Practice Makes Passable

The ability to write well is something that can get you a job in global development. I was alerted, last week, to the Global Health Corps fellowships by the incomparably useful International Development Careers List run by Alanna Shaikh – if you want to work in global development and have not signed up to this, you’re doing it wrong. One of the ways of finding a suitable fellowship through GH Corps is to define your main ‘skill’ – something that makes us entry level drones break out in a cold sweat. The skill categories are as follows,

  • Data/statistics
  • Design
  • Finance/operations
  • French
  • Masters
  • Project Management
  • Recent Graduates
  • Research
  • Spanish
  • Technology
  • Writing

Personally, most of those categories seem terrifyingly like real skills that are beyond my early career capabilities. I can’t even check off recent graduates, although I will by the time I’m able to actually apply for these things… Writing is the only one I feel comfortable with.

Write More, Write Often, Write Better

Writing blog posts twice a week has undoubtedly helped me. Not only does it give me a great chance to practice the essay/formal writing skills so useful for higher education and job applications, I get to post on a whole variety of topics, varying my style in accordance with what I want to get across. This post, as you will have undoubtedly noticed, is quite informal because it is a personal reflection of how I am going about trying to acquire skills for my chosen profession – if I made, say, a series of Moses like pronouncements you wouldn’t believe me because I am not a figure of authority. Learning how and when to employ different types of writing is massively important and something that, perhaps, has been overlooked all to often in the past. Trying to communicate the importance of development work to a lay-audience is a very difficult thing and it is often done badly – I would posit that sincerity and genuineness are indispensable attributes for anyone trying to do this job. All to often, there is a depressing and disheartening separation between content and delivery (this link available for AidSource members only – sign up!).

I keep to a twice weekly schedule which forces me to come up with lots of different things to write about. This is great because coming up with new ways of talking about issues is one of the hardest things the third sector has to do. Normally, it also acts as a great way for me to think through some of the things I’ve been learning or grappling with recently – when I want to blog about something I have to be able to put into words what it is, why I’m interested in it, why you might be interested and what I actually think about it. That process is somewhat arduous; on a personal level, without the blogging impetus I would be less likely to engage in topics as much. I am sure that I am not shedding new light on any topic, but, in terms of my own professional development, the process has been invaluable.

Something that drives me to write more and to write (I hope) better is in trying to emulate those articles or essays that I find particularly interesting. Of course, good and bad writing is subjective – some say Ernest Hemingway was a genius, some begged to differ,

As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early ‘forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it. Vladimir Nabokov

I assume that, in the world of global development, emulating Ernest Hemingway in anyway is absolutely not required, so I tend to set my sights on reporting or analysis in the media, particularly from The New Yorker. They have a staggering rostra of brilliant writers – I’ve expressed my admiration for Hendrik Hertzberg on this blog before – who are able to write detailed, considered and eminently readable long articles about just about anything. My aim is to be able to do the same but with ‘international development issues’ in the place of ‘anything’. Reading things like the New Yorker, Slate, The Paris Review and great blogger journalists like Rosebell Kagumire as well as great literature – in short, read widely and read well – not only gives me ideas for articles but ideas for how I would go about writing them.

To get good at things, you have to work at them. It’s a cliché, it’s a truism, it’s well worn but, perhaps, a little unfashionable. A blog post on Expert Enough (whose manifesto sits at the top of this post) earlier this month asked an interesting question,

Has the art of becoming good at things been lost on today’s instant gratification society?

Personally, I think this question is unfair. But I’m not sure how employers feel – I certainly hope that, by working at my writing and other skills, I’ll be able to convince some of them to agree with me.


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