I had the honor, these past two days, to sit as juror in the Luzon-wide competition for campus publications. Several observations came immediately to mind:
(1) I was happy to note that many of the editors and writers of these publications did not shirk telling it like it is. The courage and intelligence they showed in tackling national issues gave me hope for the future of campus journalism in the country, and the profession in general. Their analyses of the current political and social conditions were spot on, not too “safe” as to suggest neutrality (which is different from objectivity), yet not too bombastic as to risk a libel charge or myocardial infarction.
I particularly enjoyed reading the sections where student columnists dealt with everything from adolescent crushes and campus problems to more difficult subjects involving teenage sex, inflation and press freedom. I congratulate the campus editors and columnists for a job well done.
(2) A number of publications showed promise in their designs. Their covers were well thought of; the page layouts crisp and clean, bereft now of the overly dramatic and eccentric designs of the past. One particular campus paper (which I will not here mention by name) displayed such flair for newspaper design that it could, in fact, compete with the designs employed by some of the country’s national publications. Kudos to these young artists.
Many students who wrote in Filipino also gave these publications a boost. Leaping from the formalist style to more conversational and experimental styles offered the readers a level of diversity unlike any other I have seen. Suffice it that I felt really proud—and largely envious—that the children of this day and age gave time and effort to learn the Filipino language.
Several problems still persisted, however. Their command of language, particularly English, leaves much to be desired. The other jurors and I agreed that the reason for this stems from a general lack of reading among the youth.
Errors in the use of idiomatic expressions in both Filipino and English, subject-verb agreement, choice of the appropriate word, and proper sentence construction still litter the pages. The use of purple prose, particularly in the literary sections, abounds. For some reason, the students’ idea of poetry seems rather odd: more of the melding of hard-to-understand words than a clear and consistent metaphor.
Be that as they may, I am joyous to note that these writers now have a fondness for writing creative nonfiction and the narrative essay as part of their literary sections. In the past, this genre enjoyed very little attention, if at all. Some even ventured to write what, in part read, like memoirs. It’s a step toward giving the genre its place in campus papers.
No clear road map, no pamphlet will ever tell a campus journalist how it ought to be done. There are, however, clear principles to live by, best practices and time-tested ways to improve. I will here list down three best practices on which a campus editor or writer can build, based on what I have just observed:
READ. Novelist Stephen King said in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft—“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” Why? Because it is something you can carry around with so much ease, but something whose content can help you through many things, like learn language, how to construct a sentence, choose a word or experiment in the writing of a phrase. It’s cache of information is boundless and allows you to venture into worlds very few would dare venture into.
Anyone who’d want to be a storyteller must be a reader of stories. Poets, of poetry; and essays, well. Reading should come as naturally as breathing air to any who wishes to be a writer or editor. Award-winning journalist Ed Lingao once told me that journalists should go back to reading books. I agree with him.
Essayist William Styron said, “A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” No day should pass you by without flipping the pages and diving into the world of the logos—the word.
WRITE EACH DAY. Cliché , yes, but it’s nevertheless a wise decision to write each and every day. If athletes practice with much vigor before a competition, why not writers and journalists? Writers are in competition with themselves and society, with their thoughts and the lies that often overshadow the truth.
Reading and writing each day help improve not only one’s knowledge of grammar and syntax, but also clears the air of misconceptions as one continues to learn about what’s going on around him. Learning comes by force of habit, by methodical excursions into the unknown. We must grow accustomed to expressing ourselves in the language of our choice as we observe what’s in front of us from various vantage points.
Here’s a good tip: Keep a journal, or what is often referred to as a diary. Write everyday experiences. Feel free to choose the topic for the day. First, write short entries, about 100 to 300 words. Choose to expand and lengthen these entries when the occasion calls for it. Then leave the piece for a day or two. Do something else entirely. Return to what you’ve written later on and see how you can improve it. Learn the art of rewriting the piece.
Younger, I used to do “still-life” writing, as I called it. I would pick an image—a vase full of flowers, a fruit lying on the dinner table, a toy soldier, our garage—and describe these in words. The colors, smells, textures—these form part of the writing. I research on the different words used, say, for red or blue if only to capture the exact thing I saw. I love describing the scent of things, the varying hints and odors, almost always faint, that reveal themselves when you take a whiff of an object. I read up on different architectural designs so as to describe our garage or a nearby building.
BE OBSERVANT. Any person who wishes to improve his or her writing skills should hone his skills of observation. No two ways about it: a writer must be a stickler for details. He or she must have an eye for detail in the way scientists observe a specimen under a microscope. In this regard, there should be no gap in practice between the poet and the journalist: both must deal with accurate descriptions and both must be able to express what they’ve seen with stunning clarity.
The great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote in his monument of a book, Letters to a Young Poet, “Describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty—describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place.”
Writing lives and breathes memory. Use it wisely.
A brief note on being “hard-hitting”: Journalism is neither about courage nor heroism; it has everything to do with intelligence. Learn the issue. You don’t have to be hostile when dealing with controversial topics, especially of national importance. People need to understand, and intelligence plays a crucial role when writers write about these topics. In short, it is not about the journalist asking the brave questions. It is about asking the right ones.
Let’s summarize this little lesson:
READ, WRITE, REMEMBER: Reading is the act of breathing in; writing, of breathing out. Remembering what you’ve keenly observed is the process of breaking down the air you breathe into powerful oxygen. Question everything. Wrestle with yourselves before setting on paper a single thought. Argue with your own mind, resist the temptation to take things at face value. Never fear isolation. It is the Garden wherein creation is highly likely to be born.
Lastly, make no excuses for not reading and writing. Give no space for tardiness to creep in. Read and write whether you feel like it or not. Don’t wait for inspiration, a spiritual epiphany, or for the planets to align. Get that brain to work whether in the quiet of your room or the middle of a Category 5 storm. There ought to be a level of seriousness of purpose if you really wish to be a writer or a professional journalist in the future.
Have a “cheat” day every few weeks, why not, but return to reading and writing as soon as possible. If you plan on cheating yourselves of the experience of not breaking the daily pace, just make sure it is worth it.
However, you don’t have to be a writer of great novels or a war correspondent to know the benefit of good command of language. From short diary pieces to love letters or simply writing a brief, funny movie review on Facebook, nothing beats a person who can express himself or herself accurately and with clarity, and best of all, with a bit of humor.
Expand your vocabulary. Don’t fear the dictionary, but retain the skill to write where you can be understood. Knowing how to express yourselves is half the battle won, no matter your choice for a profession. G *Photos by Foco Villalon