Pen & Paper

m a Writer

23 Apr 2014

I just joined a Coursera course in English Composition. The motivation is simple: I want to improve my writing. I like to get an impression of people by reading what they write; it matters more than their voice, their faces or their handshakes as it goes straight to their mind.

My first memorable experience with writing took place over 40 years’ ago - I had a pen-pal in Munich, Germany. Pen-pals may now seem obsolete and irrelevant but back in the days when I was in high school, they were popular among students who were learning English as a second language. My pen-pal and I wrote almost every other week for 3 years telling each other every trivial thing that happened in our lives and exchanging whatever little secrets we had. It was a huge struggle at first and there were times that we misunderstood each other. I didn’t have the vocabulary nor did I know how to properly string the words together without making grammatical mistakes. However, it must have been this desire to express myself clearly to my little friend in Germany that prompted me to work hard on my writing. I started writing more by keepng a diary in English. I studied the lyrics of songs that I was listening to. Many songwriters in my time were excellent story tellers and they tended not to be as colloquial as their contemporary counterparts. I was able to learn from reading something that interested me.

My writing didn’t become error-free after a few years of correspondence with my pen-pal. What benefited me most, perhaps, was the confidence that was instilled in me as a result of the regular practice. As my confidence in using English grew, my writing improved.

I received some valuable lessons in writing in an unlikely place - a construction site where I started as a graduate engineer immediately after finishing my undergraduate degree. It was a mega project that involved countless numbers of contractual disputes, claims and counter-claims, proposals and counter-proposals and design revisions. Part of my duties as a graduate engineer was to draft corresopondence, proposals and claim substantiation for my project manager. The process itself was a great learning experience as I didn’t really know how best to produce a formal proposal or claim substantiation. Even writing a formal contractual letter was something new to me. I believe that 99% of all managers, when they see something they don’t like in a draft, they will just correct it, throw it to the typing pool to get it typed, sign and post it out. Mine didn’t belong to the 99%. He would call me into his office (mostly after working hours) and explained to me why he would make a certain correction. I could either rewrite it or agree to the changes before he would sign it. He did it for things big or small, even a site memo. I still remember the correction he made to my first draft letter which started with “Please be informed …”. He would jokingly tell me that only people in the 19th century would write like that; ‘You may use “We’d like to inform you …” instead or better still skip it altogether and say what you want to say right away’, he said. Sometimes, he would go on and on talking about writing styles, proper referencing in a claim substantiation, when to use or avoid passive and active voice …. A truly incredible construction man whom many may consider a ‘cowboy’.