If there is one thing you need to know about Entertainment Journalist of the Year 2015 All Africa Music Awards, Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, it is this: he knows what a good sentence is. Maybe he is a little too aware of his abilities, but he knows his stuff. He knows how a good sentence should look, how its words should be arranged — no danglers — and how to dress it up in fancy punctuations to achieve a Teju Cole-level of euphony.
This was clear at the just concluded ‘Write With Style’ workshop held in Ikeja, Lagos on August 25 through 26, 2018. About 20 participants attended the style workshop. In the weeks leading up to the event, it was marketed as a workshop that would focus on how to write reviews, interviews, reportage, fiction and creative non-fiction. For a two-day programme, that promise was ambitious.
Aigbokhaevbolo had stated that a major part of his workshop would highlight rectifiable errors made by writers across genres or anyone writing sentences regularly. “Think of it like chess,” he said. “You could play chess for 20 years and make the same mistake game after game. One day someone tells you a single thing, like the defensive potency of a pawn and bishop across a diagonal, and it transforms your game. The same is true for writing.”
In spite of the short window between the event and its announcement, the workshop managed to pool in a diverse group of students, content creators, legal practitioners, photographers, screenwriters, a video editor, researcher, motivational speaker and a football writer from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. This diversity was apparent towards the end of the first day, when the participants were asked to share their writing needs and weaknesses. Responses ranged from seeking a writing community to struggling to cultivate the discipline the craft of writing requires.
Later, some members of the group shared brief excerpts from their works in progress: an op-ed with running sentences, the flash fiction that left everyone hanging, an essay whose sophistication was up for debate and so on.While mulling over the first day of the workshop, one of the participants, Goodluck Okechukwu, remarked, “In discussing who we are, our writing, and our insecurities, we were allowed to be vulnerable and that was when we all felt the ice break.”
Owing to his intimate relationship with, and knowledge of, the mechanics of the written language, the award-winning music journalist spent the two days with the group mapping out the line between clumsiness and style.
“Style works with experience,” Aigbokhaevbolo explained, “you first have to know the rule and so you can break them.” The group also spent time trying to categorize African writers according to Truman Capote’s classification of stylists. When the participants read Capote’s praise of Virginia Woolf’s sentences, Ernest Ogunyemi, 17 and still in secondary school, cited his literary hero as Arinze Ifeakandu, author of the Caine Prize shortlisted story ‘God’s Children Are Broken Little Things’.“Ifeakandu has never published a single bad sentence,” Ogunyemi said.
Beyond words, their meanings and their arrangements on paper, Aigbokhaevbolo’s ministry is keen on efficient uses of punctuation — the dash, semicolon, commas and colon—as though punctuation was a language of its own. The gospel is clear: whether you write in English or pidgin, whether you punctuate by sound or by sight, punctuations help tailor words towards meaning, and so are necessary tools through which writers can communicate their sensibilities.
One might wonder why professional, and not so professional, writers still need to learn about punctuation. Apart from the obvious advantage of brushing up on a skill, there is the fact that the workshop happened, in part, as a result of a weakness in Nigeria’s education system.A participant was heard saying under his breath: “It’s like we’re in primary three again.”
The sentiment expressed was that, in talking about the Oxford comma and the stylistic difference between using em-dashes and short dashes, the discussion veered to the pedantic. However, in a group as diverse as the workshop’s, not everyone was on the same page. With the disparity within the group, it only made sense for the workshop to err on the side of rigour and to be scrupulous demanded pedantry.
“On the first day, I could have cut half of what I said on punctuation out but that’s a weakness I can’t ignore,” Aigbokhaevbolo said later. This fault, prevalent among Nigerian writers, Facebook writers and newspaper journalists alike, was a motivating factor for Aigbokhaevbolo. He also thinks too little attention is given to style and how sentences are made in Nigerian writing.
The internationally acclaimed critic explained that due to the success of the pilot session — going by the changed outlook and responses of participants — his hope is to keep expanding the workshop so that many more people can have access to it. When asked how he feels about his workshop doing the government’s work of providing basic education, Aigbokhaevbolo laughed: “I’m Nigerian. Someone has to do it!”