A better writer and a better thinker

This week I started my internship at The Economist. I had been looking forward to this since the day I got the offer, and it was one my strongest motivations to submit my DPhil thesis. A number of reasons made it so. But mainly it was because I knew that the few months at The Economist are going to be an exercise in becoming a better writer and a better thinker.

Becoming a better writer may be obvious. The Economist is a very well-written newspaper, and, if I am to write for it every week, I have to better my game. But a better thinker?

Yes and here’s an analogy to explain it: When I first came to Oxford, I had just finished four years in the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai. Coming to Oxford was a shock to my system in many ways. I was in a foreign country, surrounded by people from all over the world, I was moving from a taught course into research, I was going to live in a house with three girls rather than a hostel full of boys, etc. But one of things that most stood out in all those new things was that all the students at Oxford did not study chemical engineering. Actually, they studied more subjects than I could keep a count.

Exeter college, which is a very welcoming place, made sure that in the first week we had as many social engagements as were physically possible. It forced me, pleasantly so, to mix with students from many subject areas. Over the next four years, a lot of my thinking was shaped by interacting with these students.

I expect my time at The Economist to do the same for me all over again, and do it better. Even though it is only a few months, because the paper (as it is referred to in-house) writes with a single voice (if you aren’t aware, The Economist has no byline), it will force me to confront my views a lot more than I had to at Oxford. When I say ‘single voice’, I do not mean that all the writers have the same opinion, but that they arrive at one through a lot of debate. If I am to write about something, I need to be prepared to defend my stance or find something that I can defend.

Here’s what I learnt:

The start of a new week at the paper is on a Friday because that week’s paper goes to print on a Thursday afternoon. The first Friday-morning meeting is one where people float ideas for the next week to their section editors (Business, Finance, Britain, etc.), but mainly the aim that day is to think about leaders (opinion pieces) for next week. The section editors then take those ideas to the next meeting, which happens in the Editor-in-chief’s office.

Both these meetings go on for quite sometime. Especially, the second one. Leader ideas are thrown on the table and then dissected. Although most of the talking happens in between the section editors, the deputy editor and the editor-in-chief, many other people contribute. I got told on the very first day, “If you have an opinion, at The Economist you will have plenty of opportunity to air it.” It’s true. Even those writing for the science section question a finance leader and those writing for the Britain section question a leader about the Libyan election.

After a quiet weekend, Monday starts with longer versions of the Friday meetings. More discussions follow but this time they are more concrete. After all, the deadline to wrap-up the paper is only two days away i.e. Wednesday night. People use Monday afternoon and Tuesday to do the research, interviews, reporting, and on Wednesday there is a lot of back and forth between writers and editors as they polish their stories.

The working hours are very flexible, the people are very warm and the 12th floor office has a great view of the city. I got told more than once that The Economist is a weekly newspaper, which means that the stories have to have more than just ‘news value’. Not just well-written, but it also needs to be a well-analysed and entertaining story.

The week

For me, it was an unusual week. Monday through Wednesday, the science and technology team was working from home, in what was an experiment. And as it happened, I ended up being at a conference on Thursday and Friday. So although I didn’t get to interact very much with the team I am going to be working in, I got to meet a lot of other writers.

This is not to say that I did not work. Apart from attending the conference, I attended the ‘Welcome to The Economist‘ talk, ‘How to be a journalist’ talk, got trained on the necessary software, made new friends and wrote two articles, which depending on what the editors think may or may not get published (PS: I will be posting what gets published here).

Finally, I won’t be boring you with what happened at The Economist every week (for that you should read the paper). But, as always, I will write whenever I have something worthy to share. Like the ad below:

On a mission: To be a good writer

I started blogging because I wanted to write better and become a writer. Even after blogging for three years, that still remains my strongest driving force.  However, I’ve never done any serious research on good writing, so I thought I should get to it.

Like any generic google search the “How to be a good writer” search is full of links that don’t have enough content in them to be valued so high on the search results. I thought it would be valuable for the community if I utilise my time by demoting links which weren’t useful. It turned out I had to demote two results for every one that I found useful. Nevertheless, I persisted on my mission and I am now about to write a gist of what I learnt.

The wikiHow is a good start but just like most wikis has a lot of content but little structure within the content. Yet, I think the most valuable points from the wiki are that one must try and write everyday. Reading a lot will help improve vocabulary and grammar. Improving one’s vocabulary though will require active effort not just reading. Maintaining a vocabulary notebook might be a good idea. Plan your writing but write the first draft quickly. Be specific and tailor your writing to the audience.

MD Weems notes that one must start with what you know and start with small articles. “Your writing must instill confidence in a mind that is inclined to doubt you” says Robert Warren who makes two very good points on how to keep the reader on the writer’s side by being bold and confident and maintaining an optimistic, positive tone.

Most people seemed to suggest that one must always read their own writing and make edits and to gauge one’s writing it is best to have someone else read it and get their opinion. Reading will help you gain knowledge about different styles of writing and explore new perspectives.

To conclude, I would like to share some interesting quotes on good writing:

  • “Write without pay until somebody offers pay” and “When you catch adjectives, kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together; they give strength when they are wide apart.” — Mark Twain
  • The abstract is seldom as effective as the concrete. — John Gardner
  • Vigorous writing is concise. — William Strunk Jr.
  • Don’t write about Man, write about a man. — E.B. White
  • Is every word doing new work? — William Zinsser
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active. — George Orwell
  • Pick up every sentence in turn, asking ourselves if we can possibly make it shorter. — Sheridan Baker
  • We don’t reject writers; we reject pieces of paper with typing on them — Isaac Asimov
  • Ptahotep noted, “Happy is the heart of him who writes; he is young each day.” Yes, but only if he writes from the heart, and not just for copious beer. — Marvin Olasky
  • “The first million words you write will be crap” — Anonymous

Subscribe to this blog by Email