How did I improve my English while preparing for the UPSC CSE?

I owe my writing skills to Anant, my elder brother. When I came to JNU in 1994, I had a fair idea about how to write and what to write. But, despite my clearing the JNU MPhil. entrance and UGC JRF exam, I realised that I need to work on my answer writing skills and reading spelling in order to prepare well for the UPSC civil services exam.

These are are the books I read to strengthen my fundamentals.

I practised a lot with previous years’ questions in exam-like conditions. I never believed in attending coaching classes. So, while writing tons of answers and essays, I had to keep practising till I found the answers and essays good enough to make them ‘stickable’.

Dear 16-year-old Basant

Dear 16-year-old Basant,

Next year, you’re going to take the IIT-JEE exam, and you’re pretty confident about your focus and study techniques. Deep in your street-dog heart you know you’re too hardworking a student to fail an exam. Your head thinks, despite not having right books and coaching materials, you can clear this exam and become a top-class energy engineer before you fall in love with a beautiful girl. Energy engineering. 1988. What a visionary you’ve always been, mate.

Now, listen to me, lanky boy. You’ll fail. You’ll get into severe depression. You’ll be so distracted in life that Sarat, your younger brother, will hit you for sixes when you bowl to him in your village cricket matches. Then, in full public view, he’ll shout at you a few words about how Javed Miandad decimated Chetan Sharma a couple of years back. It’ll become a typical Ambani family thing. A brother can be a difficult business, you know.

Cut to to life’s business. Your joining arts stream and choosing sociology as the honours subject is the best thing that will happen to you. You’ll join the classes in the second year, skipping the first year to prepare for the IIT-JEE exam. Anup Bhai will give you his books and top quality class notes even if he doesn’t know much about you. Rabi Sir will teach you Marx, Weber and Pareto better than the finest in JNU, his alma mater, even if you don’t speak a single sentence in his classes in two years because of your incessant stammering. Ashraf Chacha will give you a place to stay in Bhubaneswar even if you’re a rank stranger to him. Pragyan (Kar) and (Sudhanya) Naani will give away their books without making you conscious of your life’s circumstances. Anil will give you all his psychology books that he bought for his future wife. Anil’s Mom will feed you meals everyday you visit them. Anup Bhai will join JNU for his Masters. Rabi Sir will make you dream about going there. Ashraf Chacha will share his meals with you. Don’t tell me that you won’t meet great men and women without Wikipedia knowing about them.

And there’ll be friends and blood relatives who will taunt you for your chronic stammering. Learn how to ignore their daily barrage of ridicule. No good can come of it.

Now, let’s talk about your street-dog stubbornness a bit. You’ll fall in love with a girl who happens to be the best student in your class and a magician when it comes to public speaking. Your love life will start with a huge traffic jam. The girl – her name, I don’t remember – will be in love with another boy and clueless about your feelings. And you’ll get into depression for another two and half years.

Traffic jams will never leave you alone. In your exams, in love life and in professional career. Someday, you’ll handle the traffic department of J and K like a boss. More on that some other time.

More than anything else, I’ll always admire you for your ability and willingness to work on your stuttering. You’ll work on your handicap and you’ll be able to overcome it. You and your radio. No speech therapist and no expert advice. I adore that patented bullheadedness of yours. I still don’t know why you sell this dope to yourself that you don’t need to be good at public speaking to be successful in life. Because of that mental block, you won’t take the next step ahead. To become articulate on the podium like your one-sided love, that beautiful girl. You should take your public speaking skills seriously. The world will always be grateful to that Churchill chap for his oratory that made a huge difference to the outcome of the World War II. He was a rabid racist, though. More on that later.

You’re 16 years old and you’ve a long road ahead, but don’t get sucked into traffic jams. The IIT JEE exam will be a traffic jam. Falling  for a love that is not meant to be yours will be a traffic jam. Stammering will a traffic jam. You’ll manoeuvre those roadblocks quite brilliantly. Some kind-hearted, selfless people will hold your hands. Be grateful to them. They’ll guide you on the express highway of life without expecting anything in turn. Share your experience of handling traffic jams with the young drivers you meet when you become a better, mature driver.

Drive well, do it on your terms and take care of your car. Your body is your most expensive car. And a BMW doesn’t run on adulterated kerosene oil and second-hand spare parts. Eat well and keep your body strong and agile. You’ll need these good habits after 32 years when life will re-arrange itself because of a virus. Prepare yourself well for 2020.


How to write better – 1

Friends, I’ll share top quality resources (available online for free) here. The first three are my favourites.

You please find some time to work on your writing skills. And let me know if you need anything.

How to write a good essay

How to Write an Essay that the Examiner Will Discuss with His Children at the Dining Table – For UPSC CSE Aspirants

  1. First paragraph is first impression. You don’t get a second chance. Keep an eye on your spelling, grammar and word choice. You are writing an essay in an exam hall. Don’t be a Mitron typing his Gyaan for his fellow WhatsApp University PhD. Scholars.
  2. Life is about connect. If your essay doesn’t connect with the human being in the examiner, you must accept that you are not doing it well. Put emotions and logic in your essay. Put a lot of daily life stuff and plain common sense on the page. Put humanity and humour.
  3. An essay is more than the sum of its parts. Look for tone, theme and structure. Look for continuity. The first sentence should lead to the second, the second to the third and the third to the next. The first paragraph should lead to the second, the second to the third and the third to the next. And the last paragraph should feel connected to the first one. If the last paragraph reads like Arnab Goswami, the first can’t read like Ravish Kumar.
  4. Read your sentences in your head. Reading your essay out loud in your head enables you to notice something that you might not have noticed if you were just reading it silently. Try to listen to your paragraphs objectively as you read them. Are you making some sense? Or are you simply stringing hundreds of words together just to fill a page?
  5. Use small, simple words. Don’t be a Shashi Tharoor. Don’t try to impress. Try to express. Please don’t strain your vocabulary, looking for fancy-sounding words. Less is always more. And effective. Pyrexia is a fever. Hypertension is high blood pressure. To utilize is to use.
  6. Construct your sentences well. Vary their length. Too many long sentences will make your writing unwieldy and boring. Too many short sentences will make it mechanical, choppy and confusing. Keep an eye on word choice, syntax and tone.
  7. Passive voice is mostly bad. You are not loved for that. Adjectives and adverbs are mostly useless. Mostly. Exclamation marks are so yesterday. Use concrete language rather than vague language. Don’t say I love you. Say your earlobes are beautiful.
  8. To be a good writer, you need to learn the rules of writing. But to be an interesting writer, you also need to learn when to break those rules. The important thing to know is that writing is about communicating. When a rule gets in the way of what you want to say, it’s better to toss that rule out – temporarily, at least.
  9. Research well. Know your material. When money speaks, Truth is silent. If this is the title of your essay, you better know what you should say and how. In 2000 odd words. Content is God.
  10. Writing is a skill. Can be learnt, can be practiced, can be improved. Good writing is simply always writing. Write when you’re sad or bored. Write when you’re scared or in a bad mood. Write when you don’t feel like writing. Write like a lover. Not like a babu.