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11 Effective Writing Tips

June 22, 2014

My workload this past year gave me very little time for other things, as is evident from my total neglect of this blog. A sample of what I’ve written this year can be seen here.  I’m now taking four weeks off to spend with family. During this break, I want to consolidate and share a few writing lessons that people who are starting in the fields of documentation, report writing, or communication might find helpful.

I’ve learned a few things from my experiences i) helping Karnataka Health Promotion Trust evaluate candidates and select a finalist for a position of documentation officer for KHPT’s India Learning Network, ii) lecturing on effective writing and mentoring participants in the Population Council’s scientific writing courses for grantees of the Gates Foundation’s Avahan program, and iii) working with the foundation’s grantees to document the Ananya program in Bihar. Through this exposure to many people’s writing, I observed some common issues that I now guard against in my own work.

I’m inspired to write this by Daniel Odio, who encourages the readers of his blog to use the Internet to share what they know, as he does. In his posts about his quest to learn to take great photos, Daniel invited readers to contribute their suggestions and experiences, which resulted in some enlightening contributions and exchanges. In the hope of doing something similar, I urge readers of this post to share thoughts, links, and advice on documentation and effective writing. I’ll be very grateful to learn from you.

Another person who has influenced me is John Griggs, whose blog posts are always enjoyable, informative, and inspiring. I appreciate John’s work because he shares not only tips about techniques and tools that work well but also accounts of mishaps in the field. In his posts about documenting a hot air balloon festival and a night-time football game, John revisits some instructive bloopers and challenges that he encountered. I find such candid disclosures extremely valuable because they are rare and because I’m extremely prone to make such errors myself.

Here’s my list of recommendations for effective writing:

1. Write with Clear Purpose

Start each piece—be it an essay, article, report, or story—by composing a clear and concise purpose and message of the piece. Writers should be clear in their own mind about their central or primary purpose and message before they begin writing. This purpose and message should be written down before starting and then reread occasionally while composing and revising the story to make sure that the story is achieving its purpose and communicating its central message.

It’s helpful for readers if the story’s purpose and message are presented in the opening.

I know this sounds obvious, but I suggest this because I’ve seen too many pieces in which it was evident that writer had either given little thought to or forgotten their story’s purpose or message. Such stories were not just ineffective: in some cases such ill-conceived essays actually conveyed the opposite message of what was needed—instead of showcasing progress and improvement, they illustrated dysfunction, which did little to inspire confidence in the program being documented.

2. Know Your Audience

It is additionally helpful if writers are clear about their primary audience. If you are writing for a specific audience, then you should clearly understand what you want the audience to learn from your piece. Also, if you are writing to inspire your readers to take a particular action, then you should clearly and explicitly describe that action to the readers.

If you wish to influence a specific audience, I recommend explicitly stating in the opening of your article who you are writing for, so that readers will easily recognize whether your article is relevant or intended for them.

3. Never Mystify Your Readers

Rather than writing uninformative or vague things, such as “etc.,” “and other things,” “certain essentials,” “all the facilities,” or “many benefits,” writers should specify what they are referring to. Vague claims and terms are deadweight and should be replaced with precise details during revision.

4. Avoid Jargon

David Meerman Scott and Tony Proscio have written excellent essays on the sin of using jargon. Communication is most effective when words are plain and common. Tony Proscio’s essays are essential reading.

5. Use Linear Sentences

Another bit of advice from Tony Proscio is to always clearly explain who did what to whom. In this advice we see linear sentence structure of subject, verb, and object. Linear sentence structure is the easiest to comprehend.

6. Discriminate When Choosing Words

The English language is full of synonyms, but synonyms don’t necessarily have identical meaning. Use a dictionary and a thesaurus to choose words very deliberately so that your writing says precisely what you mean.

7. Be Concise

It is easier to comprehend short sentences than long sentences. As a thumb rule, I try to keep sentences under 25 words. Many people don’t have the mental stamina to comprehend two 50-word sentences in a row. I also suggest limiting each sentence to a single point, rather than trying to make multiple points in a single sentence.

8. Inform Readers

Try to tell readers something that they didn’t know. Do research to find evidence from scientific studies that puts your story in context and demonstrates the significance, scale, and urgency of your topic. Much of the world’s research is at our fingertips, thanks to the Internet. Although some scholarly articles are published in journals that are behind paywalls, many articles and research reports are available for free.

9. Bring Your Story to Life with Quotes

Rather than merely telling readers what happened, it is often better to include direct quotes from people who play a role in the story that you are writing. Verbatim quotes or testimony serve to increase the credibility of your claims or assertions, just as you’ll be more likely to believe that a restaurant is good if you hear this from a customer than from the owner.

10. Include Relevant Details

Details make stories informative, interesting, and rewarding for readers, as Cila Warncke points out in a great blog post. Provide details about who, what, where, when, why, and how. Irrelevant details, however, should be omitted. I recently reworked an article about a public health extension worker who improved her knowledge and skills by completing a training course. The article mentioned that she was a native of the same district as a notorious politician. This distracting detail had absolutely nothing to do with the story, and was therefore the first thing that I removed. Details such as this only bloat an article.

11. Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite

The biggest piece of advice that I have for writers is to revise their work. I recommend giving the draft of your story to a colleague for comments.









Review: The EOSHD Panasonic GH3 Shooter’s Guide (first edition)

December 25, 2013

On December 19, Andrew Reid, the creator of, released The EOSHD Panasonic GH3 Shooter’s Guide. Andrew is a British filmmaker who lives in Berlin. He contributed to the GH3 review on, and he has also published a GH3 review on

The EOSHD Panasonic GH3 Shooter's Guide

The EOSHD Panasonic GH3 Shooter’s Guide

I purchased the guide three days ago and have gone through it. People have been posting questions on forums, asking for more information about the guide, so I’ve decided to share my thoughts to help others decide if the guide is right for them.

Andrew says he produced the Shooter’s Guide to save people the time and trouble of having to search  on many forums for information and advice.  This is why I bought it. Although I had the Panasonic GH3 Owner’s Manual, I still needed an experienced coach to advise me on which of the camera’s many settings to select.

The Shooter’s Guide contains many recommendations on choosing settings, shooting video, selecting lenses, editing video,and recording audio. 90 of the guide’s 250 pages are devoted to recommendations and illustrations about lenses and lens adapters. Those pages were not so useful to me because I already chose lenses based on information from Ming Thein’s blog, John Griggs’s blog, and zoom and prime lens test reports from DXOMark.

The guide is heavily video-centric, which is what I needed. For example, although Reid provides images of the pages of the Motion Picture menu, the Custom menu, the Setup menu, and the Playback menu, he doesn’t provide an image of the Rec menu pages, which are largely for photography settings.

I find the guide’s images of menu pages very helpful because they serve as a reference map for quickly finding settings that Andrew recommends. Here’s the guide’s image of the Custom menu pages:

EOSHD Panasonic GH3 Shooter's Guide Custom Menu pages image

EOSHD Panasonic GH3 Shooter’s Guide Custom Menu pages image

For comparison, here’s the Custom menu settings information provided in the Panasonic GH3 Owner’s Manual:

Panasonic GH3 Owner's Manual Custom Menu settings

Panasonic GH3 Owner’s Manual Custom Menu settings

Andrew says he spent a year working on the Shooter’s Guide. In my opinion, he should have spent a few more days. The guide wasn’t proofread, which makes it annoying to read. For example, on page 42, he writes, “Exposure meter shows how brightly exposed the image is on a meter which swings from a centre-point to the right if under exposed or to the right if over exposed.” On page 51, he mentions “Hollywood Settings” that he says he provided at the start of the chapter, but no Hollywood settings were mentioned at the start of the chapter. While page numbers are mentioned for recommended Custom menu settings on page 41, no page numbers are given for recommended Setup menu settings on page 44. Andrew uses affect and effect incorrectly and inconsistently throughout the guide.  The guide also reads in places like a rough draft, which is disappointing for something that costs $19.99 in softcopy.

I hope that Andrew will proofread all future Shooter’s Guides before selling them. I’d be happy to do it for him.

While the EOSHD Panasonic GH3 Shooter’s Guide is not as well written or comprehensive as Sonja Schenk and Ben Long’s Digital Filmmaking Handbook, the guide is a very good companion to the GH3 Owner’s Manual, and it does reduce the steepness of the GH3’s learning curve for people who are new to video, like myself.

If you print the guide, I recommend printing two pages on a single page. This makes it easier to view photos that Andrew uses to compare the effect of different features. Andrew tends to place one photo per page, so to compare photos you have to turn the page. I find it easier to compare photos if they’re on the same page. So I printed the guide like this:

Shooter's Guide cover and first page of Table of Contents

Shooter’s Guide cover and first page of Table of Contents

Tracking Time with a Ticking Egg

February 19, 2013

A few weeks ago, my steadily increasing workload and my evermore daunting To Read stack of books and reports made me realize that I should find a way to be more productive. This realization coincided with my discovery of Daniel Odio’s blog, which I first found through his quest to learn to take insanely great pictures, and his very cool post about the equipment he uses to record events. Daniel’s contagious zeal for personal productivity made me think about how I spend my time. (Daniel is also commendably evangelistic about using the internet to share what we know and how we do things, and he practices what he preaches.)

Daniel’s post explaining how he plays his computer like an instrument and his lifehacker tips for hyper efficiency made me aware that I could get more done each day if I use tools that boost my productivity.

Sebastian Marshall’s many posts and videos about time tracking showed me how he tracks his time each day, but I found Sebastian’s system too detailed. I just wanted something to help me prioritize my tasks, concentrate on the priorities, and spend time more productively.  In a comment on one of Sebastian’s posts, a reader recommended Francesco Cirillo’s Pomodoro Technique. Fortunately, Francesco Cirillo’s book explaining the technique is a free download.

The Pomodoro Technique user manual

The Pomodoro Technique user manual













After reading The Pomodoro Technique, I encountered a small problem: I couldn’t find a pomodoro—a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. I solved this problem by buying an egg-shaped timer, which, despite being non-vegetarian, works just as well.

an egg-shaped kitchen timer

A egg-shaped kitchen timer works as well as a pomodoro

I also slightly modified the To Do and Activity planning forms that are shown in the book. Here’s my To Do Today planning form, and here’s my Activity planning form.

In the Pomodoro Technique, one works in 25-minute “pomodoros,” although I call them “eggs.” To understand the entire technique, I recommend reading the free book.

I’ve been using this technique for just over a week and have found it very helpful for planning each day, planning days to come, prioritizing work, budgeting my time, concentrating while working, and accounting for my time. The technique is particularly useful for knowing how much time I’ve spent on assignments for which I bill clients by the hour.

The only hazard of this technique is that pomodoros are not supposed to be interrupted. This can cause marital discord, particularly when my wife comes home from work and expects some face time, and I tell her that I can’t speak because I’m in the middle of an egg.

While on the subject of time management and productivity, I recommend Tony Schwartz’s recent article in the NY Times, counterintuitively entitled, “Relax! You’ll Be More Productive.” Schwartz’s assertion that a person who works fewer hours per day can be more productive and creative than a person who works more hours rings true for me. I’ve certainly not been impressed by the output of frantic, exhausted, impatient people who fail to recognize the damage almost invariably caused by haste.

the egg-shaped kitchen timer and a cup of coffee

My performance enhancers–would go well with two slices of bacon

Privatized Solid Waste Management Still Failing to Protect Public Health in Puducherry

February 3, 2013

On January 20, 2011, I shot the following photo of a street corner in Puducherry’s heavily touristed historic district–a neighborhood that one would expect Puducherry’s administrators to keep spotless because of its extremely high visibility.

Privatisation is not the solution to India's solid waste crisis

The corner of Rue Romain Rolland and Lal Bahadur Shastri Street, Puducherry, 20 January 2011

In January 2011, Puducherry’s government contracted municipal solid waste management for 19 years to a company named Kivar Environ through a public-private joint venture, Puducherry Municipal Services Pvt. Ltd. (PMSPL). In this blog, I’ve documented the failure of PMSPL to bring waste management in Puducherry into compliance with the Indian government’s Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, which were gazetted in 2000. The rules mandate daily, door-to-door collection of segregated recyclable and compostable municipal solid waste.

In April 2012, Kivar Environ quit their 19-year contract with the government of Puducherry on the grounds of financial irregularities. Puducherry’s government then reverted to the previous arrangement of contracting waste collection to local small contractors. The results of this arrangement on the same street corner are visible in the following photos, taken on 21 January 2013:

Municipal waste littered in Puducherry, India

Rue Romain Rolland and Lal Bahadur Shastri St., 21 January 2013

A waste collector rummages for recyclable waste in Puducherry

A waste collector rummages through municipal waste on Rue Romain Rolland, Puducherry, 21 January 2013

Leaving aside the disgraceful sight and smell of this rotting garbage and the nuisance and hazard caused by large packs of stray dogs that feed on and scatter the trash, such mismanagement of garbage seriously jeopardizes public health. Such unhygienic conditions, which create ideal breeding grounds for disease vectors (rats, mosquitoes, flies), are believed to have led to the pneumonic plague epidemic in Surat in 1994 and are the reason that the government of India drafted clear regulations for scientific management of municipal solid waste in 2000.

Privatized waste management is clearly failing to protect public health in Puducherry and in other localities throughout India, but local authorities appear to remain entirely unconcerned.

I Want to Hear Your Assessment of Privatized Solid Waste Management in Indian Localities

January 3, 2013

At the insistence of the World Bank and other like-minded providers of development aid, India’s government is privatizing municipal solid waste management in cities and towns nationwide. The outcome of this privatization drive is not publicly reported in a timely or comprehensive manner, so the public has no way of overseeing its result.

It is important for the public to monitor this initiative because the privatization of waste management directly and significantly influences the quality of life of millions of people.

If solid waste management has been privatized in your locality in India, I encourage you to tell me about the results.

So far, efforts to privatize waste management in Puducherry, Bangalore, Amritsar, and Chennai have failed to bring waste management in those localities into compliance with the government’s regulations, which are designed to protect the environment and safeguard public health.

The promoters of public service privatization– the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, USAID, and GIZ (formerly GTZ)–won’t divulge the findings of evaluations of privatization efforts. Therefore, I’m requesting all who read this blog to tell me about efforts to privatize municipal solid waste management in Indian cities and towns.

So far, we know the following:

Kivar Environ, which began collecting, hauling, and dumping waste from Pondicherry in January 2011, quit in April 2012, in the second year of a 19-year contract.

In August 2012, Antony Waste Management, which was contracted in 2009 to collect, haul, and dump waste from Amritsar, quit their 7-year contract.

Ramky’s landfill in Mavallipura, which receives waste from Bangalore, has been a debacle. Supposedly designed to last for 20 years, the landfill was overflowing after just three years and has turned its surrounding area into an ecological sacrifice zone.

Efforts to privatize waste management in Chennai have repeatedly flopped.

If waste management in your locality has been privatized, I’d like to hear from you about it. Please contact me through this blog’s comments feature.

Source of Illegally Dumped Biomedical Waste Appears To Be Pondicherry’s MGPGI

December 22, 2012

In May 2011, I reported the illegal, large-scale dumping and burning of biomedical waste at Pondicherry’s truck terminal. In September 2011, Health Care Without Harm published Medical Waste and Human Rights, a report prepared for the UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur, which mentioned illegal biomedical waste disposal in Pondicherry and included my photos of waste dumped at the truck terminal.  That same month, India’s Comptroller and Auditor General released a report that criticized Pondicherry’s Pollution Control Committee, which is supposed to function as Pondicherry’s environmental protection agency, for failing to bring biomedical waste management into compliance with the government’s guidelines.

The illegal dumping of biomedical waste at Pondicherry’s truck terminal continues. The following photos, taken on 22 December 2012, show waste that evidently comes from the Puducherry Government’s Mahatma Gandhi Postgraduate Institute of Dental Sciences (MGPGI).

Biomedical waste from the MGPGI at Pondicherry's truck terminal

Biomedical waste at Pondicherry’s truck terminal, 22 December 2012

Biomedical waste at Pondicherry's truck terminal

Biomedical waste from Pondicherry’s MGPGI at Pondicherry’s truck terminal

Biomedical waste from the MGPGI illegally dumped in Pondicherry

Illegally dumped biomedical waste from the MGPGI at Pondicherry’s truck terminal

Impressions of the Nokia 808 Pureview

December 7, 2012

In late August I bought a Nokia 808. After using it for three months and printing some photos taken with it, I now feel ready to share my assessment of this groundbreaking camera phone. Rather than writing a comprehensive review, I just want to share a few things that have surprised me about the phone, and, as someone who takes and processes photos almost every day, comment on the performance of the phone’s most distinctive feature, its 41-megapixel, 1/1.2-inch-sensor camera. I’ll also show a few photos taken with the phone.

My objective is to share my impression of the phone with people who are considering buying one. Overall, my impression is very favorable.

The 808’s specifications and a detailed description of its features can be found in’s review. DPreview gave the 808 a Gold Award.

The photos that I printed this week were impressive: comparable in quality to photos taken with my Lumix LX3. For my work I now use a Lumix G1. I would say that the 808’s photos are not as good as those taken with the G1, particularly in terms of clipping highlights and in terms of precision focusing. The 808 lacks the G1’s ability to reduce the focus frame.

My only disappointment with the phone is that internet signal reception is poorer than that of my previous phone, a Nokia E6, so checking my e-mail is often a frustrating experience.

Perhaps my biggest surprise is the phone’s remarkable battery life. I hesitated to upgrade from the Nokia E6 because, with judicious power management, the E6 went for up to four days without needing to be charged. I dreaded the prospect of having a phone that must be charged daily. I’m delighted that the 808 goes for three days between charges.

Another delight has been shooting HD video with the phone and then playing the clips on my TV by connecting the phone to the TV with an HDMI cable. Full HD video shot with the phone looks great.

The phone’s camera lets users adjust many settings, and the lossless zoom (silent in videos!) works very well.

The phone’s major advantage over other camera phones is its ability to capture quite decent images in low light, partly because of its large sensor but also because of its powerful Xenon flash.

Here is a photo that I shot of three friends last night.

Friends at Hotel Accord, Pondicherry

Friends at Hotel Accord, Pondicherry

Here’s a photo of cows at the farm on which I live.

Cows at Annapurna farm, Auroville

Cows at Annapurna farm, Auroville

This is a photo of plastic bottle labels dumped beside a truck terminal in Pondicherry, one of my favorite (photo) shooting grounds. I imagine they’ve been discarded by a plastic bottle recycler.

Plastic bottle labels discarded at Pondicherry's truck terminal

Plastic bottle labels discarded at Pondicherry’s truck terminal

And here’s a 100% crop of the area denoted by the red rectangle in the above image.

100% crop from the above image

100% crop from the above image

Here’s a macro of the labels.

Waste beverage labels

Waste beverage labels

Finally, here are images of cows foraging in the rubbish dumped beside the truck terminal. Almost all Indian livestock that graze on such mixed municipal solid waste have some plastic in their digestive tracts, and cows have been found to accumulate up to 50 kilograms of plastic in their rumens, sometimes killing the animals.

Cow foraging in mixed municipal solid waste illegally dumped beside Pondicherry's truck terminal

Cow foraging in mixed municipal solid waste illegally dumped beside Pondicherry’s truck terminal

Cow foraging in municipal solid waste at Pondicherry's truck terminal

Cow foraging in municipal solid waste at Pondicherry’s truck terminal

Several others have posted their assessments of Nokia’s 808 in WordPress blogs. Like many of them, I conclude that the 808 is a very capable camera and, by the way, a decent phone.