The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The difference is in the foundation
Back to basics

Teaching communication skills is a mammoth industry now. It extends all the way from schools and postgraduate diplomas in mass communication to correspondence courses of dubious provenance pitched at wannabe writers and editors. In between are crash courses, usually in hill resorts and during summer vacations, run by ex-publishing professions. Add to that the proliferation of writers’ circles and you have plenty of people eager to improve on their literary skills.

Why this sudden rush to mass com. courses that are now as popular as economics, history and political science' Developments in print and communication technologies in the last decade have been so staggering that it has led to a vast expansion and diversification of media outlets — newspapers, magazines, supplements, television channels and radio stations. These have an inexhaustible appetite for raw material: discussion and gossip or just about anything required to fill the pages. It is also less costly to outsource materials to be published or edited. In this profession, it makes sense to pick up the basics of writing and editing .

Writing classes give students exactly the kick-start they require: the discipline of deadline, the focus of a standard: be simple, be sincere, check out the facts. The basic philosophy is that if imagination cannot be taught, the craft of writing can be.

But do the courses help one to become a writer or editor' Yes and no. Despite the widespread belief that the essential qualities needed by a writer are independent of anything that can be taught, there are certain rules that can be learned. George Orwell in his seminal essay, Politics and the English Language put these down as six practicalities:

Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print; never use a long word when a short one will do; if it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out; never use the passive where you can use the active; never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon if you can think of everyday English equivalents; break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. Orwell’s last rule seems to endorse the view of those who hold that there are no rules. Perhaps, but learners need to be taught some basics before they get down to the nuts and bolts of writing and editing.

But having said this, good editing will only be possible if the student has a language instinct or a penchant for reading for pleasure that goes beyond the narrow confines of a particular subject. And here comes the downside. Most students who go for mass com. straight out of school, skirting any of the social sciences, have just one objective in view: to land a job, somewhere, somehow. In other words, they do not read — and without reading for pleasure, it is impossible to become any kind of writer or editor.

And this has fatal consequences for the serious writer whose work is palmed off to outsourced editors. They think, after the successful completion of a writing course, that they have the qualifications and experience to handle any kind of copy, to reshape, revise and/or re-write it. Good writing or editing works out better if the student has the potential and humility to learn all the time.

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