Tuesday, March 2, 2010

An Example of Bad Writing

If you want to add your name to the list of bad writers in Malawi—and we have a long one, already—learn from Emily Mkamanga, a Nation on Sunday columnist.

She is a writer whose column proves that she lacks both substance and style; that she chanced over being recognised as a writer, not that she is one, for she does not write well nor does she perform the duties of a writer which are to entertain, educate, link people of similar or different ideas, interpret the world and socialise people or transmit values.

Beyond this, a writer analyses the present using the past and determines the future using the present—and, of course, the past.

Writing as Weaving

Every word, for me, is empty. Excellent writing is, therefore, a writer’s ability to arrange or, put creatively, weave into one long thread in a way that makes sense, in a way that makes meaning; meaning that makes sense across space and time. Emily Mkamanga’s pieces lack these basics of excellent writing skills.

First Sentence Matters

Emily Mkamanga’s language is largely poor, lacking in some of the basics an excellent writer should possess. Excellent writers mind the first sentence. Mkamanga often gets this wrong.
The first sentence matters because it is a reader’s entry into a body of ideas called an article. Take these first sentences by some people I think are excellent writers.

Tragedy has a way of visiting people who can bear it least.--Michael Elliott writing on the earthquake in Haiti.

He did it because he could.—Jon Meacham writing on Obama’s victory.

The pain of urban poverty is in its closeness to wealth.—Mzati Nkolokosa writing on poverty’s closeness to wealth in cities.

One common factor to these first sentences is that they are thought provoking and philosophical, leading a reader into the depth of our complicated world, not just the surface. Tragedy has a way of visiting people who can bear it least. It makes sense and compels the reader to ask, Why Haiti? Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. A country on its knees, as Michael Elliot says, was knocked down to its feet.

Or consider Meacham’s sentence (He did it because he could). He did it just because he could? Hey! Let me read on, one would say.

The last of our first sentences under consideration falls under this same type. The pain of urban poverty is in its closeness to wealth. Take the example of Zingwangwa and New Naperi, Mbayani and Nyambadwe, Ntopwa and Indian Quarters. At the end of the day, a reader is provoked into thought because the first sentence has opened a way into deeper thought, a place of questions and possible answers. Why are slums close to low density areas? It is a sociological question.

Now let us see Mkamanga’s first sentences. On Sunday, February 10, 2010 she wrote under the headline “Calling for Unity”. Her first sentence was: The importance of unity in a country cannot be overemphasized. True and obvious that this has become a cliché and excellent writers don’t think of clichés like a saint does hell.

Her first sentence on February 21 under the headline “Uncertain Future” was: There is an adage which says that when all else is lost the future still remains. This, in all fairness, is a powerful adage as she says. But her poor construction makes it weak. Who wants to be told that there is an adage that says this and that? All we care for is the adage itself. Excellent writing would have gone straight to the adage, and not spend time on weak construction like “There is an adage which says…” Really? This adage can be philosophised and problematised in a great first sentence.

On January 31, 2010, Mkamanga titled her column “Failing to Appreciate” and the first sentence was as follows: “It can be said without fear of contradiction that sycophancy is one of the behaviours that has (sic) been carried forward from the one party dictatorship.”

We can repeat what we have said about the first sentence of Sunday, February 10, 2010. But we can add that Mkamanga takes time before hitting the nail on the head and this is bad writing in all fairness.

Construction of Ideas

Excellent writers arrange words intelligently to produce brilliant articles. The arrangement of words results in great sentence construction and, for me, sentence construction is, essentially, construction of ideas.

Poor language use results into poor sentences and into poor construction of ideas. Mkamanga is poor at choosing words. As said above, words are empty in themselves. It is how a writer arranges them that matters. Mkamanga has a lot of what I call “passenger words” or “joy riders”: words that a sentence can do without to the extent that out of Mkamanga’s article of 800 words, an excellent writer can remove perhaps up to 150 words and make more sense than before.

An excellent writer uses short sentences, some with one word but also uses long, complex sentences, punctuated with commas, semi colons, colons and all other punctuation marks. An excellent writer is a master of punctuation. He or she, like a surgeon, tears apart a sentence, breaks it here and there, sometimes with a hyphen, yet remains in control of the beauty and sense of the sentence; words put together to load meaning in them.

MKamanga does not appreciate that a sentence should be active, that a sentence should have a subject, a verb and an object. Simple. Mkamanga does not enjoy variety of construction. She needs to go back to a Language Skills class.


There are words an excellent writer should avoid. Take this sentence from Mkamanga’s January 31, 2010, article.

For example, the government expects Malawians to be very excited about the eight percent growth that it has achieved as well as celebrate that the country received a debt relief from World Bank and IMF. In fact talking to the majority poor this can be an insult because the benefits from the debt relief and the economic growth are nowhere to be seen since people’s lives have not changed for the better. Some strong words here. Yet poor writing. Does the government expect people to be “very excited” with economic growth? Adverbs and adjectives can be tricky in writing. How do we determine that government expects people to be “very excited” with growth? Critics may easily conclude malice.

It seems Mkamanga is not just a poor writer, she is a dangerous writer too, whose ideas—or lack of them—can destroy a generation, making it hopeless.

She claims that for the majority poor “benefits from the debt relief and the economic growth are nowhere to be seen since people’s lives have not changed for the better”. She does not substantiate her claim. Therefore, it is empty. It is dangerous for a writer to use words like “nowhere”, because it is a writer’s duty to hunt for “somewhere”.

Benefits of debt relief are nowhere? No. They may not be everywhere, but they are everywhere as in where they are physically and socially. More HIV positive people are getting treatment and care. Government has allocated more money to the National AIDS Commission than before.

There are more roads: Ntchisi has a modern 30 km road constructed with money generated in Malawi, money that would have otherwise gone to paying back debt if it were not for the relief.

In early 1980s, I walked 10 km to and from school every day. Now my nephews and children walk 3 km to and from school because there is a primary school in my village constructed a couple of years ago. I crossed three streams to reach school. Those after me are not crossing any streams. Malawi has been able to feed itself partly because rains have been fair in past years, partly because of the subsidised fertiliser programme. An excellent writer runs away from this problem by use of words such as “some”, “perhaps”, “not much to show”, “either or….”

Now can Mkamanga claim benefits of debt relief are nowhere? I repeat: She is a dangerous writer whose thoughts can destroy a generation.


I want to say something on punctuation, not as an afterthought, but because it is a crucial element of writing, one that makes a difference between an excellent writer like Nancy Gibbs and a bad writer like Emily Mkamanga.

If you read Mkamanga’s column you find that the commonest punctuation is a full stop. She rarely uses commas even where it is obvious. Read again her sentence above: “In fact talking about…” After “in fact”, there is supposed to be a comma. But I suppose she is in a hurry when writing for she writes like a person shouting from an anthill and does not care about punctuation.


What is the role of a writer in our complicated world? It is to explain the world to people. The writer has to give hope where there is despair. The writer should research and know 10 times more than his or her readers. Mkamanga does not perform well on these areas. She does not research well.

This is my sixth year of teaching Features Writing at Chancellor College and the semester has just started. On the first meeting with my students on February 23, 2010, I started with the usual pleasantries. Then straight into business, this was the first sentence: If you want to add your name to the list of bad writers in Malawi—and we have a long one, already—learn from Emily Mkamanga, a Nation on Sunday columnist. It was nice.


Acacia said...

wow quite a comprehensive critique of one journalists individual style. i hope it is understood that this is not a personal attack, but a call for higher standards and more effective communication. i fully agree. maybe the nation will ask you to join their recruitment panel ??

Anonymous said...

Interesting and very well expressed. You use wonderful sentences...of course!

Mausa said...

Emily's bad writing amounts to nothing when you compare with the works of one Nyakuchenya Ganda in the Nyasatimes archives. If that chap is still alive, I pray that his articles will never again get anywhere near the newsrooms of Malawi.