by Kwan Jin Yao
A WRITER writes to be read, and after four years of blogging on my own and writing to forum pages I joined the “Breakfast Network” (BN) in 2013 (and later “The Middle Ground” (TMG) in 2015), to be a better writer, so as to reach even more readers.
And to be a better writer, two things must fall into place: First, to draft and to write; and second, to be ruthlessly edited. From the start of 2013, Madam (that’s Ms Bertha Henson) conducted weekly tutorials with us, the “undies” (a group of NUS undergraduates), to dissect articles in the MSM, while brainstorming for ways to better these articles. In thinking about the news and then publishing responses in BN, we were learning to get accustomed to a writing routine. As we gained her trust, the training which followed was baptism by fire, as we were sent out on reporting assignments, and as we were expected to draft our articles more efficiently.
Hong Lim Park in 2013 was a hubbub of activity, and I spent many weekends on assignment, covering events such as the Population White Paper protests, the Free My Internet movement, and the Pink Dot celebrations. I was always comfortable with live-tweeting, but a thin-skinned me had trouble approaching strangers, and trouble getting quotes without fumbling around with my notebook and phone recorder. Paying attention to details – such as the demographics of the attendees, setups of the booths, and gestures of the guests – I had to pick up too. Initially, editors gave detailed briefs on how to cover the events. Over time, however, I was confident enough to prepare my own. Before a protest, for instance, I would also have at my fingertips: Profiles and recurring talking points of the speakers, questions for the speakers and attendees, and the context from similar events in the past.
To be over-prepared, in other words, is a virtue.
The complement to drafting and writing is ruthless, rigorous editing. In BN and in TMG, even after my combined three years with both publications, I still had drafts which were torn apart by the editors. I always had a predilection for long, unwieldy sentences crammed with too many points, and this became a trickier problem when I was trusted with longer, analytical pieces using data or research reports. For instance: How first-time MPs and nominated MPs performed in parliament (by counting their questions raised and speeches made), and the thematic trends of all 51 National Day Rally speeches delivered by the three PMs.
One thing that was always said: “You need to learn to kill your babies.” That is, you cannot stuff an article with every single point, interesting as they may seem to be. With the time and effort invested in each draft, it can feel frustrating to revisit a draft or to make extensive changes. Yet I was happy when drafts were returned with minimal edits, because that meant no extra work; even happier – at times – when they were returned with more extensive edits, because not only was it a sign that the BN or TMG team cared about the quality of the publication, but also that the editors cared about our growth as writers. Through the rigour, I was always learning how to prioritise content, how to structure arguments, and even how to edit my own pieces.
The extent to which I have been able to apply these editing skills to my present work in academia should not be surprising, because the basics still apply: Be thorough, be meticulous, and above all, be your own toughest critic.
Looking back across the past two years, GE2015 was probably one of the most memorable weeks we had in TMG. On Nomination Day some of us were cross-checking names and updating our social media accounts, while others were stationed at the different nomination centres. On the nights between the Nomination and Polling Days, we were either out in the field live-tweeting and reporting the party rallies, or plugged into our laptops at the office, preparing to churn out analysis or feature articles. On the eve of Cooling-Off Day, we published these articles minutes before the midnight cut-off. And on Polling Day, we reported from the polling centres, made sense of the sample counts and the results as their filtered in, and stayed up to 4 am in the office to finish the round-up articles.
For me, it was the perfect platform to showcase the professional skills and knowledge which I have gained. And I am proud of our work.
Am I a better writer now? I would like to think so, though an important lesson from BN and TMG is that one should never settle. The best of articles have their flaws, and both writing and editing are iterative processes through which quality and substance are goals.
Some have also asked, in a broader sense: Is it possible to balance quality, substantive news or socio-political content in Singapore with the need to maintain a financial bottom line? I do not know. But I know – with whatever skills and knowledge I have been given – I will continue to blog, and to write.
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