Good Writing

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This piece was published in the October 31, 2011 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

 

I have greatly benefited from being exposed to or being surrounded by good writers. It goes without saying that I like to write.

The family is one influence. My late dad was a good writer though as a lawyer, he wrote long sentences that contained different ideas and qualifiers. My mom says English Professor Paz Marquez Benitez used my dad’s pre-law writings as a model for her classes.

The Malay family is perhaps the most significant influence.  The venerable journalist and professor Armando J. Malay was our uncle. During our childhood, Tio Armando enthralled us—siblings and cousins. He was the clan’s Santa Claus, guardian, and quizmaster. He was an Ernie Baron and Manolo Quezon rolled into one, who taught us history, geography, astronomy, stamp collecting, and reading and writing.

Later, in 1972 when I was already in high school, Armando Malay would have a book published, titled The High School Paper (Reporting, Editing, Advising). I will argue that this is a classic book for Philippine journalism.  Methinks it is the Pinoy equivalent of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

When I was assigned the task of propaganda in the anti-dictatorship movement, Tio Armando’s book became my guide.  We even used it, together with Strunk and White, for the seminars on good writing and effective propaganda.  The lessons from Malay and Strunk and White are pithy:  Be clear and specific, be concise, and value simplicity.

To return to Malay’s book, an indicator of good journalism writing is that it can be understood by the ordinary high school student.

Of course, one cannot write well if he doesn’t think clearly or if he doesn’t know what he’s writing about and therefore does not have a message to convey.

Good grammar is important.  But it is not paramount in the context of aPinoy writing in English or in another foreign language. It was Bobbie—the writer and revolutionary, a cousin and mentor of mine and the daughter of Tio Armando—who reminded me many years ago that Pinoys who write in English, even the best, are bound to commit grammatical mistakes.  This is simply because English is not our natural tongue.

Moreover, many of us process our ideas through our native language. A clear idea or message is thus the essence of good writing.

In the same vein, I have come across essays that have no grammatical errors, but the content says almost nothing. The worst kind is pretentious writing.  For the moment, I need not make an illustration. I do not want to offend writers on an issue that is not about politics, economics, religion, or basketball rivalry.

Given that good writing is mainly about having an idea that will engage readers—disagreement or controversy in a sense is good, for it means that the idea is worth reading—the next step is to articulate it well.  And we return to the basics—be clear, be precise, be concise.

For papers submitted for publication, having a good editor is necessary.  Even the best writers need a good editor. The Philippines has a few precious editors—the likes of Pete Lacaba, Lorna Kalaw-Tirol, and BusinessWorld’s Rusty Otico.  I am lucky to have an in-house editor, my wife Mae who first learned English from watching cartoons and listening to Popeye’s English in her childhood days.

Finally, what is often not appreciated is that mathematics is a form of language.  And its beauty is its clarity, precision, and conciseness.

I recall when I was in college that the model for a thesis paper was one that was only six pages long.  That then seemed a heresy.   We thought that a long paper meant mastery of the subject, for we could expand the discussion, draw out the specifics, and tease out the nuances.  But if all this could be done in a few pages, mainly through equations and graphs, why not?

I recently read a short piece from the online version of The Wall Street Journal, written by Christopher Shea titled “Best Abstract on a Scientific Paper Ever?”  Weall know that an abstract should be as short as possible.  The abstract of this esoteric scientific paper titled “Can Apparent Superluminal Neutrino Speeds Be Explained as a Weak Quantum Measurement?” represents the elements of good writing: short, direct, and honest.

Here’s the entire abstract: “Probably not.”

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