Thoughts #2 On fear and loathing in Writing.

by Devarsi Ghosh

I have serious doubts about my capability as a journalist. I know for a fact that I’m not equipped and well-versed in all the skills and tools needed to be a competent 21st century, digital age journalist. I have to keep reminding myself that my competition is not the people I work with or will go on to work with in the future. I have to be up-to-date with the latest in news production technology and that is no easy feat. Every time I look at a good story done by a senior ACJ-alumni or by someone who’s in his late twenties, I start getting doubts about my caliber. Will I be able to write something like that? Can I produce such a detailed, engrossing multimedia story?

I think it is of paramount importance to know exactly what your strengths and weaknesses are, especially your weaknesses, and the sense and grit to not get bogged down by your shortcomings. One should always try to identify exactly what the problems are and then work on them.

For example, every time, I begin typing a sentence, I’m worried that I’m going to produce a grammatically incorrect sentence. No, my grammar is not strong —  this is something I know. Even though, I have mostly been decent with my class assignments and my writing has been appreciated by my professors, I know the honest truth about myself — I suck. I suck in grammar. The question here is where do you set your standards. I read somewhere, in some ‘Top 10 Writers Tips’-like article that if nothing is coming off the pen when you start to write, then you are NOT a writer, because a true writer will always find something to write. Speaking for myself, I don’t think there has been an instant where I have not been able to write anything at all but more often than not, every once in a while, I get stuck while constructing a sentence. I don’t know how common this is with the best of writers in the world but I’m guessing not that common. To reach there, to reach that level of confidence and proficiency needs a lot of hard work, tenacity and patience.

One of my other big weaknesses is ‘editing’.

In J-School, in the first term, we were trained in editing raw news copy. An excellent news-editor during his time, Raghunathan, who had worked in The Hindu for years was our teacher. He was a brilliant teacher and during that term, I was a little better than mediocre in class assignments.

However, when second term came, our respective stream classes began. I was a New Media (Digital Media) student so I did not have Raghunathan as a teacher anymore. He was a Print Stream professor. With New Media’s singular focus on visual and interactive storytelling, where the “experience” is more important than the qualitative density of the text, our collective English writing skills deteriorated. New Media professors were good, definitely good, but they did not worry too much about our English writing. We did not have regular news-copy editing exercises in second and third time, like we used to have in first term, when all the streams would’ve common classes. At such, the Print students, in my opinion, are far ahead in the market than the average New Media student, when it comes to English writing and news editing. Individual talent notwithstanding, the average Print student is a better writer than the New Media student. Conversely, the average New Media student is more skilled in new media storytelling tools than the average Print student. So, one would say that the game is evenly balanced. But not, really.

There is a vast difference between learning to use an app and mastering a craft for which there is no shortcut. With an app, once you know the head and tail of it, all you need to do is put in data, and off the other end will come out info-graphics, charts, maps, and whatnot. When it comes to writing flawless news copy, or forget news copy, just plain, good ol’ English, you need practice. You need schooling. You need to get your ass handed to you when you make a mistake, brutally—something that used to happen with Print students—so that you don’t make that mistake again. You need hard fucking work!

So, for a New Media student, whose interest, and maybe even strength, lies in old-fashioned text-based journalism as against interactive new-media storytelling…such as myself…it is going to be a tough ride in the news business for him if he has to become a news writer worth his salt. I have no teacher now. My teacher is going to be the innumerable mistakes that I shall make in the newsroom while sub-editing. What scares me the most is that I’m joining a digital newsroom and if even there, there’s no one as good as Raghunathan to take my case whenever I fuck up, well…

Honestly speaking, I don’t know why good writing and visual storytelling have to be mutually exclusive. I think this notion goes back to Devadas Rajaram, one of our New Media professors.

Rajaram is an interesting cat. As HoD of New Media, he had revolutionized the stream with his cutting-edge ideas and his enthusiasm for the latest in storytelling technology. He was, in my opinion, a visionary and had he stayed in the college after first term, we—the New Media students—would have all benefited and we would, at least, I would perhaps be a little more confident today with my quality as a journalist. Rajaram was seen as radical by some, mad by some, and absolutely worthless by some, and the last “some” allegedly included a few professors of my college. Hearsay was that one of the reasons for him leaving was his animosity with a few Print professors. I hope that this animosity was entirely ideology-based and it is sad from a student’s point-of-view to think that talented people would secretly bicker among themselves. Anyway, I am digressing. One of the things Rajaram would regularly say with massive confidence was that “People have stopped reading! They don’t read anymore! The focus should be on visual storytelling, how to enrich your story. Text, you cut it down. Make it short. Enhance the story with multimedia” and so on.

Now, all that multimedia jazz is fine but “people have stopped reading” is an abominable reason, on the students’ part, to ignore his/her writing skills, and on the teachers’ part, to be relaxed on that aspect just because they are teaching New Media students.

Anyway, now I am out of J-School, and to look on the bright side, I have all the time and opportunity in the world to get better at what I want to do. I am not bound by curriculum anymore.

One more problem that I frequently face—also related to editing—is switching from being a news writer to a general prose writer and vice-versa depending on the situation. With news report writing, what you’re looking for is precision and brevity. You don’t use unnecessary adjectives or intensifiers. You can’t slyly squeeze in a wisecrack or an opinion in the news story. At least, that’s what we had been taught and that is also how I feel a news report should be — tight, hard and not an ounce of flab. However, when I am writing something, say, like this, I am often stuck at various points wondering what’s the right way to write it. Should I go for brevity or should I go for flourish? Mind you, brevity is also a symbol for good prose writing, not just news writing.

These are things that are going to perpetually haunt me, irritate me, drive me mad and make me insecure for as long as I am a student of the craft and I don’t think one ever stops being a student of the craft. That said, there’s obviously miles of difference between a 24-year old me who just graduated from J-school and a writer in his late twenties regularly publishing in ScrollThe Wire and Mountain Ink, when it comes to writing. Getting better at your game is a step-by-step process. I don’t know which step requires you to blog about it but since it’s writing, well…