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Whistleblowers’ Writing Workshop

WHISTLE FOR THE TRUTH

Writing workshop 8-11 February 2022

In a few weeks’ time I will be running a writing workshop for those brave people we call whistleblowers. There is a growing literature in South Africa exposing the massive corruption that is the focus of the Zondo commission into State Capture. Independent whistleblowers have fed their evidence to the commission but also written articles and books, and given interviews, exposing what has been going on on both the public and private sectors.

Not everyone who knows something has so far committed themselves to the written word. I hope that the workshop will develop some fresh ideas around how whistleblowers can be effective in South Africa today.

We have a long way to go to convert public antipathy to public support. And turn the corner to prevent wrongdoers continuing to use their institutional power to wage war on truth and the law and the persons of the whistleblowers. Wrongdoers should be shamed into silence. The key to success is to make a huge fuss and keep it up

But how is one to gain public approval when all the dice are loaded against you? Organisations don’t like whistleblowers who draw attention to the dark side of corporate affairs. Those who are alleged to be breaking the rules will usually fight back with all the resources at their disposal. The whistleblower is usually an isolated individual with few resources.

There is the power of the pen. How is it to be used?

Above all the tone of the writing should establish the bona fides of the author. This can be done in multiple ways. It is not necessarily the case that one should temper the language to be diplomatic to the point of self-effacement. That may only result in fogging up the message. Good old indignation couched in strong words rings true for the average reader.

But there are also times when the writer should be plainly factual and take care to present an objective account of things. Remember what they may have taught you at school if you were lucky enough to be exposed to critical thinking: define, describe, analyse and summarise without being overly judgemental. Don’t twist the facts and do let them speak for you.

This leads us to the basics of narrative. Quite literally, if you can’t tell the story then it never happened. Things fall into place in a sequence of events which it’s your job as a truth-teller to pick apart, thread by thread. The story that you weave from this exercise in discovery is the story the reader wants to hear. How did you come to the conclusion that skulduggery was under way in the organisation? The evidence piled up. The conclusions you reached are the very same that the reader should reach after being presented with your detective work. If you can do that – carrying the reader along as an independent witness to events – then your tale has the status of truth. Otherwise, well, it didn’t happen, or not the way you say it did.

Naturally, you can leave threads dangling, questions unanswered, puzzles to be solved, as that enhances the tension about what happens next. If the police or the courts intervene maybe they will pull those loose threads. Then the whole pattern of fabrication and lies woven by the perpetrators could unravel.

Never let a good story or a crisp anecdote fail in the telling. Work on suspense elements and punchlines. Stick to the truth as you see it. Let the narrative capture the alarm you felt as incriminating details fell out of the bag of nonsense carried by liars and thieves in the organisation. It’s easy to say write pointedly when there are legal issues of defamation to contend with and when the bad guys can deny everything with impunity. Your own confidence in the facts and the truth may not be all that solid. These are the risks of going public and there’s no getting away from them.

Bias against whistleblowers is not necessarily driven by corrupt motives. Legal process will always seek a “balance” which in reality is shaped by widely held prevailing views. If whistleblowers are portrayed as angry, vengeful, conspiracy theorists by those who are being unmasked, this permeates the public mind a probably influences judges. That’s why I say the legitimacy of the campaigner must be reemphasised at every turn.

So I return to my main point: the whistleblower as author seek to come across as a genuine soldier in the fight against corruption. This can only be achieved with a tone of humility allied to solid affirmation of what is right and proper. Your legitimacy as a whistleblower is, ultimately, all that stands between you and public dismissal.

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Smart Writing Tool

The early computer was a journalist’s dream. It became a writer’s best pal too, as “soft copy” (electronic type) was infinitely malleable. Draft copy could be dashed out any old how, just to get the thoughts down, then edited for sense and grammar.

Ever since I started using the very earliest personal computers, I’ve thought that they were the greatest writing instrument ever devised. I now think the smartphone is even better.
Slouched on the lounge settee I tickle the phone with the ideas that pop into my head. Much of what I write I have extensively researched but the problem for me has always been to siphon off the key ideas in precis form.
Believe it or not, I am now embarking on a 40 000 word book using my phone to tap in the bits and pieces of the first draft. Granted, the irritating tiny keyboard and text correction annoy you. But at the same time you can dictate to text and so capture ideas on the fly. You can even ask Siri or Alexa to help you search.

Write anywhere, on the fly

It reminds me that the great Russian novelist Solzhenitsyn used to carry a tiny notebook and whip it out to write something. That must have been a bit disconcerting for those he was talking to but perhaps they were rewarded later by seeing their words in best-sellers.
The early computer was a journalist’s dream. It became a writer’s best pal too, as “soft copy” (electronic type) was infinitely malleable. Draft copy could be dashed out any old how, just to get the thoughts down, then edited for sense and grammar.
The first experiences I had were on rigid BASIC programming screens with numbered lines. This didn’t deter me from trying to use the large mainframe as a word processor. Soon the green lettering on black screen was superseded by the white text of Xywrite, with paragraphing and codes for functions like cutting and pasting and typographic styles. Then came the PCs with real Roman or Sans Serif typography on a paper-like white background. You learnt to define, copy, move or store versions, and Word Processors now featured spell checkers, word counters and readability fog indexers.
Eventually there was the complete suite of writing tools – and to make it all much more functional – quick access to the Internet to check facts, find references, and look for refinements of your ideas. I avoid plagiarism like the plague it is (and when teaching journ students I check for theft from online sources). But to be frank, the minds of others, paraded online in pdf papers, blog articles and Kindle books are infinitely enriching to one’s own thoughts and so EASY to access.
Nowadays I routinely access YouTube to see what’s been said about topics – it’s the world’s best open classroom – and I never finish anything without searching Google for keywords. What I find is sometimes disheartening: ideas I thought were all my own have been expressed by others. Still, that’s better than remaining blissfully unaware.
Then of course there are all the apps that make research and writing easier. To locate a place I’m writing about there are Google maps. To convert Imperial to Metric there are calculators. To understand the gist of text in a foreign language there are translators. Marvellous!
So now I sit with my ready-writing-reckoner, blissfully tapping in the fragments of a new book and wondering how I ever did without my Smartie.

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Writing Method Workshops

Do you need to write to hold your job or make your reputation? Come and learn the standard techniques of writing in a 3-day workshop that will focus your energies and put you on the path to success.

All writing – from blogging to newswriting, marketing communications and research reporting – shares common principles of composition. The phases of writing are Prewriting, Drafting and Rewriting. Get to grips with how to think and plan in the prewriting phase. Find out how to draft your ideas and facts in simple, bite-sized chunks. And learn how to rewrite to bring out  the best, logically organise the text, and signpost it to help the reader.

Prof Graeme Addison is a seasoned journalist and author of 10 non-fiction books. His topics have ranged from the history of innovations in South Africa to whitewater rafting and dietary guidelines to lose weight. In the following article he explains his approach to teaching writing techniques.

  • Contact us at WhatsApp/SMS +27 84 245 2490 or writewell@editorial.co.za for information about courses and mentoring.

Relax and take your time!

Fear of failure and impatience with the process of writing are two major psychological obstacles to writing well. There’s nothing mysterious about the process of writing : it’s as natural as speaking, but you’ve got to pace yourself. Anxiety and the rush to finish before the ideas are properly cooked will lead to precisely what you fear : a bad job.

Of course, deadlines are very important and good for writers: they force you to get down to penning the words. Sometimes, in the flush of inspiration, you produce the best work. But this is almost always preceded by inner cogitation, the thoughts that have been going round and round in your head seeking a way out.

I’ve written 10 nonfiction books and edited several more. I was asked by a friend to run a “masterclass”. No, I said, there is no mastery about it. It’s rather a matter of plodding towards the eventual end of the work. There is no “master” in writing but yourself. For years I’ve run classes in Research Writing for the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism IAJ – oddly, because the target market was thesis writers.

Three techniques

Lead consultant for Editorial Assignments: pictureMy philosophy and approach has always been to advise writers to relax and not tighten up with the fear of not being good enough or not satisfying the supervisor. I recommend a combination of Freewriting (spontaneous composition to formulate words and ideas from in-depth research); mind mapping (organised thinking on a single branching diagram); and list writing (taking things item by item in no particular order to develop detailed texts around topics that must all be covered). These three approaches give you a chaotic but extensive draft of the words, lots and lots of written text which then needs to be cut and pasted into order.

So draft 1 leads to draft 2 and so on, writing transitions, introductions and conclusions for each major section. Finally you get to something like a complete draft. The computer is a marvellous writing instrument because it makes reorganisation, editing and checking so much easier. In the old days of paper, scissors and glue the process of writing was arduous and messy.

Writing is NOT HARD but it is time consuming and apart from the fear of failure the other major psychological obstacle to success is impatience. Wanting to get done and dusted; hoping that you can somehow finish in a hurry – and thus botching the job – that’s a destructive impulse. The loneliness of the long distance writer is partly what prompts this impulse. But learn to live with, and indeed enjoy, the intense inner life of the writer.

Don’t foist your ideas on others while in the process of composing them. Keep writing and keep it private until it’s done. Of course, you should attend seminars and engage with other minds. But to disclose what you’re writing can be the kiss of death because others will say things that undermine your confidence.

Baking the product

Trust only yourself. Only you know what you are trying to say. Writing is like baking bread: it takes time and the mix will not rise unless you keep it warm and keep reworking it like a baker kneading the dough.

Self-editing your own work is the final part of the process before ( I recommend) handing it to a tough and experienced editor for a going-over. There are three levels of editing :
1. Fundamentally, does the text make any SENSE? What does it actually say? Clarify the meaning of the parts and clear up the message of the whole.
2. STRUCTURE. Having established the meaning, put things in logical order so that the reader can follow your signposting. Connect the ideas and spell them out in an orderly fashion as each section unfolds. Lastly –
3. STYLE. This is the element that many consider to be the most important but in fact it is minor compared with 1 and 2. Don’t start with style, end with it. Sort out the wordiness, the clumsiness, the repetitions and the poor punctuation and spelling. Cut, cut. Cut!

In the final stages you should be concerned with legalism like copyright and plagiarism. Are you SURE your words were not lifted inadvertently from a Google search? And have you defamed or misquoted anyone?

In the end you’ll have a manuscript that speaks for you stylishly. Don’t write to impress, write to express. Say what needs to be said and make an end of it.

Details

Those are my principles of writing. Of course, there are lots of bells and whistles that go with it such as tables, figures, glossaries, indexes, abstracts, citations and bibliographies. There is also a lot of prewriting that must be done leading up to the actual composition of the words. But there my advice is don’t spend too much time planning and thinking : that is avoidance behaviour. Get down to the writing. Prewriting, writing and rewriting are stages that usually overlap and go back on themselves. A good rule of thumb is to allow one third of the time to Prewriting, one third to Writing, and one third to Rewriting. That’s a discipline in itself.

  • So, to conclude, mastering the art of writing is largely common sense, taking things a few steps at a time, and not trying to eat the whole elephant all at once.
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