Why do aspiring “content writers” in India write bad English?
| Vaidehi Bhashyam Mehta | — @mehta_vaidehi
Young people aspiring to be content writers regularly send me articles to review. I appreciate their efforts.
Beyond that, there’s little to appreciate in them. Most are mundane and very boring. There’s no originality; they swipe from the Internet quite unabashedly. Control+C and Control+V build the bulk of their articles. They are very minimalistic when it comes to punctuation, including the use of the upper case. Apostrophes, when used, are more like decorations to create plurals and, often, just dispensed with for possessives.
For example: “Kumars code’s are superb….”
The title of this blog is self-explanatory. In this post I am going to tell you what is wrong with the way people—especially those under the age of 40—write today, my understanding of why this is so, and how it is quite simple to make them better.
Of course there are exceptions—those who have studied English as a subject; passed out of reputed institutions in India; have a genuine flair for writing well; and make the effort and take pride in their work.
Everything I am writing here is primarily for those who aspire to be content writers.
While I am writing for the Indian audience, I find the problem exists even with people in English-speaking countries.
Essentially, in order to be readable, a piece of writing must be interesting and correct. If the ideas in an article are so interesting as to be outstanding and can be understood despite minor errors in spelling and grammar, I suppose it can get past the “grammar snob”. But what do you do when the piece is mediocre at best and is full of spelling and grammatical errors? In the course of editing/proofing an article, I sometimes find it hard to make sense of the long-winded sentences and lose track of the intended message.
Before I begin, I must preface what follows by stating that the views in this article do not apply to those who have studied in semi-urban and rural areas where English is not the medium of instruction. You might have also observed that a number of native English speakers also write and spell badly. That is not the point here. If you are looking for a job as a content writer or copywriter, you had better write correct English.
So why are youngsters passing out from “English Medium Schools” unable to write correct English?
I have wondered why and come to some conclusions. #
At the risk of raising the hackles of fellow teachers, I have to lay the responsibility squarely at their door. How are young people who have studied in “English Medium Schools” writing and speaking such poor, ungrammatical English? Flipping through the text- and notebooks used in schools these days, I was alarmed by the errors (no, they are not typos) that have crept in and are left uncorrected. At the very least, writers of textbooks and teachers of the English language cannot afford to make errors or overlook them.
Next, how are schools—and the boards that govern them—passing these books? I cannot remember even one instance of incorrect English in my school textbooks of 40 - 50 years ago. My teachers in the schools and colleges I attended spoke and wrote impeccable English. Who vets the books that schools prescribe to their students today? .
While talking about creative writing and claiming to encourage discussions and conversations or mentoring students to use their imaginations in interesting ways are all very good, they are exercises in futility when the fundamentals of grammar and syntax are not laid correctly.
Another aspect that plagues us today is the way in which we communicate using phones (appalling auto-correct!) and computers. It seems like they use an altogether different language.
txt msg english is just snafu, u c… TTYL :)
As to whether the ideas in these articles young writers send me are good, I have to say, yes, some are. Some are well-researched and even interesting. But mostly they are not. A question I am frequently asked is, “How does a young, aspiring content writer begin to write well enough to be hired when the foundation itself is shaky?” Here are some pointers:
Read, read, read. #
Read as much as you can. Read anything you can get your hands on. Explore different genres and styles. Try some fiction as well as non-fiction. Try some classics as well as modern literature.
Check meanings and spellings #
Understand words and usage. None of us can claim to know every word in the English language. Check the meanings of words and phrases and how they are used. Everyone these days has access to tools such as spell-check and Grammarly. Please do use them.
Keep it uncomplicated #
Long sentences are more complex and could easily end up with grammatical errors. Rather than using conjunctions to join ideas, break up your sentences. Keep them simple and you will also keep them correct.
Stay on-topic and write in a way that makes your message clear. Research your topic, check your facts and write comprehensively. Whatever you write must have depth and not simply scratch the surface.
Here, I would also say that simple language that is easy to understand is better than bombastic words. Readers will not read what you have written if it is complicated and they do not understand you. Sense is more important than form.
Use small paragraphs #
Which would you prefer? A big 20-line chunk of text, or shorter paragraphs of, say, five to seven lines? Especially when writing for the internet, it is best to keep your paragraphs short so it is easier on the eye and the mind of your readers.
What is the ideal length of a paragraph? The internet is teeming with blogs on this subject, but what they will all tell you is that there are no hard and fast rules. Essentially, a paragraph should contain one idea and enough sentences that support this idea.
How many words? #
Again this depends. An essay could be “about 250 words”, a press note may be “not more than 150 words”. If there is a word limit, you are all set.
Then, what about a blog post?
Some believe that 500 to 600 words make a good blog. But, a 2016 study showed that pages with longer content ranked significantly better on SERPs. The first page results on Google had an average of 1890 words.
Often, when you think you just can’t write much on a topic, you might well discover that you have written 1000+ words without difficulty. Then again, there are no magic numbers. You don’t have to write a certain number of words simply because a statistic says you should.
Know your audience #
You write in order to be read, right?
Answer these questions: Who are you writing for? What is your message?
Define your audience. What language skills do they have? Is there a particular age-group or industry you are targeting? Where are they located—India, Europe, USA? Remember, idiom, and even humour for that matter, needs context to be understood or appreciated.
Make a visual impact #
Content is more than words, so include images and infographics in your writing. A picture is worth a thousand words and images do pack a visual punch. You are more likely to fare better if your piece of writing has an image than one which doesn’t.
When you think you have finished writing, read what you have written. Two things are likely to happen:
- You may find spelling errors or words you have missed. Correct the errors and add the missing words.
- You might find that sentences—and even entire paragraphs—do not sound quite the way you would like. If the message doesn’t flow smoothly, reword.
I also like to use a readability scale like Flesch-Kincaid as a ball-park for how easy (or not) it is to understand my content. It works well with MS Word.
Read to see if you are being repetitive. Does it seem like you are saying the same thing over and over again? Cut all the unnecessary words and sentences and tighten your narrative. With so much reading taking place online, it is important to remember that audiences’ attention spans are becoming increasingly shorter. So, make sure your writing is crisp and meaningful and not long-winded and tedious. It is also a good idea to have a friend, relative or colleague read what you have written. A dispassionate opinion does help a lot.
Use a plagiarism checker #
One thing that is a definite no-no is copying someone else’s work. I do understand that sometimes, it may be quite unintentional. When you have read up a lot on a particular subject, some phrases—and even sentences—linger in your mind and, especially if you have a good memory, you might unwittingly use a sentence (or a large part of it) verbatim.. Memory is a funny thing, that way.
Here’s where a plagiarism checker helps. There are several free tools available online. Just put in the copy you have written and scan for duplicate content or content that can be found elsewhere, written by someone other than yourself. Do this religiously for every piece of writing and save yourself humiliation and loss of credibility.
It is virtually impossible to write original content all the time. When you research a topic, you may find information—images, tables and other content—that are protected by copyright which you would like to use in your blog/article. Always reference what you are “borrowing” and credit the original source when you do so. State it as: Source: and provide a link too.
You can write well if you are mindful of the tips I have outlined above.
Do you agree/disagree with my views? Do you have anything to add? We’d love to hear from you. Do comment on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. And if think you do follow them and would like to write content for Influx, please feel free to send us some samples of your writing.
Vaidehi Mehta is our Content Strategist, curating and writing content across multiple platforms. She is a teacher and trainer with degrees in economics, English and education. Having dealt with reams of content with varying levels and versions of English, she is currently a “grammar pacifist”, prone to the occasional sigh.