One of the worst human natures is that we are always ready to compare ourselves with others, be critical on ourselves and feel insecure. I have always thought that my writings are not formal enough. Especially when I read reports for work, I always feel unconfident about stuffs I write.
So I decided to take an academic writing class at one of my favourite English teachers a few months ago. The class was designed for IELTS writing exams but I learned new academic usages, formal phrases, more complicated grammar structures and complex choice of words. The class taught to use more advanced, difficult and longer words to impress the examiners. It is reasonable because people who take this class have plans to study abroad and they definitely need to impress a bunch of people such as school admission teams and scholarship providers, not just these IELTS examiners.
Personally, it was always fun and challenging to learn new things, especially new vocabularies. However, this class made me realize that what I had learned in college completely contradicted this whole “academic writing” thing.
As a communications major student, I took news writing and journalism classes during my degree program. One of the most important lessons I learned in those classes was to always write in simplest style and words. Writing for the public aims to reach the broadest audience possible, that includes people with different range of literacy. When writing for the public, news writers should always avoid jargons and technical terms because people from different backgrounds depend on papers to research unfamiliar topics or subjects. That is why news stories are supposed to be short, descriptive, informative and easy to understand. (I am also not happy with some doctors using medical terms when talking to normal people like myself who know no such words.) Basically, academic writing and news writing go completely against each other and I was conflicted.
These days, I have been reading a collection of essays written by George Orwell. “Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays” is said to be the best literary work of Orwell despite his best-seller “1984” and satirical “Animal Farm”. In one of his essays named “Politics and the English Language” he complied five instructions for amateur writers whose motives are stronger in nonfiction. His instructions are as follow:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules soon than say anything outright barbarous.
For academic writing, reverse all these rules and you will get there.
Last week, I happened to discuss with some friends on Burmese literary idols and we talked about Min Thu Wun, a famous poet who was best known for several children’s poems that we grew up with. Despite the beautifully written children’s literature, he was one of the writers who launched a new age literary movement, together with Zawgyi, Theikpan Maung Wa and others. Little did we know, he was also a Burmese scholar at Oxford University where he focused on Burmese Literature. From children’s poems to scholarly studies, his writings had an extensive scope. As a matter of fact, writers back in those days excelled at writings in diverse styles; I would call them “literary heroes.”
After nagging about how academic and news writing confused me for awhile, this conversation I had with friends opened my eyes that it would not hurt for one to know various kinds of writing and it could even become one’s handy strength. Therefore, I now have promised myself to read and learn all sort of writings without being picky on genres.