When is writing memorable?

I want to do something splendid…
Something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead…
I think I shall write books.
Louisa May Alcott (author of ‘Little Women’)

Across various professions and industries, we are all authors in one way or the other. In many cases, writing is part of our livelihood – be it an executive presentation, project deliverable, or source code documentation. Bad writing in many cases can mean lost business or even getting fired. Some of our literary works (in a broad sense) are personal, passionate, and may even go to win accolades, while others are routine.

Despite the digital revolution, many books are (thankfully) written each day on various topics. They come in various shapes, forms, and categories and to suit various interests. Glamorous as it sounds (at least going by hits like Harry Potter), writing a book takes a lot of time and effort as any author will tell you, and often the financial income does not match the effort put into creating it. Still we have numerous authors, hopefully driven by an inherent passion to share their views with the world, and if that message resonates with others, become an accomplished author. However, for every successful book that makes the headlines or the ‘bestseller’ list, there are numerous others that don’t make the cut, for various reasons.

The art of writing has been around for ages – so surely someone must’ve written about the guidelines for good writing?

நன்னூல் (nannool)

It turns out that someone indeed has done so. For this, we turn to one of the famed grammatical texts of Thamizh language – நன்னூல் (nannool – நன்மை தரும் நூல் – nanmai tharum nool – book that provides goodness) – that is next only to Tholkaappiyam. While the primary function of the book itself is to provide the grammar for the five areas of Thamizh language – எழுத்து (ezhuthu – letters and phonology), சொல் (sol – words / phrases and syntax), பொருள் (poruL – meaning), யாப்பு (yaappu – structure or form), and அணி (aNi – method and beauty) – of which only the first two remain, the initial verses focus on the characteristics of good writing.

This book was authored by a Jain monk named பவணந்தி முனிவர் (pavaNanthi munivar) around 1200AD. As an interesting aside, although current Tamilnadu does not have a strong Jain following, Thamizh literature itself seems to have had significant contribution from Jain monks. Maybe true to the words of Louisa May Alcott above, they were prescient in sensing that their words will last a lot longer than physical structures!

Characteristics of good writing

So, what makes good writing? It’s not like all authors have a degree in literature where they may have been taught the basics. Writing about something happens either when there is perceived inequality between one’s own knowledge and that of others – the inherent belief that we have something to say to the world (either voluntarily or by duty), makes us write.

Nannool provides a fairly exhaustive description, starting with a verse that acts as the ‘executive summary’ followed by supporting verses that go into the details (poem formatted differently for sake of clarity).

நூலின் இயல்பே நுவலின்
ஓர் இரு பாயிரம் தோற்றி மும்மையின் ஒன்றாய்

நால்பொருள் பயத்தோடு எழுமதம் தழுவி ஐ இரு குற்றமும் அகற்றி
அம் மாட்சியோடு எண் நான்கு உத்தியின்
ஓத்துப் படலம் என்னும் உறுப்பினில்
சூத்திரம் காண்டிகை விருத்தி ஆகும் விகற்ப நடை பெறுமே


noolin iyalbE nuvalin
Or iru
paayiram thOtRi mummayin ondRaai
naal poruL payathodu ezhu madham thazhuvi ai iru kutRamum agatRi
am maatchiyOdu
eN naangu uthiyin
Othu padalam
ennum uRuppinil
soothiram kaandigai
viruthi aagum vigarpa nadai peRumE

The nature of a ‘book’ (more broadly, writing or literature) is that it:
contains two prefaces; is one of three types; provides four values;
supports seven interactions; removes ten errors; uses ten forms of beauty;
leverages thirty two techniques; uses two approaches; and comes in three formats.

Say what? Though we don’t understand it, it’s an executive summary alright! It provides the facts and figures right up front! Let’s break it down with the help of the remaining verses. We have skipped some details for sake of brevity.

Preface

We found this particular one fairly insightful and informative. You might vaguely remember the first few pages of a book where there is typically a foreword, preface, a short introduction, what the book is about, who should read it, and how the book is organized. Mostly we skip this section to get to the first chapter.

Nannool provides the rationale and value for providing such a preface, almost 200 years before the first book was ever printed! Accordingly, a book should contain two types of prefaces – a general preface and a specific preface.

The general preface is defined as follows:

நூலே நுவல்வோன் நுவலும் திறனே
கொள்வோன் கோடல் கூற்றாம் ஐந்தும்
எல்லா நூற்கும் இவை பொது பாயிரம்

noolE nuvalvOn nuvalum thiRanE
koLvOn kOdal kootRaam aindhum
ellaa nooRkkum ivai podhu paayiram

A general preface should describe the following:

  1. நூலே: Why the book is there (it’s purpose and reason for existence)
  2. நுவல்வோன்: Who the author is (his/her background – helps understand potential bias or credibility)
  3. கொள்வோன்: Who the book is intended for (expectations of the reader’s expertise / background)
  4. நுவலும் திறனே: How the author has structured the book (how he believes the reader should read the book)
  5. கோடல் கூற்று: What the reader can get out of the book (how the author believes the reader will benefit by reading)

Why do this? It is so an author can provide the appropriate context around the book so that there is minimal room for misinterpretation by the reader. This embeds the philosophy of modern communication theory in three simple lines.

Even if the preface is skipped by the reader, the act of going through this process can be highly beneficial to the writer. It forces the writer to think about the message to convey, how to structure the message, why he/she is doing this (which in turn, can add authenticity and passion to the writing), and be mindful of how the message may be perceived (and help tune the language based on the intended audience).

Then there is the more specific preface, which acts like the “Library of Congress” catalogue page (again, the page we skip often), which should contain the following:

  1. Author: Creator
  2. Source (if this is a derived work): Source
  3. Region of use or applicability: Coverage
  4. Title: Title
  5. Type of work: Type
  6. Purpose: Description
  7. Intended audience: N/A
  8. Intended benefit of the book: Subject
  9. Publish Date: Date
  10. Publisher (or where it was published): Publisher
  11. Why the book was created (the driver): Contributor

What is the stuff in italics next to each item, you ask? Glad you asked. It is the mapping to the entities in the International standard for content metadata called the Dublin Core, which consists of 15 elements that are used widely across industries to categorize content! The missing elements are Format, Identifier, Language, Relation (to other sources), and Rights – all of which don’t apply in the context when this was codified.

Think about that for a minute – the current business standard for content metadata was defined almost 800 years ago!

Three types

According to nannool – books can be classified into three types:

  1. முதல் நூல் (mudhal nool – first book): Original
  2. வழி நூல் (vazhi nool – following book): Supporting / sequel / commentary, and
  3. சார்பு நூல் (saarbu nool – based or derived): Derivative work

The original intent of the “original” type is that of scriptures. However, in a broader context, this can be taken as any book that is not based off of intellectual property of another book.

The key difference between the “sequel / commentary” work and “derivative” work is that the former is fully aligned with the concept of the “original” with expanded thought by the author, while the latter is conceptually associated but deviates in most other aspects (including arriving at different conclusions that the original author has not explicitly stated or implied).

As an example, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is an “original”. Harry Potter and Chamber of Secrets is a “sequel / extension”, and Book of Spells – a PS3 game – will be a derivative. By this principle, the mythology books by Devdutt Patnaik would be considered an ‘original’ than a commentary or derivative, as they do not align conceptually with the source books and provide concepts that are not referenced or inferred by the source books even though the books use the same context / premise as that of the originals.

Four values

The values imparted by the book are one of அறம் (aram – morals), பொருள் (poruL – economics / wealth / commerce), இன்பம் (inbam – materialism / pleasure), வீடு (veedu – spirituality / salvation), which also form the core of Thamizh philosophy structure.

Seven Interactions

When there is an exchange of ideas, one of seven things will happen:

  1. Supporting (and arguing for) an existing concept (உடன்படல்)
  2. Opposing (or arguing against) an existing concept (மறுத்தல்)
  3. Supporting an idea first but then eventually discarding it (பிறர் தம் மதம் மேல் கொண்டு களைவு)
  4. Establishing a new concept or idea and enforcing it throughout the text (தாஅன் நாட்டி தானாது நிருப்பு)
  5. Taking two opposing viewpoints and selecting one of them (இருவர் மாறுகோள் ஒரு தலை துணிவு)
  6. Pointing out the fallacy of another work (பிறர்நூல் குற்றம் காட்டல்)
  7. Expounding the superiority of one’s views against others (பிறிதொடு படாஅன் தன் மதம் கொள்ளல்)

These cover the various scenarios why we propose and exchange ideas – verbally or orally – to showcase, enforce, accept, debate, argue, stand ground, or fault ideas.

Ten Errors

An author should also ensure that their literary work is flawless. What flaws?

  1. Not explaining a concept sufficiently (குன்றக் கூறல்)
  2. Over elaborating on a concept beyond necessity (மிகைபடக் கூறல்)
  3. Being redundant (கூறியது கூறல்)
  4. Saying something contradictory to what is said earlier (மாறுகொளக் கூறல்)
  5. Using inappropriate words or inaccurate facts (வழூஉச்சொல் புணர்த்தல்)
  6. Being vague (மயங்க வைத்தல்)
  7. Adding fluff or meaningless words (வெற்றெனத் தொடுத்தல்)
  8. Being incoherent or randomly changing topics (மற்றொன்று விரித்தல்)
  9. Losing impact over due course (சென்று தேய்ந்து இறுதல்), and
  10. Having no relevance or message (நின்று பயன் இன்மை).

What is amazing is that all these can equally apply to any executive presentation in a business context – these are all great reasons why a presentation can fall flat and not make the desired impact – be it a product pitch or a project deliverable.

Ten forms of beauty

What makes a book a pleasure to read? Nannool has an answer to that as well!

  1. Being concise (சுருங்கச் சொல்லல்)
  2. Explaining without room for misinterpretation (விளங்க வைத்தல்)
  3. Making it enjoyable for the reader (நவின்றோர்க்கு இனிமை)
  4. Using the right words / words with the most impact (நல்மொழி புணர்த்தல்)
  5. Melody, or in a broader context, using an apt vocabulary (ஓசை உடைமை)
  6. Having a profound and impactful message (ஆழமுடைத்து ஆதல்)
  7. Having an appropriate structure for the message conveyed (முறையின் வைப்பு)
  8. Aligning with the context / culture (உலகம் மலையாமை)
  9. Providing value (விழுமியது பயத்தல்), and
  10. Providing appropriate examples (விளங்கு உதாரணத்தது).

Again, imagine how many of these you had in your recent presentation to make it impactful?!

Thirty two techniques

We will keep this for a separate post for sake of brevity here, but suffice to say that a fairly comprehensive list is provided covering various scenarios and is a pleasure to review all by itself.

In addition to the techniques, the author also adds an additional piece of advice to authors: A smart author is one who writes in such a way that the message to be conveyed is aligned with the culture of the writing format and that of the readers, building trust by agreeing on common ground with readers, and by using the right technique at the right place.

Surprisingly this sage advice fits perfectly not just for literature but also software development! We will let the reader make the connections 🙂

Parting Thoughts

It is astounding to see the level of depth and rational thought process used in classifying and categorizing various concepts succinctly. No wonder the author was not bashful in naming his work as nannool (the book full of goodness)!

Additional Reading

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