How I write

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Writing is an enjoyable endeavour for me. It allows me to express my thoughts, perspectives and opinions on matters. In this essay, I discuss the frameworks that I adopt behind my writing process.

Why do I like to write? The first reason is that it enables me to review a subject which I might have read for a while and at the same time, express my thoughts to help me understand better what I have learned in the process. Second, it is one of my aspirations to write a book someday and the book will not be about my life. The only book I have ever written is my doctoral thesis now hidden in the Cambridge library with probably very few people reading it,. The entire process took me eight weeks of solid kitchen sink writing approach i.e. just throw in everything and rectify later, checking of citations and sources and followed by three months of intense editing and reviewing by my thesis supervisors and fellow colleagues in the space. Third, it assists me to encapsulate my thinking process and tells me in brutal honesty, “Do I really understand this?”. Writing often helps me to visualize the concepts and principles and applies them in the form of supporting evidence to the real world. 

The irony for me is that before 15, I enjoyed writing in Chinese, mainly spurred by my love of Chinese calligraphy where I recited old poetry from the Tang and Song dynasties and read Chinese classics and novels. After 15, I was forced to do a reverse course. Within a year, I made a conscious effort to work on writing in English. I was lucky to have an English literature teacher by the name of Mrs Alexander in my high school, St. Joseph’s Institution to guide me. She taught me how to write and that in turn, built up my confidence in English writing. The challenge I had at that point in time is that my grammar is extremely weak. Yet, she often encouraged me to focus on my strengths and not my weaknesses in writing. Her view is that persistence and grit matters more than talent in writing. Her advice is that I should write what I think, structure it logically similar to how I enjoyed my science subjects. She made a remark that has deeply etched onto how I write for the years to come. To her, the style of writing is something that one gains in the process with his or her experience in writing.

In addition, I add a caution for those who are writing in different languages. It happened to me as I become more and more fluent in English, the instinct I have observed is to translate everything into Chinese or vice versa. In retrospect, languages are forms of expressions and have their own systems in communication that a one to one translation or mapping does not work. I shared an anecdote that happened to me when I was teaching a technology business class on social networks to a group of Chinese students a decade back. The first thing I did was to work with my Chinese friends in doing a direct translation of an English deck (about 30 slides) I have prepared previously for another class. As I gradually build the presentation by speaking in Chinese, I discovered the flow was very disjointed and the muscle memory of how I wrote in Chinese came back to me. In the end, I decided to build the presentation from scratch and wrote out how I would presented this in Chinese, and reduced the presentation from thirty to six slides, because it conveyed the thinking better and it made the flow clearer to someone who is proficient in the Chinese language. That ended up being well received by the students who I have taught in the process, because I was engaging them on how they would think of the same subject. 

As years go by, with the invention of blogging, writing becomes easier for me. Blogging is a form of writing where you express your ideas quickly on a digital canvas or paper. You can first omit the grammatical errors or the structure by building a quick first draft to see if your readers resonate with your thinking process. When you write, you are trying to build a rapport with the people who are reading your body of work.  Hence blogging remains a great experimental engine for me to write even till today. I often write in rapid fire on a subject and then go back to make corrections to the article.

As I am trained as an academic, I have instinctively cited works which I have read and made mentions (which I know many writers or bloggers out there even will not do). Citations are often deployed to acknowledge the past body of work before you, because they can help the reader to trace the evolutionary path of the ideas that has transpired before. I still believe that proper citations are part of the process in earning social credibility. 

Here’s how I advise people who enjoys writing as part of their learning activity and it does not translates to how a professional writer should write:

  • Have a central thesis in your writing: I often start with a central thesis on the idea that I want to write about and determine what makes the subject worth writing. The central thesis sets the narratives which you want to push in your article. I am perfectly aligned with what Marshall McLuhan’s view in his book, “Understanding Media” that the medium is the message. Story telling is an important part of writing as anecdotes, examples and stories build up the narratives that facilitates the engagement between your audience and you.
  • Sketch out your thoughts on paper or on the digital canvas quickly: I will write a quick draft on paper, sketching out many ideas on the same subject and drawing the different ideas that have preceded before me. In that process, I determine whether I am contributing to the conversation. That helps me to build up the reference links and citations later.  If the situation is to employ a concept to argue why a phenomenon exists, it is important to explain the concept that implies its existence and how real world observations may or may not support the thesis.
  • Style is more important than grammar: The grammar is not important until when you revised the article later. My instinct is publish first and then correct. We lived in a world that people react to speed rather than the form of the writing. I am sure that I have annoyed people who are stepped in traditional forms of English grammar and writing. It’s nothing personal but I don’t let them affect how I write. Let me be clear on this. I respect the grammatical rules of any language, be it English, Chinese or German, but I believe that when I write, what my readers want are the insights or ideas that I deliver to them. My readers are not interested in how I position words or sentences in the form which grammarians might want to see. Anecdotally, the most popular articles on my portfolio are often the ones with the most grammatical errors (and I will go back often and fix them when either my friends pointed them out to me or I find the error myself). I have come to understand the style of writing is more important than the rules of writing. It’s the style that I engage with the audience who enjoy reading my articles and it’s not the rules of writing that attracts them to me in the first place. If I give you the access to my articles on my personal website, you will discover that each article has at least thirty to fifty revisions over a long period of time. I often correct my own writing style because my thinking on the subject evolves. Of course, if I have more resources, I will hire a professional or an editor to help me with the editing and copy writing. 

My final word to those aspires to write and build their audience, is to write with a simple voice and develop your style as time goes along. To me, writing is just a simple activity that helps me to express my ideas and engage my audience or critics in the process.

References (which I recommend for reading to those who aspire to write):

[1] William Strunk and E. B. White “The Elements of Style”

[2] Steven Pinker, “The Sense of Style: the thinking person’s guide to writing in 21st century”. 

[3] Jerry Jenkins, “The 12 best books on Writing that I’ve ever read“ 

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist

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One thought on “How I write”

  1. Hi Bernard,

    Very insightful. I have always struggled with writing. The grammar and structures were always criticized and after some time, i just resorted to short sentences and point forms to get my message across. It does the basic tricks but many times this handicap prevents me from searching a greener pastures.

    Will read the books you recommended and hopefully, i will be able to write a proper paper or press release soon.

    Thanks, Chris

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