a regular English word. It is the name of an alkaloid stimulant in coffee and tea, right?

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — April 21, 2007 @ 5:04 pm | Reply

  8. Hmmm, sorry but still have my doubts about the rule.. We have so many other regular english words which seem to break the rule –
    Bit WEIRD perhaps ??

    Comment by Gayathri Chakravarthy — May 1, 2007 @ 8:43 pm | Reply

  9. How do “financier” and and “species” break the rule? the others break it because of the pronounced long “e”.

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — May 3, 2007 @ 9:40 pm | Reply

  10. Well, assuming we apply the except after ‘c’ logic don’t they seem out of sync – shouldn’t the words be financeir / speceis if we are to go by the rule ?? Thanks.

    Comment by Gayathri Chakravarthy — May 9, 2007 @ 3:36 am | Reply

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