Writing is thinking: Why you need to be able to write well in development

Follow Devex’s Writing for Development series for ways you can improve your writing skills to advance your global development career. #skillsfordevelopment

Global development’s work is the struggle with and for people everywhere to live in peace, freedom, and prosperity.

But you'd be forgiven for not knowing that, given the language we so often use in the development field today. We read and write about “working with target populations to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of multistakeholder programs.”

“When you write well for your organization, you are helping not only to make its ideas sound better — you are making the ideas themselves better.”

Our language is often abstract, devoid of feeling or even people, calculated and yet somehow also meaningless.

No matter what you do in development, you need to inform, inspire, persuade, and connect with others. Much of that happens through writing. The better you can write, the better able you are to do your job, whatever it may be.

Take a minute to think of some of the best development writing you know. You might choose, for example, the U.N. Charter, which speaks of how “the scourge of war … has brought untold sorrow,” or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims the “inherent dignity … of all members of the human family.”

These examples shine for their clarity. You needn’t be a poet for the ages in order to write well or to draw inspiration from these and other enduring examples of fine prose.

Good writing is not just about polishing or “prettying up” the words. You don’t just take a piece of bad writing and substitute some nice expressions for each bit of jargon. That certainly helps, but it’s not what makes good writing so important, or so difficult.

Anybody who has worked on a piece of writing — and that’s most of you who are reading this now — knows that it can be awfully hard. You pore over a passage, trying to clarify your meaning, bring in evidence, or illustrate the impact you hope to have. Dealing with these problems on the page requires a lot of thinking. Good writing, then, is about figuring out what you are trying to say and do.

When you write well for your organization, you are helping not only to make its ideas sound better — you are making the ideas themselves better. And those ideas are as much the foundation for development as steel and concrete are for an infrastructure project.

To that end, Devex is producing a new series for development professionals about writing well. Follow the series for content on:

Funding proposals: What are the essential ingredients of a successful proposal, and some common pitfalls.
Stories: Storytelling is one of the best ways to show the human impact of your work and enlist support for it — we’ll show you how it’s done.
Speeches and op-eds: To persuade audiences through a speech or an opinion piece, it’s best to be memorable and have a strong theme.
Reporting: Most every development organization has to report on their work to donors, community groups, and others. What does good reporting entail?

Webinar: To recap this Writing for Development series we will discuss how to incorporate techniques into your daily work. We’ll also answer your questions and, if time allows, do a pitch session. Sign up via Devex’s digital events page.

Stay tuned to Devex over the next two months, and we’ll work together to help point your writing in a better direction.

Explore the Writing for Development series.

About the author

  • Paul VanDeCarr

    Paul is a writer, editor, and communications trainer who has worked for the U.N. Development Programme, UNFPA, UNICEF, and the U.N. Secretariat. He authored a pair of guides on "Philanthropy and the SDGs" for Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, and has consulted with foundations on how to align their work with the SDGs. Previously, he has worked in the fields of oral history, theater, and documentary film, and wrote a guide for Working Narratives on "Storytelling and Social Change."