Note to self

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Collage, 30 May

I’ve been writing diaries on and off since I was about seven years old. Lately, it’s been more ‘on’ than ever. 

Not just because, under lockdown, there’s fewer distractions of people to meet or places to be, but also because recording stuff feels important right now.

Countless photographers, writers, artists agree – and so do social historians. I feel somehow happier knowing that they’re gathering people’s experiences of living through Covid-19 – for example in this project from the Young Foundation, or this one from London’s Museum of the Home. Universities, archives and historical societies around the world are doing the same, inviting details of the “deeply personal, political, or mundane“, as the US-based ‘Journal of the Plague Year’ project puts it. Ordinary lives in extraordinary times. Continue reading “Note to self”

Cats and volcanologists

gilles-desjardins-684652-unsplashOne of the social media groups I use is for freelance women journalists. For all Facebook’s flaws, the group is brilliant: like an open-plan office with none of the irritations and all the companionship of 4000+ colleagues who’ll always deliver on requests for advice, feedback, sympathy, or last-minute contacts. Those shout-outs for contacts appear every day. “Looking for local post offices that still have a resident cat”, writes one. “Does anyone know a media-friendly volcanologist?” “I’m looking for a woman aged 30+ who showers at least twice a day. The more the better.” (These were all real requests. They all got multiple responses.) Continue reading “Cats and volcanologists”

Blogger’s guilt

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Everyone loves a list

If it’s easy to start blogging these days, it’s even easier to stop. Or at least to pause.

So many reasons: not enough time (I’ll do it when that deadline is over); other priorities (I need to focus my attention/writing brain on something else right now); perfectionism (there’s no point in posting something mediocre); lack of fresh ideas (there’s nothing exciting me to write at the moment); unconvinced of the payback (it won’t make any difference if I wait a bit longer). Continue reading “Blogger’s guilt”

A tried and tested format for group media projects

Last week we wrapped up a short project at the Compton School in Barnet, north London, just in time for International Women’s Day. Our group was smaller than usual, but super organised and very capable. Their final piece explored political representation, the pay gap, reproductive rights and period poverty.

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Exposure has been producing these type of group projects (known as Exposure Asks) for several years, working with dozens of young people and covering anything from exam stress to modern slavery.

So what makes this format work so well? Continue reading “A tried and tested format for group media projects”

The new nonprofit library

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Lots of info, but is it up to date?

I’ve been working since last year with MissionBox, a website that provides a huge range of how-to guides, advice, case studies, feature articles and templates for nonprofits. As a startup, there’ve been a few shifts of direction along the way, but the site has just relaunched and it’s great to see it taking shape.

MissionBox is based in the US and one of the challenges has been making sure the content written by our American colleagues is relevant and accurate here in the UK. In some cases that has meant drafting separate/equivalent pieces — that goes for any legal or tax topics, but also some less obvious ones like the expectations of a nonprofit board, or working with foundations. Continue reading “The new nonprofit library”

Write better #3: Build muscle

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Sound advice from Chinese T-shirts

“Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time…. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

That reassurance is from the late journalist and teacher William Zinsser, whose book ‘On Writing Well’ I just read. It’s an excellent guide, mixing the micro (such as why you should rarely use an exclamation mark; or why most adverbs are unnecessary), the techniques (how to construct a strong opening; how to adapt quotes yet stay true to your interviewee), and the principles (putting your own voice into your writing; homing in on ‘one corner’ of your subject). First published in 1976, it’s bang-on relevant today.

Non-writers often assume that good writers find their work easy, as Zinsser reminds us. They don’t. Continue reading “Write better #3: Build muscle”

Write better #2: Shipbuilding

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Lost in the detail

Here’s a lovely illustration of why all writers – even the best ones – need an editor:

“In my experience of writing, you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you’re in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room and, you have to assume, the ship’s exterior.

What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the dock, who can say, Hi, I’m looking at your ship, and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it looks to me as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed.”

Michael Crichton, quoted in the Paris Review

Continue reading “Write better #2: Shipbuilding”

Write better #1

Michelle Obama’s recent speech at the Democratic National Convention caught attention far and wide— but what made it so good? Journalism training specialists Poynter have a useful analysis here.

Speeches are a valuable resource for learning effective writing: as Poynter’s author points out, because they’re meant to be heard, they use more rhetorical devices than stuff that’s written down. The sound and the flow and the language jumps out at you, even if you don’t know why that is.

There’s lots of good stuff in the post about choice of language and structure, but one lesson I particularly like is: express your best thought in a short sentence, preferably using simple words (“when they go low, we go high”). It’s an approach that applies to most forms of communication, and reminded me of another helpful (and helpfully brief) resource. Continue reading “Write better #1”

Businesspeople

10350466776_23b2e3e368_zI’m back in Uganda, this time with funding from One World Media, researching a story about refugee businesses.

Here’s the premise: 86% of the world’s refugees are in developing countries. Uganda, a relatively stable nation in a rocky region is now home to over half a million people seeking refuge from South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It now hosts the third largest refugee population in Africa.

But what makes Uganda intriguing is its unusually open door policy: all refugees are granted freedom of movement and the right to work; in rural areas they get allocated their own plot of land. So while most countries try to contain refugees in designated zones set apart from cities and towns, and to stop them from competing with locals for jobs, in Uganda refugees can (and do) become traders, workers, employers, entrepreneurs.

Indeed, an Oxford University research project in the country in 2014 found that 60% of refugees were self-employed, 39% employed – and only 1% not working at all.  Continue reading “Businesspeople”

Good business

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It’s Responsible Business Week in the UK, which aims to get all sorts of enterprises to share what they’re doing, and all of us to demonstrate how we’re working together “for a fairer society and a more sustainable future.”

As blog editor at London’s newest Impact Hub in Brixton, I’ve persuaded three of our members doing business differently to take time out of changing the world to explain what goes on behind the scenes.

First up, it’s Mighty Good Undies, whose super-soft underwear ticks all sorts of ethical-sustainable-eco boxes. Continue reading “Good business”