Topic 4: Writing

Topic 4: Writing

“Overview … Readings and Lectures”
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  • Topic 4: Writing > Readings and Lectures > Introduction Video
  • Topic 4: Writing > Readings and Lectures > Writing and the Editorial Process Video
  • Topic 4: Writing > Readings and Lectures > Writing Tips Video
  • Topic 4: Writing > Readings and Lectures > Researchers Offer More Writing Tips Video
  • Topic 4: Writing > Readings and Lectures > Operational Details Video
  • Topic 4: Writing > Readings and Lectures > An Editor's Perspective Video

Topic 4: Writing > Readings and Lectures > Introduction Video

  • In this session of the course we talk about writing.
  • We’ll introduce a process designed to help you write more easily, more efficiently.

Topic 4: Writing > Readings and Lectures > Writing and the Editorial Process Video

  • Let’s talk about the writing process.
  • If you’re the case researcher and writer this is probably the most interesting part of this whole discussion.
  • We want to talk about preparing to write and shortly you’ll hear some writers talk about how they prepare to write.
  • First you can enormously simplify the writing process if you construct a pre-story before you go into the field and if you start to compose the de-brief- the story you are going to tell at the end-while you’re still conducting the interviews.
  • So while you are in the field doing the interviews have that story in mind and try to write it down as you go.
  • It really helps enormously with the writing process when you get home.
  • The chronology can be as good as an outline for structuring the writing process.

Topic 4: Writing > Readings and Lectures > Writing Tips Video

  • I’m not an editor and I’m not an especially good writer, although I have read a lot of science delivery cases and made a lot of changes in many of them.
  • I want to offer a few tips that we’ve heard from editors and writers.
  • Your readers may not speak the same language you do.
  • They may read your language, but they’re not necessarily people who have a wide grasp of that language.
  • So you want to make sure that you keep the writing simple and direct.
  • Then move on and remind the reader later, but try to avoid jargon and definitely avoid academic language.
  • In the science of delivery case we want to know who that somebody was.
  • Why is it so bad? In addition to the fact that it puts the reader to sleep, it obscures the agent, it obscures the person who actually did the work.
  • So the more passive voice there is, the higher the probability that you will have to go back to the research site and conduct new interviews or that an editor will be unable to work with the prose that you have provided.
  • ” So all of these are examples of active voice, compared to the passive voice that you saw before.
  • You can see that active voice offers more information.
  • It’s critical information for a science of delivery case.
  • They don’t have a place in a case study for the following reason.
  • An adjective is a judgment that the writer has made and the reader quickly asks in his or her mind well what’s the evidence? “Writer, show me the evidence that it really was big.
  • So why not skip straight to the data and forget the adjectives? Economize on space and economize on your writer’s patience.
  • So there may be some situations where you want to use an adjective, but these are rare.
  • So say you want to capture the the way somebody was regarded by the people around him or her.
  • If the quote contains an adjective, that quote is from somebody who is close to the situation, and that person has some kind of credibility in the reader’s mind.
  • You don’t want to frustrate your reader, and one of the common ways that readers do become frustrated is over pronouns.
  • You want to make sure that “he” refers to the person in the previous sentence, or “she” refers to the person in the previous sentence and that that allusion is clear.
  • The reader has no idea what “this” or “that” would be.
  • If you introduce a person up front, eight pages later the reader is likely to have forgotten who that person was, if the next reference doesn’t occur for eight pages.
  • For a reader, the narrative flow, the chronology, is terribly important, and yet we often want to add in some analytics.
  • It’s easy to get the story very confused in a reader’s mind.
  • It’s especially important in a science of delivery case study where the sequence is very important, or the sequence of steps is very important to the outcome.
  • It’s also possible to indicate shifts in subject within the case study or shifts in the content or the voice of a case study.
  • All of this will help the reader situate himself or herself with respect to the case.
  • They’ll struggle less to read. Finally, limit acronyms.
  • International organizations are among the worst offenders in the use of acronyms.
  • Most people stumble when they encounter an acronym in a text.
  • So we try to reduce the use of acronyms dramatically.
  • Sometimes the acronym is the word that people use to refer to something, and we have to include it.
  • We want to make sure we only use them in those circumstances.
  • It will vary you’ll have to make a judgement on a case by case basis, but you may not need the full name of the organization.
  • If you’re only going to refer to an organization once then don’t use the acronym at all.
  • Spell out the name you’ll have to do that anyway, and then skip the acronym completely.
  • These things make a case study enormously easier to read. You can include some kind of table at the back of the case that gives readers a guide but if they have to flip back and forth, they’re unlikely to read the case all the way through.

Topic 4: Writing > Readings and Lectures > Researchers Offer More Writing Tips Video

  • The pre-trip briefing we do is really useful because it’s an opportunity to organize all your information.
  • When you’re starting off a case, there can be so many different details and it’s really hard to know which ones are important before you’ve actually had a chance to go out and interview people.
  • So we’ve developed a pre-trip template that asks some of the key questions that you really need to know before you go into interviews.
  • I personally find that really helpful, because it can be overwhelming how much information you can find and not really know how it all fits together.
  • Our post-trip template is really useful too because it gives you an opportunity to organize all of the material you have in your head and in your notes when you come back, before you really put the hard effort into the writing process.
  • So it’s helpful to really have something on paper to work off of, when discussing what the draft should look like with the editor and our director.
  • I think some of the most common ones are that it’s very difficult to balance the thematic element of the template with the desire to really keep things chronological and make the story flow for the reader.
  • This is something that I think you can really only solve by trying to be really aware of the need to balance those things and to try to be aware of the chronology and make sure you that when you’re not working chronologically that you’re really sign- sign-posting things for the reader.
  • It’s really important to be aware of that structure and not let it subconsciously influence how it is that you’re writing the story.
  • I think the way that you make a case interesting to read is really to focus on the human element of the story.
  • So as long as you can sort of find those, those moments- the tense moments, the happy moments, the human element to the story- then you can really keep the pace going and make the reader interested.
  • I think one of the biggest challenges we face is that sometimes you can pick up the jargon and the slang of your interviewees without even realizing you’re doing it, and you can end up with this really hard-to-read case full of acronyms and technical terms.
  • So sometimes it’s really important as the writer to take a step back and say, are these really the terms that are going to make it easiest for our readers to understand, and do I really need to be using these sort of obscure references? Otherwise you can end up with kind of an alphabet soup.

Topic 4: Writing > Readings and Lectures > Operational Details Video

  • We talk a lot about trying to get into the operational detail when we’re writing cases.
  • The way I try to think about it is, if I were trying to replicate this reform or policy in another country, what is it that I would really need to know? Not just the macro level of how something worked, but the details, how do they train the staff? Things like that.
  • A pretty good rule of thumb is if you don’t really understand it without the detail, then the detail is necessary in the case.
  • >> By operational detail, I think, what we don’t mean is being able to provide a recipe or a blueprint for a particular project or reform.
  • By operational detail, what we mean is describing the sequence of steps that reformers followed, in implementing a project or policy.
  • The level of operational detail often depends on the time since the project or reform was carried out.
  • In writing a case study, the level of detail we want is to be able to say, what were the key steps that people followed in order to make the implementation a reality.
  • >> Operational detail is the nitty-gritty stuff that often gets overlooked by everyone else.
  • What was the process? How was that decision made? What were the really seemingly small details that actually played a big part of the decision? One thing I was told in an interview recently was that two separate offices were in charge of writing a manual procedures for the the reform that they were undertaking.

Topic 4: Writing > Readings and Lectures > An Editor’s Perspective Video

  • Well, I think one of the things that makes a good case study for me is certainly an emphasis on the concrete, the specific.
  • So the more specific, gritty texture, you can get into a story, I think, the better it will resonate with readers.
  • What should be the division of labor between a writer and an editor? I think for me, the writer should keep a wide open net.
  • By honesty, I think we mean you don’t want to trick your source.
  • Sources tend to be, I think, actually, surprisingly realistic about that.
  • There’s actually great virtue to that accuracy, because then you get real texture instead of some very, very smooth piece that doesn’t actually reflect reflect the reality that you’re trying to capture.
  • I think you have an obligation to be very honest about your own relationship to the story, and not to pretend that you’re some kind of a supreme, distant, being who has no involvement in what’s happening at all.
  • Wherever possible you should disclose your own involvement and be very clear about your institutional affiliations.
  • I think even the best fact checker will almost always turn up two or three little glitches in even the best reported story.
  • So the first thing I tell the reporter is, you are responsible, and if you get it wrong, there’s going to be a correction notice at the bottom of your story, and that’s not going to feel very good.
  • We do correction notices here at Foreign Policy, if something needs to be changed in the story after it’s published, we’re very transparent about that with readers and there’s a big notice at the bottom, and it always feels pretty unpleasant when that happens.
  • Assume a very adversarial position, an adversarial stance towards your own story.
  • Because it’s very much a matter of the language you choose to describe a particular situation.
  • When someone makes a very grand and sweeping claim, that’s usually a danger signal.
  • Another thing that’s very simple and very important is that if you’re making a very serious claim against an institution- and I don’t care if it’s Google or the Saudi Arabian Monarchy- you need to go to that institution and say what’s your response to this? That can prevent a lot of really big problems because very often if those organizations know how to deal with the media, they will flag something that is flat out wrong, which is of course what you want.
  • Good writing has some abstraction in it, but really good writing is very concrete, very hands on.
  • Not summing in up a bunch of abstract concepts whose meaning is very familiar to you.
  • Which institutions are we talking about? What kind of institutions, right? Is, do you mean my downtown bowling club is an institution? Or is the White House an institution? Or is the government that the White House is a part of an institution? So obviously, these concepts can be very important but let’s try to keep it as concrete, as hands-on as possible.
  • That’s why it’s often very good to forget about an abstract argument and talk about specific individuals, specific situations, specific countries, specific environments.
  • You talk about experiences, very specific concrete experiences that people have had in trying to solve specific problems, in bureaucracies or outside of them.
  • I think that’s really the added value of what an organization like yours is doing.
  • You’re not just talking in a very general way about you know, various issues.
  • Some academics are very, very good at shifting to the journalism mode.
  • >> But we generally are very pragmatic, so we spend an enormous amount of time saying, oh, “Would that [phrasing] work better than that? And we’re very practical about that.”Oh, I like it.
  • SOUND] And I’m struck by how often I have academic authors who actually don’t seem very concerned about that.
  • That all has its value, but in the journalistic world we’re actually very obsessed with getting the message across.
  • >> Its very tricky because some jargon serves useful purpose.
  • One has to use technical language, but wherever possible, you should give very specific and concrete examples of what you mean by that.
  • >> And very often, I think it’s good to put a “Stake,” put a little stake in the text, just a kind of flag, and say “This is what we mean when we use the word.” One of the most common writing problems for academics, especially, is the use of passive verbs.
  • It is very interesting how often academics prefer the passive voice.
  • There’s actually very little of that in the real world.
  • It’s very hard for the mind to process passives, especially in English.
  • For a very specific reasons, it is very hard on the brain when you’re reading, if you have a lot of passive constructions or impersonal constructions in a sentence.
  • So do I need all the complicated form names, and the dates, and the data points in the first paragraph? I don’t think so, I think you want to move them a little bit farther down, when you’ve actually familiarized the reader with where you’re going in the story, rather than, throwing out a bunch of obstacles and tank traps, and chain link fences right at the beginning of the story.
  • If you’re going to have alphabet soup make it the last course Well, again, I think it’s always very very effective.
  • A very tried and true old trick that news magazines used to rely a lot on.
  • One of the great advantages of your ISS case studies is that you very often manage to get reporters to the place, right? >> Mm-hm.
  • I’d say, set it up, yes, set up the problem, but try to set it up in very immediate, tangible terms, right? And then, and then show us people in action.
  • If you have a very concrete backbone, a narrative backbone, you set up a problem, and then you show people actively trying to fix it.
  • I think your goal, at ISS is to have people who want to write stories that people will actually want to read. And I find that a lot of your stories actually succeed.

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