The deadline is fast approaching for the Guardian International Development Journalism Competition 2013, a fantastic opportunity for all of you out there who love writing and care about issues of injustice and international development.
Last year I entered the competition with my article Maternal Roulette and amazingly got through to the final 16. I then had a fantastic opportunity to head overseas with Save the Children to Burkina Faso to report on the affects of malnutrition amongst children under five.
My final article, War on Hunger gave me the surprise of my life when I went on to win the amateur section of the competition.
So, for those of you planning to enter or who are already working hard on your articles, here are top 10 tips, both for now and if you get through to the finals…
1. Choose a topic you’re passionate about
I spent nearly two years living with women who had suffered birthing injuries and were finally having the simple operation for recovery. I heard story after story of lives that had been torn apart just because they lacked access to medical care. It really stirred in me a massive sense of injustice and meant I could write passionately about the topic surrounding maternal health. Choose a topic that really stands out to you and that you care about.
2. Research is essential
Take the time to research all the different organisations involved in your topic. What is their take on it? How are they trying to combat the issue? For my first article, maternal roulette, I used examples from Mercy Ships, AMREF & a lone medical professional.
3. Personal stories
Facts and figures are obviously essential, but nothing is more powerful or interesting to read than personal stories to illustrate a point. If you don’t have access to your own case studies, contact the charity that has sponsored your topic – they will definitely have stories.
4. Interview experts on the topic you’ve chosen
Some of my most powerful quotes came from individuals who are experts on the area I was writing about. One guy was a VVF surgeon who has worked in West Africa for over twenty years. You can find experts through the charity that has sponsored your topic or by Googling topics and emailing the article writers. One of my best finds for my final article, was a doctor in Burkina Faso whose name I stumbled across while I was researching the topic. He has spent many years out in Burkina and was happy to answer loads of my questions around the role of breast feeding.
5. Get an excellent proof reader
Both my articles were proof read by a friend who swears by the Guardian style guide. He has an amazing eye for detail and I couldn’t have asked for a better proof reader.
And if you get through to the last 16….
6. Go with a couple of ideas on where your article could lead
Once you find out your topic it’s great to have a plan and a structure for how your article will develop, but go with a couple of possible ideas so that you don’t miss great opportunities.
7. Practice interview techniques
It’s one thing to interview someone who speaks the same language as you, it’s another thing to interview someone through a translator, especially when the topic is personal and sensitive. Get two friends and have a go at Chinese whispers. It’s a good way to see if your questions are simple enough and can get the type of answers you’re hoping for.
8. Prepare a basis of questions in advance for each type of person you’re interviewing
For me, sitting and chatting with local women and hearing their stories on the issues around hunger and malnutrition was heart wrenching but a real privilege and I found it relatively easy to ask simple questions and listen to their stories. However, put me in front of a local or government official and I found the whole formality of the situation much more intimidating. In this setting I needed to be prepared with a clear list of questions and an idea of what I wanted to accomplish.
9. Use your evenings overseas to write up your interviews
The worst thing is to come home and realise you’ve missed key details in your interview. If you can spend some of your evenings writing them up, you’ll then be able to follow up with any questions over the next days while you’re still in country and with the partner organisation. This is especially good for making sure names and places are spelt correctly.
10. Try and get a broad understanding of the country and culture
While you need to be focused on your topic, it’s also important to try and grasp an understanding of the country you’re visiting and the culture. I found the best way to do this was to chat to my translator on long journeys. He was happy to discuss anything from politics to religion and this helped me as I shaped my final article.