Forget perfection! Practice helps writing better stories

Mersha Yilma

I have been collecting data from the field and writing stories for more than 15 years. But the stories I write these days are different from the stories that I used to write when I started as a communications practitioner. Today’s stories are better. Or at least I thought…

My opinion changed a lot after I joined a story writing and documentation training organized by the Netherlands embassy, CTA and Guava Stories in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in September 2017. One of the biggest lessons I learned from this training workshop was that I have been writing stories in what can be referred to as a “traditional way”, and that, as a result, they may not have been as good as I thought they were. The other lesson I learned is that I should continue practicing as this is the best way to improve the flavour of my stories – even if I never get to be the best storyteller ever. Writing is a complex process, if not a complicated one, but it is something that we can all do.

Making sure that the readers will be interested in what we say

A few steps and suggestions

Together with my fellow trainees, we learned that the first step is to ensure a conducive environment, or one that puts us in a better position to write. This includes, among others, having the necessary time and resources (especially in terms of information), together with the necessary support of our colleagues and of those directly involved in the case we want to share. Equally important is to have an open and critical attitude toward this case. After making sure that the necessary conditions are met, we have to identify the golden thread of our story. This is what some people call the “unique selling point”, or the idea that will make our readers remain interested in what we are saying, and that the main points we share remain fixed somewhere in their minds. Otherwise, we bear the risk of wasting our time, resource and energy writing something no one will pay attention to.

Then the next step is to set the boundaries of our story, as it is practically impossible to cover everything related to one project in one story: we also noted that being brief and precise is one of the best ways to get the attention of our potential readers.  And after setting the boundaries, we have to organize the content, with information which can help us build an introduction, a description of the context and of all activities, the analysis, conclusions and recommendations. The best way to do this, as discussed during the training, is to organize the information we have, using a set of tables or templates.

The core and the most demanding part of this process, as I witnessed, is the analysis. The analysis part of our story is where we present new ideas, and where the readers get the gist of what makes our case different and therefore interesting. It is the part where we tell our readers what we have achieved with the implementation of a particular project, with indicators showing and helping explain the results we have seen. Or, in other words, showing what were the main limitations or drawbacks and what were the factors that contributed positively. A good storywriter needs to dwell on this part to convince the readers by providing evidence of what he or she is saying. This is the part that makes our stories different from all those reports that focus more on describing situations, and which most of us find easier to do. The main objective needs to be to generate new knowledge and share it, rather than describing actions and events. The analysis helps us show clear conclusions and also recommend specific steps to improve what we’ve done.

As someone who writes stories regularly, the workshop we had introduced me to a new approach that helps me look back at the way I have been writing stories and at how they look like, and also to focus on what I need to do to improve the texts I share in the future. I realize that a week is not long enough to cover all the steps that are needed. But I think that as all trainees already had some writing experience, it was possible to share ways of improving our work, and explore how to go about it. After all, in my opinion, this is the purpose of a training workshop: learn new things, follow some of the recommendations given by others, and keep on practicing. Every trainee had the chance to write a story about a project being implemented by his/her organization. The peer-to-peer review of all stories, something we did the last day of the workshop, showed that everyone is on the right track, and helped us focus on the uniqueness of each case, and on the best way to engage our readers.

We may never be perfect..

One of the things I liked most was the comment made by one of our fellow trainees at the end of the training. He said he considered himself a good storywriter, and that he thought he was going to learn how to write a perfect story. “But I came to see that I will only write better ones”. I totally agree with what he said, and I am happy with that. The training workshop was an eye opener, helping us see that the stories we have been writing were not as good as we thought they were, and also helping us see that we may never reach perfection. We may never be perfect. But we can always improve what we do, and practicing is the best way to learn. We have permanent opportunities to do this.

© 2016, CTA. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation

CTA is a joint institution operating under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement between the ACP Group of States (Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific) and the EU Member States (European Union). CTA is funded by the European Union.