How to avoid aid and development writing pitfalls

Photo by Stephanie E. Buck
Photo by Stephanie E. Buck

How many times have you walked away from an NGO’s website scratching your head, wondering, “So….what do they do?” Or have you ever skimmed a report, article, or other publication, and thought, “OK I kind of get it, but not really. I think I also zoned out through 80% of what I just read.”

It’s easy to forget that most people are not fluent in devspeak. Even for those of us who do speak the language, many articles, websites, reports, videos, etc. don’t always leave us with a clear understanding of what the authors are trying to convey. Interested observers become lost and/or bored. Buzzwords lose their meaning. Vague terminology leaves us with more questions than answers.

There are plenty of talented writers and communications teams out there. There is no denying that. Yet, the problems persist. Perhaps it’s because sometimes poor writing trends beget more poor writing trends. Or maybe we get stuck in a rut, and lose track of how to talk about what we do in plain speech and shirk off the aura of development elitism. We forget that part of our job as industry professionals is to tell our stories, and to tell them well. Much like academic writing, international development writing can easily become a kind of storytelling that makes it hard for people to understand what we do, who we work with, and why it matters.

The audience and context will determine the specifics of the writing style and content. However, there are several basic guidelines to keep in mind to make it easier to engage with and understand the stories we tell.

  • Avoid jargon. It’s often confusing at best, and harmful at worst.
  • Simplify, simplify, simplify. Stick to shorter, simpler sentences so that you don’t lose your audience. Along the same lines, shorter paragraphs make your work easier to read. Dense blocks of text with run-on sentences will make your reader tune out, or just get confused.
  • Don’t bury the lead. I have seen too many writers bury interesting points behind overly descriptive prose. Hiding the point of the piece like this may result in your reader walking away thinking, “So what?” And discarding poignant insight.
  • Make connections. Given the fact that so many of us are short on time, don’t force your reader to work harder than necessary. Draw conclusions and clear connections between how your work relates to the bigger picture.
  • Leave the flowery/academic language for another time. This doesn’t mean that your writing should be boring. But the style itself should not distract the reader. Making up words for the sake of sounding smarter just makes it harder for people to understand what you’re trying to say and why it matters.
  • Use active voice as much as possible. Because writing mostly in passive voice will make your reader fall asleep.

In conclusion

Everyone has their own writing style. But these suggestions speak to a greater pattern of problems I have noticed in reading and editing many partners’ and colleagues’ work. We need to see ourselves as storytellers when we’re writing about and for international development. And a huge part of that involves writing clearly.

So…

Kill your darlings. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice self-indulgent passages for the greater good of your written work. Don’t get too attached. Let someone else read your work (teamwork helps). Always come back with a critical eye, evaluating your work as if it were written by someone you don’t like. Don’t worry about the first draft. But always edit, edit, edit.

What do you think? What other tips would you give?

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5 Comments

  1. Thanks for these great tips, Stephanie. A particular challenge I run into is working with colleagues who’s first language is not American English. Many other languages and cultures are less direct and to-the-point. Flowery phrases work much better in Spanish than they do in American English. Passive voice is used far more in Albanian than it is in American English. Understanding and accepting these differences is crucial.

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    1. Thanks, Laina! And I agree that understanding and accepting those differences is important. I would run into many of the same issues when working with Spanish-speaking colleagues on various reports. Understanding the different writing styles helps everyone maintain sanity. Follow-up phone calls have always helped tease out the most important information, too.

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