Every now and then people ask me ‘where do you find the time to write?’ I have a standard reply, “I do not play golf.” Neither would you see me at a club, the usual party revelry or socializing to unwind. I do not play bridge. I do not have any other serious passion or distractions that could revive me after my daytime job. But over the years, I realized that I love to write; I cultivated that talent and gave it sustained time. I nurtured it like people tend to their swing or to their shrubs. As a result, all the weekends and the frequent long-haul flights give me all the time I need to be able to write.
That said, many people work below their potential. In addition, they argue that they do not have time for things they are interested in because their work itself is so demanding. In reality, every year of our lives has three hundred and sixty-five days. If you simply count the number of days we do not go to work, it adds up to a staggering one hundred and forty-four days. Add an average two weeks of vacation and all the statutory holidays and they add another thirty days. Thus, most of us “work” only two hundred days at best in an entire year. Now, if one really wanted to, that indeed is a lot of time left to pursue something seriously over a lifetime. If you have the commitment and the passion for it, I feel time finds you; you do not have to find the time.
And it is not just about writing. At MindTree, I have a colleague named Joe King. Joe lives in New Jersey. Joe drives an hour each day to work and usually is at his desk by seven thirty every morning. Joe likes to jog. Like, I like to write. So, I asked him one day, how he finds the time to jog? In New Jersey, between November and April, it is freezing cold. Sometimes, it snows. Joe gets up before five in the morning and even as it is dark and there is snow on the ground, he jogs for an hour. In spring, Joe runs the Boston Marathon and is always a finalist. So, Joe tends to his running the same way, I tend to my writing.
The beauty about writing is that unlike jogging that needs an open road or golf that needs a course or a game of bridge that requires a few friends, I can write in a closed room or a moving train; I can just open the computer and start writing whenever locked inside a long-haul airplane. So, you see – it is not as daunting as it seems. Now that we got ‘time’ out of the way, let us look at the ‘how’ part of writing. Before we get there, we must first appreciate the power of the written word.
The written word, from a book, a newspaper article, a blog or an internal memo is a powerful instrument in our hands that we seldom use effectively. We all know that written material like the Vedas, the Bible, the Koran, Das Kapital or War and Peace have impacted civilizations. ? These have been instruments of abiding change. They contain seeds of ideas that someone first wrote down and then the ideas propagated themselves; people who read these books were impacted in a fundamental way. Great ideas expressed in writing have the power of creating alignment and with that alignment comes energy, with collective energy, many things become possible. Sometimes the many things have included freedom from foreign rule and sometimes the turnaround of a business.
There is another powerful aspect about the written word: once written down, content transcends time. It outlives its creator. Content is a powerful legacy a thinker can leave behind. Imagine how many people have read Jack: Straight from the Gut by Jack Welch and Business @ the Speed of Light by Bill Gates. They are no longer CEO of their respective companies and even the business empires they have created have a finite life. But long after they are gone, their writing is around for people to read and be influenced by.
As we all take on positions of larger organizational leadership, increasingly, we need to work with diverse teams, sometimes the team members are distributed over the world. In addition, quite often, our work requires working with and influencing people who we do not own. In an increasingly flat world, the written word helps us to present in the virtual space, communicate with and align people on whom our success often depends.
Of course, amidst all this, many professionals wonder how to make a beginning?
“How do I know if I can write at all; that I have it in me?”
Most people can write. They do not write because they think writing requires inspiration and such inspiration must flow out of some unseen source. That may be true of writing fiction or poetry that needs a “creative” capability of a high order. I am not a creative writer myself in that sense but we all know that the world needs a lot of “functional writing” as well. Increasingly, the professional space is expanding, we all have to write a report, a competitive proposal, Point of View (POV) document for the web or communicate with our teams as part of our normal working. Given the need for such writing, is there a ten-step guide that one could think of? I have evolved mine and here it is for you to consider.
Rule number one. Write as if you are speaking. Come to think of it, you speak reasonably well; it does not seem to be such an ordeal requiring any special talent. That is because, most of the time you speak, you do so to inform, not to impress. Writing on the other hand becomes an ordeal because we all get overwhelmed with the idea of impressing ahead of informing. So, the next time, write in the simplest manner possible. When we are simple, everyone understands us. When we try cladding our words with sophistication, we soon run out of wardrobe. As you have seen, I write as if I am speaking with you. It is as if you and I are sitting next to each other and I am just talking to you and you are listening to me. See how easily we are connecting with each other this way.
Rule number two. Choose a theme to write on. We are invariably looking for an earth shaking, original idea and we return frustrated. Like simplicity in writing, look for simple, everyday things to write on. They are all around us. They show up, as if by some divine arrangement but we are so obsessed with other things that we just do not notice them. One of my most memorable pieces that first appeared in the Times of India was triggered by the sight of a fallen tomato cart at a busy traffic intersection in Bangalore. It touched countless people who keep forwarding it to their friends over the Internet. My writing is full of small, everyday incidents, interactions and normal people. Thus, I do not run out of ideas.
Rule number three. Structure your thoughts around an idea before you start writing. Think of an interesting way of introducing the subject, then dwell on the subject with some data, a few examples and anecdotes and finally, leave behind a point of view, a conclusion or an open question. The process is what your high school essay teacher told you: start with an opening, have a body in the middle and finally make a clear conclusion. Think of writing as a three-legged stool. The introduction, the elucidation and the conclusion are the three legs. If you balance them properly, the idea you are trying to convey is bound to come across clearly enough.
Rule number four. Write without worrying whether people would love to read the piece. We write with the hope that someone someday would read and without a reader, a writer is like a musician without an audience. That said, the music must be produced first and perfected and only then the listeners arrive. Someone learning music in the early stages does not give up her practice because there is no audience from the start.
Rule number five. Read what you have written and check for simple things like grammar and comprehension. These days, many of us use a computer to write our mails and other professional documents. Every computer has a dictionary. Yet, every day in my mailbox, hordes of communication arrive that are full of grammatical errors. With built-in spell check features in every possible software package, it takes no effort on the part of the writer to check spelling and grammar. The computer does it for you. If people have to deal with syntax errors and spelling mistakes, they would not read what you write.
Rule number six. Read what you have written for comprehension. Pretend that you are someone else. When you write, you must go with the flow. It does not help to keep checking comprehension and to chisel every sentence. As a result, we tend to write as we think. There is always the possibility of a gap between the thought as it originated in the mind and what really got conveyed because of a certain choice of words or the way sentences were constructed. After you have written an entire piece down, return to it after a day or two and read it as if you are someone else. The gaps will show up by themselves. Now rearrange the words and the sentences such that the new arrangement best conveys your thoughts. Again, remember rule number one: Be simple. If a very impressive word or sentence is becoming a hindrance towards comprehension, simply wipe it off.
Rule number seven. Get someone unconnected to read the piece. If it makes sense to that individual, you are on your way. Most of my writing was first read by my wife Susmita –she is unconnected to the corporate world. Sometimes, I ask my daughters to read my work. One is a school teacher and the other is a scholar – they are unconnected to my world. Sometimes I send my draft to young engineers in MindTree to read. It does not matter if the theme is very different from their world. In fact, greater the difference, better it is. Once these people send their feedback, I redo my pieces.
Rule number eight. Store your writing securely some place. Store them for the future, just the way a painter keeps all his work without discarding them. Writers are people who paint with words. So, treasure your work in a scrapbook, a hard disk or a blog. Someday, someone will come by and find them.
Rule number nine. Read what other people write. When you read different things, follow not just the narrative or the content, but look at the technique. Just the way you appreciate a painting, you notice the picture as much as you look at the brushstrokes. Do pause to consider how a writer presents issues; why a certain style or use of certain imagery? Why sometimes a particular piece becomes a compelling read?
Rule number ten. Publish. Everyone will not win a Nobel Prize for writing or become a well known columnist. I do not think my friend Joe King is looking at the Olympics in this life. But he has run many a Boston and New York Marathons. Similarly, I am not writing to get a Booker or the Pulitzer Prize but I am happy when I get published in a local newspaper. Even though, that may take me two, three or sometimes, five attempts. One of my seminal pieces was revised eleven times before the Harvard Business Review finally rejected it! As you begin, start with your college magazine, a trade journal or the company’s intranet portal. Over time, we all progress to bigger things. However, there is a huge benefit that comes along irrespective of external recognition – your professional writing ability begins to show; your colleagues and customers take notice and it leads to greater personal success. When a client calls in to say how well the proposal was written or peers compliment you on the way you express your ideas, it is a reward in itself.
So, write about your feelings, write about your experiences, and write about everyday things around you. Sometimes write about subjects that deeply concern you. Write about how you do what you do.
I want to thank Geetha Chandar who very kindly reviewed this piece for me a la rule #7.