Monday, November 08, 2010

Six Tips on How to Write Better for Indian Writers

For people whose native tongue is an Indian language, it is difficult to write error-free English. Even those who speak English all the time but live in India cannot avoid the Indian-ness that seeps into their language, both spoken and written.

Avoid literal translation
For new Indian writers, there is a strong tendency to literally translate from their mother tongue into English.

Each language has a specific structure, without which the language would collapse or turn into something ridiculous. For example, in French, most adjectives are placed after the noun, such as ‘une chaise bleue’. If translated word-for-word into English, this becomes ‘a chair blue’ instead of what it should be: a blue chair. Imagine reading a sentence like this:

“There were chairs blue, tables of wood, cushions red and music soft playing.”

This is how a reader feels while reading English that has been directly translated from an Indian language. The result is confused, sometimes hilarious, meaning.

You may have read these often:

“Don’t eat my head!”
(Kannada: Nanna thale thinnbeda)
Try: “Stop it. You’re getting on my nerves!”

“Don’t be angry on me.”
(Hindi: Mujhpe gussa mat karo)
Use: “Don’t be angry with me.”

“We all are going out.”
(Hindi: Hum sab bahar ja rahe hain)
Use: “We are all going out.”

Keep a watch on these literal translations.

Original idioms, please
English has its own set of idioms and sayings—use them and not the translation of Indian ones. Idioms have a strong cultural and historical root, so they are best used word for word and in the original language.

The Hindi ‘Daal mein kuchh kaala hai’ has the English idiom equivalent: ‘There’s something fishy going on’. Instead of the Tamil ‘Kazhudaikki theriyuma karpoora vaasanai’ use ‘To cast pearls before swine’. Not all sayings have equivalents, however. The best way to become familiar with what’s available is to read a lot. Looking up a book of English proverbs doesn’t always help unless there are a few examples for each included and the author is a reliable one. Online, have a look at Idiom Dictionary.

Keep track of time
Till a sentence back, you 'were' thinking. Suddenly you 'are' feeling. You may not realize it while writing and this switch may even sound natural because we often think haphazardly, but while writing, you need to maintain consistency in tense or you’ll distract or confuse the reader about whether something happened in the past or is happening in the present.

Take a look at this example:

Veena walked up the path to Mr Wood’s house. She is thinking she should knock but what if he is sleeping? She doesn’t want to disturb him and get him in a bad mood. That is why she could not make a sale. She had irritated him.

Is Veena walking to Mr Wood’s door as we read? Or has she already walked and come back after a failed attempt at making a sale?

Double check if you’re switching tenses in your writing without the story demanding it. Sometimes it is necessary to change tenses, say for a time when you’re narrating a scene in a flashback as if it’s happening right before the reader. But if you’re a new writer, stick to a single choice of tense throughout and you won’t go wrong. Once you become confident of using tenses properly, you can try using more than one.

Unclutter your punctuation
There is a tendency to use exclamations in proportion to the amount of surprise or shock.

  • A mountain gorilla was standing before him!!!!!!!!!
Another is to intersperse the exclamations with question marks.

  • Was the hunk eyeing her?!?!?!
Please. Stick to one punctuation mark. “A mountain gorilla was standing before him!” shows surprise enough. “Was the hunk eyeing her?” will do. Trust readers to get the quantity of shock or wonder you intend. And trust your writing skills to convey the situation so that they do.

English punctuation rules do not accept a combination of ? and ! or multiple exclamations. A few style books have begun to accept one pair of ?! but most do not.

Many new writers like to create an ‘effect’ by trailing dots after a sentence.

  • She stood before him……………in the black dress he had given her……
The punctuation that uses dots is called an ellipsis and consists of three dots (…). No more, no less. Sometimes, you want to trail off a sentence and end it that way. Then you follow the ellipsis with a full stop, which then totals four dots.

  • And there she waited for him every day….
Multiple exclamation marks and generous strings of dots reek of amateur writing. Knock them off. These are simple ways to make your writing look professional.

Articles gone AWOL
Can you eat a curry with no salt? Similarly, you cannot write without articles. If you’ve forgotten the basics of when to use ‘the’ or ‘a’ or ‘an,’ please pick up a simple grammar book and leaf through it (you can do it with a torch, hiding in a cupboard if you like—but do it). Simpler still, visit a grammar site online, bookmark it and refer to it when in doubt. You don’t visit Taj Mahal, you visit THE Taj Mahal.

It’s never too late to learn, and these are simple rules that, when followed, make your writing come alive. The rules exist to help you remember, not to make your life difficult.

Remove redundancy
Find the repetitious words in the following:

That store sells many delights such as cookies, cakes, toffees, chocolates, etc.

I have never heard of this before.

I will read this and return it back to you.

Keep this money, in case you may need it later.

I bought a red colour dress.

In the first example, when you say ‘such as,’ you don’t need the etcetera. ‘Such as’ means this is only an indicative list. In the next, ‘never’ and ‘before’ are saying the same thing. If you’ve never seen it, there’s no need to say ‘before’. In the third sentence, if you’re going to return something, you’re obviously giving it back, so ‘back’ is redundant. ‘In case’ indicates a possibility, so use ‘in case’ OR ‘may’ – in case you need it later – or Keep this money, you may need it later.

Red is a colour. Duh. But new writers love to inject their writing with crystal clarity by providing extra words to help their slow readers. These writers will make you enter into a room, not just enter it, just as they’ll help you exit from the story instead of quickly exiting it.

Here’s a secret: There is no shortcut to writing happiness.

Read that again.

You can’t press a key and make it happen. Anyone can write, but to write well and communicate effectively, you need to put in effort, just as you would for any other skill. Read a lot and read books of quality writing. Reading even prize-winning children’s books can help you build familiarity with the language. Newspapers are not literature, so use those to get the news, not to improve your reading habits.

Write a lot, and get feedback from someone whose English is good, or at least better than yours. Get your writing edited by a professional editor and learn from the feedback and comments.

However, there is one place for weak English, even Indian English, and that is in dialogue. If your character speaks that way, you can use ‘Don’t eat my head’ in his dialogue. As long as you don’t use it yourself in the narration!

- First written for Pothi.com

4 comments:

Samprita said...

Very useful article :) Thanks. Some of these were quite a revelation. The extra exclamations especially!

monideepa said...

practical, sensible and oh so essential advice which many Indian 'writers' sorely require.

Deepika said...

Direct translation still goes on? cant believe... and I did not know about the dots or exclamations :P thanks!

Arpita said...

This is a very nicely written article. Indeed whenever we write in English as a second language, a lot of clumsiness creeps into it. This is mainly because we think our sentences in our first languages and then try to convert it into English. I think a lot of these discrepancies may be wiped out if we started to think in English and as you point out correctly, try to find the structure of the language.

I am myself in an online creative writing site, and I learnt about ellipsis and the tense things there. The other points that you raise are very effective. Especially the redundancy part, it is like adverbs. We go on using them again and again, because somehow it makes us feel the more flamboyant the adverbs, the more clearly have we been able to express ourselves. We don’t trust our writing enough to give out these feelings, like you mention in the case of exclamation points.

I am slowly becoming serious about creative writing. And since I learnt English as a second language, sometime my English does tend to become clumsy. Hopefully, with time and enough practice, I will get over it.