Saturday, September 29, 2012

"There are some stories TV can't do"

NDTV anchor Sunetra Choudhury's "After the Break" column in DNA on Saturdays usually provides food for thought. Today was no exception.

Headlined "Crimes 'unfit' for TV", Choudhury's column puts the spotlight on a major difference between television and print — there are some stories that TV can't do. In fact, the article begins with that admission before revealing the nature of the "crime":

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been pursuing this story that involves sexual harassment, courts and lawyers and at the end of this period, that’s the frustrating conclusion I am left with.

We then learn details of the many sordid cases that have led to women lawyers moving the Supreme Court to end harassment in our courts.

Conversations with women lawyers reveal how deep-rooted the problem is. Senior advocate Kamini Jaiswal told me several instances where no action was taken despite complaints. “The junior lawyer who comes to a senior’s chamber is very vulnerable,” said Jaiswal, “She is very young and it is difficult for her to even raise her voice. If she complains against a respected, senior lawyer, who will believe her? Her entire career is at stake.” Jaiswal, who was the only lawyer who didn’t mind being quoted, told me how judges were inaccessible for junior lawyers, especially because they were friendly with the senior ones. Do all women lawyers go through this, I asked. “Many of them do,” she said.

Choudhury, though, does not elaborate on why this case won't work as a news story on television. If you ask me, I would say there are at least two reasons for this:

1. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to get people to speak on camera.
2. TV news relies heavily on "dramatic" visuals, which are unobtainable here. "Re-enactment" is possible, but then the whole story would be one long episode featuring actors, and that won't do.

Perhaps journalists, especially those working with our news channels, would like to add their comments.

You can read Sunetra Choudhury's column in its entirety here: "Crimes 'unfit' for TV". And you can check out her previous columns here.
  • Illustration courtesy: Ravi Jadhav/DNA.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Is there a secret to writing effective e-mails, letters, reports, and proposals?

Yes, there is, says Richard Nordquist, an American professor emeritus of rhetoric and English and the author of two grammar and composition textbooks for college students. Writing on his blog on, where he has served as the Guide to Grammar and Composition since 2006, Nordquist provides his top 10 editing tips for business writers:
  • Adopt the "you attitude".
  • Focus on the real subject.
  • Write actively, not passively.
  • Cut unnecessary words and phrases.
  • But don't leave out key words.
  • And don't forget your manners.
  • Avoid outdated expressions.
  • Put a cap on the buzzwords.
  • Unstack your modifiers.
  • And, of course, proofread.
Each tip comes with an example.

Here, for instance, is the example provided with the admonition to avoid outdated expressions.

Draft: Attached herein for your reference is a duplicated version of the aforementioned deed.
Revision: I have enclosed a copy of the deed.

As for putting a cap on buzzwords, you will understand immediately what does not work when you read Nordquist's example:

Draft: At the end of the day the bottom line is that we should facilitate opportunities for employees to provide input on best practices.
Revision: Let's encourage people to make suggestions.

Read the post in its entirety here: "Top Ten Editing Tips for Business Writers".

And while you're at it, study Nordquist's Top 10 Proofreading Tips, too.

When to choose good writing over good grammar

In 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing (a slim but valuable book which I purchased for a mere Rs.263 on Flipkart this week), Gary Provost makes a convincing case for choosing good writing over good grammar:

"It is my objective to utilize my management expertise more fully, than has heretofore been the case" is acceptable grammar but poor writing because it is poor communication. The sentence should read, "I'm looking for a better job."

On the other hand, "I ain't got no money" is terrible grammar but could be good writing in some context by communicating exactly what the writer wants to communicate.

There are many writing situations, Provost asserts, in which inferior grammar makes for superior writing, and he provides an appropriate example from a comic novel.

You could also use poor grammar, Provost tells us, in an essay or opinion piece to establish a certain tone:

"Marvin Hagler and Ray Leonard go at each other tonight in the Centrum, and it ain't going to be pretty."

So, yes, it may be okay to use poor grammar deliberately, but, Provost warns, whenever you knowingly use poor grammar, you should ask yourself two questions.

The first: Is my meaning clear? If the answer is no, rewrite.

The second question: What am I getting in return for the poor grammar? If you can't answer that, don't use poor grammar.

That is great advice. I also love what Provost has to say towards the end of this passage (which is part of Rule No. 10: Prefer Good Writing to Good Grammar in the chapter titled "Ten Ways to Avoid Grammatical Errors"):

Never violate a rule of grammar unless you have a good reason, one that improves the writing.

But never choose good grammar over good writing.

I have read many, many books on writing and grammar but this is the first time I have come across such wise words with respect to both writing and grammar.

100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, in addition to the excerpts presented above, has much to recommend it. And I endorse it wholeheartedly.

UPDATE (June 7, 2014)

"This is a must-read for all freshers"

By Ankita Pareek, Class of 2016

A big thank you for suggesting this book to me.

I never knew a book could answer all my queries related to writing (even the ones I thought were stupid and cannot be asked). From explaining what to write and when, and also where and how, the book covers it all.

I am glad I read this book. I now have the confidence to write and have also started realising my mistakes and rectifying them. This should be a must-read for all the freshers like me who aim to be writers but are unaware of the basics of writing.

There is one section in the book which I thought was brilliant, "Eleven ways to make people like what you read". I have written a lot of poems but I've never had the courage to make people read them as I always hated the thought of getting a "critical view". But now it's not the same; I finally showed my work to a few people and they didn't really criticise what I had written but, to the contrary, they made me aware of my mistakes. I have already started writing more poems now.

I guess I now understand what you actually mean when you say "You have to be a good reader to be a good writer". Thank you once again!


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How a great cartoonist does what he does

Did you know each cartoonist who freelances with The New Yorker, that storied magazine founded by Harold Ross in 1925, is required to submit 10 panels a week for consideration (nine of which typically get rejected)?

How do they do it? How do they come up with so many original jokes?

Well, thanks to Jeff Bercovici of Forbes, we know how one great cartoonist does it. In an interview with Matthew Diffee, who draws cartoons for The New Yorker and other media organisations, Bercovici draws out the essence of a cartoonist's light-bulb moment. We learn that Diffee parks himself at a table for the first hour or two of each day — however long it takes him to drink an entire pot of coffee — and forces himself to free-associate on a blank sheet of paper. That means writing, not drawing:

Diffee says his cartoons always start with words, not images. Typically, he’ll take a phrase that’s lodged in his mind and tweak it this way and that until he comes up with something funny or hits a mental dead end. By the time he fills up the paper, he usually has at least a couple workable ideas.

Here is a Diffee cartoon from a recent issue of The New Yorker:

“I’m sorry, Paige, but grades are based on the quality of the writing, not on your Klout score.”

Diffee also demonstrates how he does what he does in a brief (less than five minutes) video interview with Bercovici:

You can read the Forbes interview here: "New Yorker Cartoonist Matthew Diffee Shows How To Be Creative".

And take a look at a collection of New Yorker cartoons here.
  • Plus, meet the R.K. Laxman of England, Matt of The Daily Telegraph: "There’s no cartoonist like Matt. With his sharp humour and kind touch, he expertly captures the absurdities of everyday life. No wonder our readers start the day with a smile" — A tribute by Mick Brown.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"We get 40,564 emails per minute from people who want to be interns, and 40,553 of them are deleted before we've finished reading them."

That is obviously a wild exaggeration by Seattle newspaper editor Christopher Frizzelle, but the point is well made. If your subject line has typos, if your cover note is badly written, if you don't know how to spell the name of the publication you're applying to — bam!

So, first off, would you like some tips on how to write a cover note? Then Frizzelle is your man. Culling advice he has provided in a book co-authored by him, he suggests that if you really want a job in writing... should just start writing — and publishing. Get a blog and make it good. Make it so good that an editor who reads it will be so jealous you're not writing for them that they'll hire you. Once you already have your own writing underway, sure, apply for an internship at the place you want to work. But make sure your cover letter doesn't make whomever ends up reading it want to die of embarrassment.

And then come a few tips (but not all — for that you will have to buy the book).

One important tip: "Cool it on the superlatives." To find out why, read Frizzelle's post here.

How is straightforward news coverage in a daily newspaper different from the content on the editorial and Op-Ed pages? How does a review differ from an editorial? Who is an Op-Ed contributor?

And other important questions that readers (must) have.

If such are the questions readers have, then the New York Times, one of the world's greatest newspapers, has the answers in the form of a very thoughtful Readers' Guide:

In its daily news pages, The Times presents both straightforward news coverage and other journalistic forms that provide additional perspective on events. These special forms — news analysis articles, columns and others — adhere to standards different from those of the editorial and Op-Ed pages. The news and editorial departments do not coordinate coverage and maintain a strict separation in staff and management.

All articles, columns, editorials and contributions in the newspaper are subject to the same requirements of factual accuracy.

This is followed by "descriptions of the various forms".


  • News Analysis: A close examination of the ramifications of an important news situation. It includes thorough reporting, but also draws heavily on the expertise of the writer. The article helps the reader understand underlying causes or possible consequences of a news event, but does not reflect the writer's personal opinion.
  • Appraisal: A broad evaluation, generally by a critic or a specialized writer, of the career and work of a major figure who has died. The article often accompanies the obituary.
  • Review: A specialized critic's appraisal of works of creativity — movies, books, restaurants, fashion collections. Unlike other feature writers, critics are expected to render opinions in their areas of expertise.

  • Editorial: A sharply written, generally brief article about any issue of public interest. Editorials are written by the editorial board of The Times, which includes the editorial page editor, the deputy and assistant editors, and a group of writers with expertise in a variety of fields. While the writers' opinions are of great importance, the editorials also reflect the longtime core beliefs of the page. Unlike the editors of the news sections, the editorial page editor not only reports to the publisher, but consults with him on the page's positions. Editorials are based on reporting, often original and in-depth, but they are not intended to give a balanced look at both sides of a debate. Rather, they offer clear opinion and distinct positions.
  • Op-Ed Column: An essay by a columnist on the staff of The Times, reflecting the opinions of the writer on any topic. Columnists are expected to do original reporting. Some travel extensively. Op-Ed columns are edited only for style and usage, not for content. Columnists do not submit their topics for approval, and are free to agree or disagree with editorial positions.
  • Op-Ed Contribution: An article by a person not on the staff of The Times, reflecting opinions about a topic on which the author is an expert or has provocative and well-reasoned ideas. These articles, most of which are solicited by the editors, are not intended to reflect the positions of the editorial board. Indeed, the Op-Ed page is seen as a forum to air diverse and challenging viewpoints.
Study the Readers' Guide in its entirety here.

As far as I know there are not many newspapers in India that make it easy for readers to grasp the finer nuances of journalistic terms. Of the ones that do, Mint has possibly the most comprehensive Code of Conduct. The Code explains, among other things, the newspaper's journalistic standards and discusses in detail the rules Mint journalists follow when it comes to attribution, quotations, the use of anonymous sources, and the use of graphics and images.

Under the rubric "Attribution", we learn the definitions of, for instance,"on the record", "off the record", and "deep background" (those who have watched All the President's Men will be able to link "deep background" with Deep Throat).

There will be many readers, by the way, who may be surprised to learn that Mint has very strict rules against altering or manipulating the content of a photograph in any way:

The content of a photograph must not be altered in PhotoShop or by any other means. No element should be digitally added to or subtracted from any photograph. The faces or identities of individuals must not be obscured by PhotoShop or any other editing tool. Only retouching or the use of the cloning tool to eliminate dust and scratches are acceptable.

Minor adjustments in PhotoShop are acceptable. These include cropping, dodging and burning, conversion into grayscale, and normal toning and color adjustments that should be limited to those minimally necessary for clear and accurate reproduction (analogous to the burning and dodging often used in darkroom processing of images) and that restore the authentic nature of the photograph. Changes in density, contrast, color and saturation levels that substantially alter the original scene are not acceptable. Backgrounds should not be digitally blurred or eliminated by burning down or by aggressive toning. When an employee has questions about the use of such methods or Mint requirements and limitations on photo editing, he or she should contact the photo editor/art director prior to the use of any image.

Two more paragraphs follow. Haven't all bases been covered? I would say yes.

In addition to spelling out journalistic standards, the Code also provides specifics on issues related to integrity as well as professional conduct, political and civic activities as well as personal conduct. It deals, too, with accounting and finances, employment, and environmental concerns.

Read Mint's Code of Conduct in its entirety here. Be an informed reader. Demand more of your newspaper.


Treat writing as a job. Be disciplined.

Lots of writers get a bit OCD-ish about this. Graham Greene famously wrote 500 words a day. Jean Plaidy managed 5,000 before lunch, then spent the afternoon answering fan mail.

My minimum is 1,000 words a day — which is sometimes easy to achieve, and is sometimes, frankly, like shitting a brick, but I will make myself stay at my desk until I've got there, because I know that by doing that I am inching the book forward.

Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish — they often are. But then, it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better.

~ SARAH WATERS, award-winning, bestselling author of five novels to date: Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith, The Night Watch and her latest title, The Little Stranger.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Who says film reviews have to be text-centric?

Not Sahil Rizwan, a 24-year-old freelance writer and creator of "The Vigil Idiot". Under that rubric, Rizwan "reviews" Bollywood films on the "Mumbai Boss" blog. Of course, "reviews" is a misnomer; what Rizwan does is give us his take in the form of a graphic novella with stick figures for characters.

Here is the first panel of Rizwan's broadside against Madhur Bhandarkar's latest offering, Heroine:

Laugh your way through all the panels here: "The Vigil Idiot: Heroine".

Eat your heart out, Rajeev Masand!
  • Thank you, Medini Mangala, for that Facebook alert!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

V.S. Naipaul's advice for beginner writers

One of the first things I tell my students is that it helps to follow a formula when you are starting out as a writer.

For example, when aspiring journalists try their hand at writing a news report, they should keep in mind the inverted pyramid structure and divide (loosely) their story structure into intro, explanation, corroboration, and qualification.

I also tell my students that there are a million ways to say the same thing so, once they become confident about their writing, they should experiment, and break the rules if necessary. The only thing that matters, I try to impress upon them, is the reader. As long as the reader is hooked, it does not matter what formula has been used.


Now here's some advice for beginner writers from Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul. He may have novelists in mind, rather than journalists, but this list, which was compiled at Tehelka's request, contains advice that media novices will benefit from, too:

1. Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words.

2. Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.

3. Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.

4. Never use words whose meaning you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.

5. The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.

6. Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.

7. Every day, for six months at least, practise writing in this way. Small words; short, clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward, but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university. You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.
  • I discovered this list when I was going through India Uncut, the blog published by novelist and journalist Amit Varma.

What journalism is really about...

...can be discerned from this "wanted ad" being circulated via social media and e-mail by Sudha Pillai, features editor of Bangalore Mirror:

I'm looking for a features reporter. Mail me your resume if you have 2-4 years experience; you are working in the print medium; you are from Bangalore; you know the city and its people well; have an inquisitive mind; you are curious about everything and everyone around you; are someone who doesn't think that she is god's gift to journalism; you are someone who does not think that you know it all and there is nothing more to learn; are someone who does not think that journalism is all about having five ready-made questions, which you will ask anyone from the prime minister to the office boy; are someone who does not think that all a journalist needs is a phone and e-mail; actually like going out and meeting people; you are someone who will go out and find your own stories and not regurgitate something that has already been regurgitated;

...that you are not someone who will ever call up a theatre company and say you are a journalist and that you want free tickets; you are someone who does not think that having a free meal at a restaurant, getting a free spa experience and other freebies are legitimate perks of being a journalist; are someone who is willing to learn, explore, laugh, work REALLY, REALLY HARD and have fun on the job then...

...I promise you I will teach you all that I know; you will write some of the most fascinating stories and have some memorable experiences in life. I am a tough boss.

If you are willing to take a chance send me an e-mail:

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Are YOUR PowerPoint slides doing more harm than good?

PowerPoint is ubiquitous. Not only in boardrooms and conferences rooms but also in classrooms (yes, I use it, too, and so do my students when they make in-class presentations).

As Bob Parks writes in a recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, "No matter what your line of work, it’s only getting harder to avoid death by PowerPoint."

The article continues:

Since Microsoft launched the slide show program 22 years ago, it’s been installed on no fewer than 1 billion computers; an estimated 350 PowerPoint presentations are given each second across the globe; the software’s users continue to prove that no field of human endeavour can defy its facility for reducing complexity and nuance to bullet points and big ideas to tacky clip art. (italics mine)


There's more in the same vein:

As with anything so ubiquitous and relied upon, PowerPoint has bred its share of contempt. Plug the name into Twitter and you’ll see workers bashing the soporific software in Korean, Arabic, Spanish, and English as each region starts its business day. Part of this venting may stem from a lack of credible competition...

Microsoft’s other ubiquitous products, such as Word and Excel, don’t draw the same widescale ire. As PowerPoint’s sole function — unlike word processing and arithmetic — is grounded in visual arts, its slides do more harm than good. They bore audiences with amateurish, antiquated animation and typefaces and distract speakers from focusing on the underlying structure of their creators’ speeches.

Double ouch!

If you use PowerPoint (and who doesn't?), you will want to read this article in its entirety and then rethink your own slide-presentation strategy: "Death to PowerPoint!".
  • Cartoon courtesy: CartoonStock

The incredible story of how a documentary, "Kony 2012", went viral and helped raise millions of dollars for the NGO that made it

Headlined "Guerrilla marketing" (great title, that), a five-page feature in a recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek has re-focused the spotlight on a 30-minute film about the heinous acts of an African warlord.

Kony 2012 was launched on YouTube by the US-based NGO Invisible Children in March Facebook and Twitter users will remember the many "shares" and "likes" the link gathered on the way to becoming a worldwide sensation and its popularity resulted in, according to the article, nearly two million people visiting the donation page of Invisible Children within the first few weeks of the campaign.


Bloomberg Businessweek staff writer Claire Suddath, who has clearly done an enormous amount of research for this story, tells us that Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell designed Kony 2012 to do two seemingly incompatible things:

1) explain a protracted international conflict happening very far away; and 2) be as popular as a Buzzfeed list. Russell did away with much of Kony’s back story and focused instead on the target audience: teenagers and twentysomethings browsing Facebook (FB) and Twitter.

He added some feel-good philosophy about the interconnectedness of society, scored the film with a dubstep song, and shortened it to 29 minutes and 59 seconds because a timestamp starting with a 2 looked less daunting than one with a 3.

Russell also put his young son Gavin in the film because, as Invisible Children’s director of idea development, Jedidiah Jenkins, explains, “if you want to get something watched online, you either have to put funny cats in it or little kids.”

What a terrific lesson that is about how to engage your target audience. Now you know why I think "Guerrilla Marketing" is such a wonderful headline for this piece.

There's more in the article in terms of marketing wisdom as well as human interest. I was intensely moved, for instance, by the description of Russell's plight today:

He couldn’t be interviewed because he’s recovering from the “brief reactive psychosis” — a psychotic episode often caused by stress — he suffered after the release of the video, according to Invisible Children. He hasn’t returned to work. In an e-mail, his wife described his recovery process as “building invisible fences around what’s sacred [and] getting back to life.”

And why was Russell stressed out? Because, Suddath writes, the backlash against Kony 2012 was as swift as the video's spread.

At the height of the criticism this spring, 10 days after Kony 2012’s release, police found him naked and shouting in a residential San Diego neighbourhood, apparently suffering a nervous breakdown. Footage of the incident quickly appeared on TMZ and Gawker.

Why was there a backlash? What was the criticism about? Read "Guerrilla Marketing" here to know more. Also read: "Five Reasons the Kony Video Went Viral".
  • Photographs courtesy: Bloomberg Businessweek
  • As far back as March 1998, The New Yorker, one of the most cerebral magazines in the world, had published a report on the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony. Read it here: "Letter from Uganda".
UPDATE (July 30, 2018): Read this BBC News profile of Joseph Kony: Child kidnapper, warlord, 'prophet'.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The most intelligent comment I have read on the Aseem Trivedi controversy

There have been many reports and editorial comments on the arrest in Mumbai last week of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi. But it is veteran journalist Salil Tripathi, whose writing I admire, who has put the whole issue in perspective.

And the issue, he writes in his column in Mint is not whether Trivedi's humour is juvenile or witty. That is irrelevant.

To be sure, the cartoons for which Trivedi landed in trouble are neither great works of art, nor are they necessarily funny. Like graffiti, some of his cartoons remind one of teenage toilet humour ...  But... his right to express himself is fundamental, even if it is a rant ... For the Constitution recognizes his right to express himself, without preaching violence. And he aims to taunt and ridicule, even if he may end up irritating and disgusting some. But that’s the point of the law.

And look how Tripathi treats the person who filed the case against Trivedi in the first place:

When the laws are wrong and the defendant acts to exercise his freedom, what is the state to do? Err on the side of freedom. And yet, unfortunately, from the police who registered the complaint of a random busybody (who shall remain nameless here, to deny him the oxygen of publicity he craves), and the prosecutor who decided to argue the case, and the magistrate, who thought it fit to admit the case, the state has capitulated again to the hypersensitive, insecure among us.

This is commentary of the highest order. Read the column in its entirety here: "Aseem Trivedi vs the State".


Also read:

Thursday, September 13, 2012

How do you know the company you are going to be working for is right for you?

By conducting an informational interview, that's how.

And what is an informational interview? Here's Mark Nichol, editor of the Daily Writing Tips blog, explaining the term:

It’s a meeting with someone in a position, department, company, or profession that intrigues you. You’re not certain whether you are suited for or interested in that career, so you ask someone who knows what working in such an environment involves. (Equally important is what an informational interview is not: It is not a stratagem for finagling an opportunity to ask for a job under the guise of merely obtaining information.)

This seems like something we would do as a matter of course. But do we do it systematically? Do we do it in the manner Nichol prescribes? Ah! There's the rub.

From how to set up an informational interview and what to do if the subject declines to the questions you must ask — Nichol covers all the bases.

Coming to the questions, Nichol makes it clear you must find out what you can through your own research first. Then he provides a dozen questions which, he stresses, you must not just recite: "The interview should be more of a conversation." Sound advice, that.

Here are some of the questions on Nichol's list:
  • How do you spend your workday, and what are the weekly, monthly, and yearly cycles, if any, of your workload?
  • What is the balance of routine and novelty in your job? Does your work largely follow a set pattern, and does that appeal to you, or is it mostly unpredictable, and do you like that?
  • What type of skills and knowledge did you bring to your job, and what have you acquired? What skills or knowledge do you apply most often?
  • (Briefly outline your educational/work history.) How would one start out in this profession, and what other coursework or job experience would you recommend or would you consider indispensable?
And, in conclusion, Nichol offers two important tips:
The most important thing to say, of course, is “Thank you — I appreciate that you took the time and effort to help me in my research” — and to do so again in writing (in a mailed note or postcard, not an email message).

Also, honour your pledge not to exploit the person’s offer to meet with you as a pretence for hinting about employment. 

Again, very sound advice. If you are about to begin your job search for the first time, or even if you have a few years' experience and are looking for new options, you will want to read what Mark Nichol has to say about informational interviews: "What is an informational interview?"

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Yes, a novel set in Estonia can be riveting

I knew next to nothing about the Baltic states Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia when I began reading Purge on Saturday night.

By the time I finished the book this morning over breakfast I had developed, through the eyes of Aliide Truu, the protagonist, a sound understanding of the sufferings of Estonia and Estonians before World War II, during World War II, and after World War II, until the country became free again during the post-Gorbachev era.

Of course, that's as far as history goes. Purge, though, offers much more than a history lesson it gives readers a unique insight into human behaviour with a cast of characters ranging from an apparently sweet old "grandmother" to a young woman on the run from men who have forced her into sexual slavery.

Sofi Oksanen, the Finnish-Estonian author, won the European Book Prize for Purge, which she wrote in Finnish, in 2010. I am not surprised. It's time now for the English-speaking world to discover her.
  • Read Sofi Oksanen's prize acceptance speech here.
  • Read Maya Jaggi's review of Purge in the Guardian here.

Monday, September 10, 2012

181 stories of how books got their titles

Ten minutes ago I received an e-mail from Commitscion Natasha Rego (Class of 2014), a co-editor of the college newspaper. She wrote that she happened to read my post on Ray Bradbury today, and after clicking on the links I had provided she realised that Bradbury is the author of Fahrenheit 451, the novel set in a dark future in which reading is illegal and firemen burn any house that contains books.

"I watched this movie a week ago," Natasha added, "and I was going to tell you about it sometime this week. I thought you would find it interesting to know that Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper burns (I think)."

A quick Google search led to a serendipitous discovery: There's an entire blog, published by journalist and writer Gary Dexter, that is devoted to the origins of book titles. How cool is that!

Looking up the appropriate post on "How Books Got Their Titles" led to another discovery: Bradbury might have got Celsius and Fahrenheit mixed up. I didn't know that. Check it out here: "Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury". (By the way, Slate magazine has also taken a stab at answering the question: "Does Paper Really Burn at 451 Degrees Fahrenheit?")

True, the post may not be conclusive as far as the temperature at which paper burns is concerned. But it's such fun for book-lovers to learn how some of the best-known books got their titles. Here's Dexter on the origins of Winnie-the-Pooh, for example. Want to know who Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse's immortal creation, was named after? Take a peek here.

In all, there are 181 stories of how books got their titles. The full list can be accessed here.

Here's how to make time to read

I have lost count of the number of times I have urged my students to develop a reading habit only to be told, "We don't have time to read."

I have written earlier about the importance of reading for young people, especially if they aspire to be media professionals: "A love of books is fundamental. Reading should be like breathing. Then the writing will follow. And it will flow. Unhesitatingly. Copiously. Gracefully. ("If you don't read, you can't write.")

But I am stumped, I have to confess, when I am confronted by a "no time for reading" retort. So I was deliriously happy when I came across an article titled "5 Ways to Make More Time to Read" (posted on November 11 last year). Robert Bruce, a full-time web writer who also happens to be on a quest to read all of Time magazine's 100 Greatest Novels, first explains how, in the last few years...

...I’ve dramatically changed my lifestyle. I’ve trained for five half marathons and two full marathons while working a full-time job. I’ve read 30 novels since last September. And, on top of all that, my wife and I had our first child last June. Kids have a slight effect on your schedule. Maybe you’ve heard?

And then he outlines the tips that helped him make more time to read:

1. Sacrifice something.
2. Make a routine.
3. Set a goal.
4. Have fun.
5. Mix it up.

Each of the points listed by Robert Bruce comes with its own sensible explanation and workable plan. Read the post in its entirety here. And browse through the more than 300 comments, too.

Now do you think you will have time to read?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

How to avoid being a grammar goof

Of the many grammar books I have had the pleasure of reading (yes, pleasure; and no, Wren & Martin is not on the list), Woe Is I is right at the top.

This elegant, friendly, and witty bestseller, subtitled The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, has taught me that learning never ends. More important, after reading up on author Patricia T. O'Conner's easy-to-understand explanations with easy-to-grasp examples, I now know...

1. None is not always singular.
None of Tyson's teeth were chipped is correct.

2. Both cactuses and cacti are correct.
O'Conner has this to say about other nouns of foreign origin:

How do you know whether to choose an Anglicised plural (like memorandums) or a foreign one (memoranda)? There's no single answer, unfortunately. A century ago, the foreign ending would have been preferred, but over the years we've given English plural endings to more and more foreign-derived words. And in common (rather than technical) usage, that trend is continuing. So don't assume that an exotic plural is more educated. Only ignorami would say they live in condominia.

What about the plural of octopus?

O'Conner writes:

Plurals can be singularly interesting. Take the octopus a remarkable creature, grammatically as well as biologically. Octopus is from the Greek and means "eight-footed". The original plural was octopodes, Anglicised over the years to octopuses. Along the way, someone substituted the Latin ending pi for the Greek podes and came up with the polyglot octopi. Though it's etymologically illegitimate, octopi is now so common that dictionaries list it as a second choice after octopuses. I'll stick to octopuses, thank you very much. Octopi is for suckers.

Look at the punchline in each of O'Conner's paragraphs above. Aren't they knockouts?

3. One way to make a noun possessive is to add 's; another way is to put of in front of it. You can also use both.

O'Conner tells us both a friend of Jake's and a friend of Jake are correct. She says there's nothing wrong with using the 's in addition to of: Brett is an old girlfriend of Jake's [or of Jake]. The choice is ours.

4. How to use the possessive with -ing words that act as nouns.

He resents me going is wrong. It should be He resents my going. But if you thought the former is correct, O'Conner has a few words of consolation for you. Don't beat up on yourself, she says. You're a member of a large and distinguished club. She then gives us a helpful tip:

To see why so many of us slip up, let's look at two similar examples:

1. He resents my departure.
2. He resents me departure.

I'll bet you didn't have any trouble with that one. Obviously, number 1 is correct. Departure is a noun (a thing), and when it is modified by pronoun (a word that stands in for a noun), the pronoun has to be a possessive: my, his, her, your, and so on.

Now look again at the first set of examples:

1. He resents my going.
2. He resents me going.

If you still feel like picking number 2, it's because -ing words are chameleons. They come from verbs — go, in the case of going — and usually act like verbs. But every once in a while they step out of character and take on the role of nouns. For all intents and purposes they may as well be nouns; in this case, going may as well be the noun departure.

I absolutely love this no-fuss, no-nonsense approach to teaching grammar.

O'Conner gives us more on the subject of -ing words because how do we figure out whether an -ing word is acting like a verb or like a noun?

Here's a hint: If you can substitute a noun for the -ing word departure in place of going, for example, or habit for smoking then treat it like a noun. That means making the word in front a possessive (my, not me): He can't stand my smoking. 

5. How to decide whether a verb that goes with a phrase like one of the, one of those should be singular or plural. 

The answer in a nutshell.

If a that or a who comes before the verb, it's plural: He's one of the authors who say it best.

If not, it's singular: One of the authors says it best. 

And, again, an explanation that helps us to understand these rules:

In the first example, one is not the subject of the verb say. The actual subject is who, which is plural because it refers to authors. In the second example, the subject really is one. If you don't trust me, just turn the sentences around in your mind and you'll end up with the correct verbs: Of the authors who say it best, he is one. Of the authors, one says it best.

I have only provided five examples of what I've learnt from reading Woe Is I (read the author's preface to know the origin of the title). There is more, much more to digest and to appreciate and to feel good about. Get your own copy now and never again be a grammar goof.

How PSY and "Gangnam Style" conquered the world

If the Economist, that most cerebral of magazines, sees fit to devote space to Korean pop music and the antics of superstar PSY, that surely means K-pop has arrived.

PSY (also known as Park Jae-sang), the Economist writes, is having the time of his life:

On August 12th at a stadium in Seoul, the rap star’s concert felt like the only party in town. He entertained 30,000 fans for almost four hours. And this veteran of the South Korean charts has suddenly become popular in the West, since the video for his song “Gangnam Style”, in which he rides an imaginary horse around a posh part of Seoul, went viral on YouTube. The track even hit number one on the iTunes dance chart in Finland.

"Gangnam Style" is getting a lot of play on Facebook these days. Want to know why? Check out the YouTube video:

And read up on why K-pop is turning into an export success: "South Korea’s music industry: Top of the K-pops"

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

One of my all-time favourite books...

...reviewed by my all-time favourite blogger (who is a self-described interestingness hunter-gatherer and curious mind at large): "How to Read Like a Writer".

  • A copy of Reading Like a Writer has been placed in the Commits library. As youngsters like to say, Enjoy.

Is there no difference between "who's" and "whose"?


"Who's" and "whose" may sound alike (they are homophones), but surely literate people can tell the difference?

Here's the intro of an ANI story (pictured above) about Maria Sharapova:

Wellington, September 1 (ANI): Maria Sharapova, who's tennis has been going quite well at the moment, dropped a bit of off-court news at the US Open on Friday by announcing that she is no longer engaged to professional basketball player Sasha Vujacic.

Who's tennis?

This intro was used as is in DNA on Monday. Where are the subs when you need them?

Brain fog. Continuous partial attention. Who doesn't suffer from these two maladies nowadays?

In The Fall of the House of Forbes, author Stewart Pinkerton, while discussing Forbes's ambitious plans to go digital, refers to the work of an expert on the subject of what and how people read online, and we also get to understand what Web addiction can do to our brains.

We first learn that a Columbia University new media teacher, Anne Nelson, is not optimistic about the contributions of users to Websites or blogs by way of comments or editing assistance. It is foolish to expect engaging conversations, she implies, and backs up her assertions with statistics:

“Only about 0.02-0.03 per cent of English-language Wikipedia users, for instance, actually wind up actively contributing to the Website,” she says. For viewers of YouTube, she adds, “Only about 1 per cent comment.”

Then, we get an insight into what and how people read online...

...Nelson cites the work of Danish Web consultant Jakob Nielsen, who has done studies of eye tracking of Web pages. Unlike print readers, whose eyes tend to zigzag across the page and scan most of the word, the eyes of people reading on backlit screens move in an F pattern: They first look at the top of the content, reading horizontally, usually not all the way across, then scan again lower down the page, but this time not reading as far, followed by a vertical scan to the bottom of the page. The result is that what’s on the middle and/or the right side of the page typically isn’t read at all.

Nelson also shares with Pinkerton the results of a unique experiment she conducts with her students:

Each year in class, Nelson gives her students two long articles to read, often from The New Yorker one online and one in print. Few students can really sum up what they’ve read online, if they can finish the piece at all. Those who read the print story did so to the end and had far higher retention and appreciation for what they’d experienced. “It’s the difference,” Nelson says, “between surfing fifty Websites and retaining very little the next day, and reading War and Peace and remembering characters and scenes ten years later.”

Pinkerton follows up with a brief digression into the nature of Web addiction, what’s productive and what isn’t:

Increasingly, studies at Columbia and elsewhere show that what UCLA psychiatrist Gary Small calls “brain fog”, a condition stemming from so much continuous partial attention that nothing is really ever absorbed it never moves from the in-box to the file cabinet is becoming more prevalent.
Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, writes that constant Web usage seemed to be changing “the very way my brain worked”. How? He was having trouble paying attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. My brain, he realised, “wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it
and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became.” The Internet, he sensed, “was turning me into something like a high-speed data-processing machine, a human HAL. I missed my old brain.”

Brain fog. Continuous partial attention (or CPA, which I have talked about often in my class). Who doesn't suffer from these two maladies nowadays?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Apologies, Economist-style

Only in the Economist, which was first published in 1843 to take part in "a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress", will you find even the apologies to be brilliantly written.

Here's one from the August 18th-24th, 2012, issue:

CORRECTION: An article on drinking at work ("The boredom of boozeless business", August 11th) claimed that journalists at Bloomberg Businessweek could be disciplined for sipping a spritzer at work. This is not true. Sorry. We must have been drunk on the job.

And here's another from the April 7th-13th, 2012, issue:

CORRECTION: In our piece on California water last week, we claimed that a softball is four times the diameter of a tennis ball. In fact, it is only 50% bigger. Time we got out of our armchairs.

Why amateur bloggers will never replace journalists

Stewart Pinkerton, a former editor of Forbes magazine, in The Fall of the House of Forbes:

What's missing from raw footage streamed to the Web is an authoritative voice, the result of years of source cultivation, the building up of levels of trust that allow a reporter to put something in context. It's something that only established news outlets ... can do: flood the zone with reporters on a major story and report not just that there was a massacre of Congolese Tutsi in Burundi or a student riot in Paris, but also knowledgeably examine the economic and political reasons behind it. Most people need an expert to filter, prioritise, and context information. A fire hose of information without that is useless.

Yet now anyone can call himself a journalist.

"Hey, I can do that."

No, you can't.

My thoughts exactly.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

A venerated editor, a rookie reporter, and the sparks that flew between them, leading to a brilliant expose of Avon

I am about to finish reading a most interesting book, The Fall of the House of Forbes. I have already come across some passages, though, that will fascinate journalists and media students in India.

In Chapter 17, the author, Stewart Pinkerton, a former managing editor of Forbes, introduces us to Jim Michaels, "the most important editorial architect" of the magazine. Michaels, who graduated from Harvard in 1942, tried to enlist in the army during the Second World War, Pinkerton writes, but his eyesight wasn't good enough so he became an ambulance driver for the American Field Service in Burma.

After the war, and this is where it begins to become engrossing for us, Michaels signed up with a news agency, UPI, to report from India, "a place the founder of Forbes once characterised as a 'filthy country' ".

Working out of the New Delhi bureau, Michaels was the first newsman to write about the war in Kashmir, travelling on horseback to get behind Pakistani lines. In his dispatches, he described Pakistani military units marching up to the border in regimental regalia and changing into civilian clothes before crossing the border.

When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, Michaels's news report was, apparently, the first to reach the outside world. From The Fall of the House of Forbes:

Here in his own words, as described in a private e-mail decades later, is the scoop behind his scoop: 

It's hard to visualise, but in those long-ago days there was little automotive traffic. It took me ten minutes to get to Birla House. I got there before the police had cordoned off the property. There was immense confusion, of course, but I scribbled notes and rushed to file what, I believe, was the first detailed report to reach the outside world.

In those days, pre-Internet, pre-mobile satellite phones, one had to file overseas from Delhi by cable from the CTO (Central Telegraph Office) at Eastern Court near Connaught Place. By the time I got there to file my first dispatch and returned to the scene, Birla House was cordoned off: No entry to anyone. I knew the place fairly well so I climbed a low stone wall in the back only to confront an astonished constable, who let me pass after I flashed a credential he could not read because he was illiterate. My agile trespass gave me a leg up on most other foreign journalists because they couldn't get inside for some time.

Michaels's reporting, Pinkerton writes, showed up the next day on the front pages of newspapers all over the world. The following day, Michaels also reported "for all the world to read the details of Gandhi's funeral on the banks of the Yamuna".

Later, in Chapter 20, titled "Let's Really Stir Up the Animals", Pinkerton serves up a juicy appetiser in the intro:

Cutting stories by at least 15 per cent without shedding any facts was a Michaels trademark — the key to making Forbes readable for busy executives overloaded with information. Said one of his former proteges: "Jim could edit the Lord's Prayer down to six words, and nobody would miss anything."

Nor would Michaels tolerate a story that read like a press release. "THIS ISN'T REPORTING, IT'S STENOGRAPHY! WHY IS THIS PERSON STILL ON STAFF????" he wrote on top of one particularly credulous piece. "WHY DON'T YOU JUST SEND THEM A VALENTINE!!!" was another favourite skewer.

An editor after my own heart!

Pinkerton tells us in the same chapter that Michaels, who was editor of Forbes for an unbelievable 37 years, loved to take down big companies riding high on Wall Street and being gushed over by the competition. We then learn about a young reporter, Subrata Chakravarty, a Harvard grad, who wrote a highly critical report on Avon...

...a company with a spectacular growth rate and a high-flying stock. Chakravarty said the growth rate was a sham and that the company had been built by exploiting women. It was counter to what everyone else thought. Passing the draft to other editors, Michaels got nothing but sneers back, and toned the story down, much to Chakravarty's dismay.

Not realising that rewriting Jim Michaels was the equivalent of a death sentence, Chakravarty went back to his typewriter and reedited Michaels's edit. Not a good idea. Less than an hour after resubmitting the draft, Chakravarty's phone rang. A gravelly voice barked, "Subrata, who is the editor of this magazine?"

"You are, sir."

"That's right, and I'll thank you to remember that when I edit a story, it stays edited." Michaels slammed down the phone.

There's more to this story because Chakravarty refuses to roll over and play dead: 

Hurrying to Michaels's office, Chakravarty found him slumped in his chair, glowering darkly. "Don't come in here, I'm too mad to talk to you."

"But Mr. Michaels, I did exactly what you told me."

Michaels shot up in his chair, glaring. "I NEVER told you to rewrite me."

"Yes, you did," Chakravarty insisted, recounting an earlier lunch conversation when Michaels said that if a writer disagreed with something he had done, it could be fixed and then discussed. Michaels relaxed and even managed a tiny smile. "Well, I misspoke. I meant we would talk about what you could change. Now you've added 150 lines to a cover story, and it's already laid out. So get out of here so I can fix it again."

Convinced by Chakravarty's arguments and facts, Michaels cut the story by knifing out many of the caveats he had earlier included. After the story ran, on July 1, 1973, Avon's stock fell to $17 from $130 as its results bore out Chakravarty's analysis. It was an amazing support of a young reporter, in the face of opposition from others. But rewriting Jim Michaels was a mistake, Chakravarty recalls, "a rookie can make only once".

Later, Michaels would cite the Avon piece as a classic Forbesian tale.

Is it any wonder that Subrata Chakravarty, the rookie reporter, later went on to become the managing editor of Forbes under Michaels?

  • Also read: "Notes on Business Journalism", by Subrata Chakravarty, posted on Outlook editor Krishna Prasad's blog. An excerpt: "Business journalism should entertain as well as offer insight. We should write as the 'drama critics of business'. What that means is that we should make it clear who the star is and who the dope. That may not make you popular with management but it’s a lot of fun to read — and it offers your insight to the reader."
  • And visit the Forbes India website here. (Commitscion Nilofer D'Souza, Class of 2009, is a features writer for the magazine.)