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To be a successful writer starts with change of attitude

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By HENRY GEKONDE
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Two events in the course of my work in the recent past have recalled an old, disconcerting philosophical question: Can creativity and imagination be taught or are they innate abilities?

Three of the writers I admire had unusual backgrounds. One was a long-distance truck driver. Reading him gives me the impression that he must have read a lot during his ‘idle’ truck stops. Another was a window salesman. He went from door to door trying to persuade suburban homeowners to replace their old windows.

The other had a brief stint in the military (World War II) after high school and refused to join a prestigious university, where his father had secured him a place through an ‘old boy network’ (as he says in his memoirs).

Then there are other writers who followed a path that degree-obsessed Kenyans would understand. The Trinidad-born Nobel laureate, for example, who studied English at Oxford and wrote more than 25 books. The Indian-born novelist who read history at Cambridge and became world-famous for stoking the ire of an ayatollah.

And the gay, atheist, contrarian feminist professor who has earned many admirers for taking a politically incorrect view of nearly everything (she thinks, for example, that prostitution empowers women, rejecting the feminist position that it represents an exploitative assertion of male power).

Of course when we say here at Nation Media Group that we care about good stories we are not exactly talking about Nobel-level writing.

Our expectations are more modest — simple effective sentences, with commas where one would expect them, words that don’t obscure meaning and the right words for the right context. Stories that recount facts and provoke while interpreting what the information means for audience.

We try. Some time ago, I edited an excellent profile of a retired professor in his seventies who still goes to work as a consulting surgeon and thrills in taking phone calls from his patients. The piece was as good as any I have read in some of the best newspapers.

It was written by someone who obviously grasps the power of words and their effect on people. Someone who knows something about style — style as an “orchestration of perceptions”.

In any given year, some of our journalists win scholarships or fellowships from independent organisations to pursue graduate studies at some of the best universities or work alongside seasoned professionals at respected news outlets around the world.

All of them usually return home brimming with ideas about how to make their stories better or run news operations more effectively. The work of these professionals speaks for itself. Creativity or imagination may not be taught but good writing can be — the rules of language, techniques, principles.

Maybe some people are born with the ability to write beautiful prose and the rest of us are doomed to being merely admirers of their work. That is okay. Still, we believe people can learn to write better sentences.

Employees who take advantage of these opportunities to improve their skills make our publications better. It starts with a change of attitude — that we can become better writers and that English is not some borrowed misunderstood, language but our language.

Mr Gekonde is a quality editor and training coordinator at Nation Media Group. [email protected]

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