SO YOU WANT TO WRITE?*

Nwachukwu Egbunike

Prof Wole Soyinka

Prof Wole Soyinka

So you want to write? For that to happen, then you have to be good. Writing usually reflects who you are. And you are what you read. I know you are busy; you are pursuing a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree. You can only spare a sprinkling of words for your press journal, from time to time. That’s unfortunately not enough, expand your horizons and dream big.

Have you ever fantasied having your article published in The Guardian, ThisDay or The Punch? What would it feel like to have your opinions on an international on-line medium like the Nigeria Village Square (NVS), Saharareporters or Mercartornet?

But you are so busy. How can I comprehend what it takes to study a six year course in the University of Ibadan? Perhaps I’ll never understand, but Nze Sylva Ifedigbo published his first novel, Whispering Aloud as an undergraduate vet student. He is preparing a second one and also contributes regularly to the NVS. Dr Tony Morinho is a Consultant Gynaecologist; he has a flourishing medical practice and yet is a prolific author. He currently has a column in The Nation and has turned down many others. The former President of the Nigerian Association of Authors, Dr Wale Okediran is a medical practitioner as well. Need I continue?

Obviously writing is a talent. It a craving to give life to that being of reason, that exists in the writers imagination. Good writers are made, not born. You have to nurture this talent and it takes a lot of patience and tact. Writing has different genres but I’ll focus on Opinion-Editorial page articles (op-ed).

Since op-ed is ‘infotainmentative’, it demands an exceptional discipline. The shorter the op-ed, the better, an average of 600 to 1,000 words is ideal. The audience should be able to get catch your drift early, be able to follow up your story without getting bored or feel they’ve wasted time by reading your conclusion. Your op-ed should be like “like a tsunami which begins with a distant tremor, generates a gigantic wave of indignation, and finally dumps its vital message on a distant beach,” opines Michael Cook the Editor of Mercartornet.

Before I go into the nitty-gritty that makes a good op-ed, I’ll like to stress the importance of writing well. My first article to be published in Mercartornet was an eye-opener. It made an uncountable number of return trips between the editor and me. Even at that, the editor practically redid it before it was published. At a point, I asked him for their house style and his reply is worth repeating. “First try to get it right and then the style will follow.”

Writing well has a direct correlation with what you read. If you are the type that relay mostly on the so called ‘inspirational’ books, then you are in for trouble. No serious foreign mag or newspaper will ever publish your essay. You have to immerse yourself in the pool of literati like Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austin, Orwell, Tosleky, Achebe, Soyinka and Osundare, Adichie, Oyeyemi and Attah, etc.

The truth is that most of us are at home with the so called popular cultural artefacts (PCA). This genre consists of writings, music and movies by contemporary artists. They are characterised by their mass appeal and the ability to give the people what they want. These PCA’s are usually targeted at the heart and not the head. They have the ability to arouse the sensual appetites in man. In literature, the romance series like Mills and Boom stand out. In music, most contemporary Nigerian artists fall into this category, e.g. D’Banj’s “why me?” and others. Nollywood will certainly take a long time for it to morph into a respectable industry.

As a writer, the quality of your pieces will determine which medium that will publish your work. If you are content with PCA’s then only soft sell mediums will receive your work. On the other hand if you sharpen your intellect and produce good op-ed’s then your by-line will constantly feature in elitists’ newspapers and magazines. It’s not about being discriminating, each of us has to make a choice and that already excludes the other possibility. Notoriety is different from celebrity, being able to influence others many years after is what counts.

A good writer necessarily attains – apologies to Patrick Utomi – ‘material immortality’ because (s)he continues to shape society after his death. We all have read or at least studies Shakespeare. I am currently offering a course whose prime focus is the analysis of Wole Soyinka’s Interpreters. The world was agog last year as the literati celebrated the 50th anniversary of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. These writers will never die; they will live forever through their works. As an aspiring writer, where do you want to belong?

Now let’s be practical, these are ten tips on writing an op-ed piece. [Courtesy of uVA Today, Saturday, Nov 29, 2008.]
1. Pick a topic that matters – or write a funny or heart-warming piece in such an engaging way that people will want to read it.

2. Grab the reader with a lead that hooks him and reels him in as it educates, informs, analyses, elaborates, alerts, entertains, or all of the above.

3. Get to the point. Everyone is busy. Opinion Piece writers are competing with TV, radio, the internet, work, kids, spouses, etc.

4. Strive for simplicity. Use short, direct sentences whenever possible.

5. Avoid abstractions, unfamiliar words or slang.

6. Expect your prose to be edited.

7. Tie your topic to the news whenever possible, and your chances of having the piece picked up improve.

8. Express an opinion. Argue your point.

9. Keep it short. Most opinion pieces published by major newspapers during the week are in the 700-word range.

10. Keep the faith. Don’t be discouraged that your good piece was not published. There are far more writers who want to be published than space to publish them. You can’t win, if you don’t play.

I suppose you see it’s not so difficult after all; it’s just that you need to put in some hard work. Since you still want to write, go ahead and savour the power of words. Keep writing and if you’re good, one day someone will notice you. Good luck!

*A Guest Lecture presented at the Induction/Launch of The Stallion Newsletter, published by the Association of Veterinary Medical Students, University of Ibadan. January 14, 2009.

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