Years ago, as an aspiring writer just out of university, I received my first job as a cub reporter working for United Press International, a U.S. news agency. I quickly learned that the luxuries of procrastination no longer existed. You had to get the story out and within minutes rather than hours. On my first day on the job in Brussels, I found a curt note splayed across my typewriter. “Go cover European communist party conference. If you fail, you’re fired!”

For the next three days, I turned up diligently at the conference to report. There was no other journalist present. It was only during the final hours that the British, American and other international ‘hacks’ rolled in, pulling out their notebooks and questioning me – and a few French or Italian party officials – about what had transpired. And then, before retreating to a nearby bar, they called in their stories by phone with a deftness and sense of authority that could only stupefy me. Somehow, they had pulled together all the relevant points configured in stories that not only read well but incorporated an element of insight which would probably serve historians for years to come.

As for me, I returned glumly to my office. For the next two hours, I struggled to pull together a couple of paragraphs summing up what I had so assiduously covered. But I simply couldn’t write. My journalism career was a failure before I had even begun. Finally, my editor – an gruff Texan-German who terrorized his reporters – sauntered over. He ripped out my story from the typewriter with a searing glare of contempt.

“What the hell are you writing?” he asked, holding up my paper between his thumb and forefinger as if just removed from the loo.

“Well,” I began. “What I’m trying to say is…”

He did not let me finish. Instead, he scrawled with his pencil in large threatening letters at the bottom of the page. “THEN SAY IT!”

Being curious about the world you live in is a crucial asset for any writer.

Write what you know – and what your readers need to know

This was my first lesson in practical journalism – and writing. Don’t just write what you know, but what you think readers need to know. While this particular editor proved a despicable ogre to many in the newsroom, he was a godsend as an on-the-job writing teacher. All his comments were to the point and relevant. I not only learned how to report and observe, but also to write to deadline – and anywhere. Today, I have no problem sitting down in the middle of a traffic jam or in a trench with mortars falling nearby, and then write as if locked away in a Tibetan monastery. Nothing distracts me except my need to tell a story.    

The point is that anyone can learn to write. And everyone, no matter whether lawyer, engineer, scientist, civil servant, teacher, entrepreneur or high school student, needs to know how to write clearly and persuasively; in other words, to tell a story. It does not matter whether you are putting together a legal assessment, business or NGO project proposal, background paper, government policy brief or a school essay. If you can’t put across your ‘story’ in a manner that is accessible and gets readers interested, then no one will be bothered. You will have lost your audience, and maybe even your job.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2020 issue of Global Insights, the online journal of the Educational Collaborative for International Schools (ECIS) which has over 500 member establishments, plus a network of 35,000 educators in 78 countries. A reminder: we make our content free worldwide in the public interest. If you like what we do, please support us.

The 2020 Youth Writes Awards: Calling on high school students across the globe

This is where the Youth Writes initiative comes in. High school is precisely the place where young people need to start honing their writing (and reading) skills, a process that may often seem a desperate challenge at first, but one that can prove satisfying, even enjoyable. And given the current Coronavirus situation with so many young people stuck at home, what better way to spend one’s time writing an article or short story for the 2020 Youth Writes Awards?

The rules are simple. Fact or fiction, each piece must be no more than 1,000 words. It also needs to focus in one way or another on any of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or a an “international Geneva” theme, such as human rights, climate change, refugees, migrants, health, world trade, conservation and environment…Open to high school students worldwide, this not only offers a chance to win a travel grant worth 1,200, 750 or 500 CHF/USD, but also to get published alongside professional writers in Global Geneva magazine. (Closing date: 15 June, 2020)

Students can offer their own perspectives, such as a story based on their own experience, but we want originality and will be looking at how credible their information is. We want them to do the appropriate research to learn more about their subjects. We have no problem with students sharing their drafts with teachers and parents, but the story should remain their own. A jury of editors and journalists from around the world will judge the entries.

From our point of view, it is important to ‘read’ – and publish – the voices of young people, particularly at a time when so many crucial planetary issues can – and will – affect their futures: climate change, pandemics, wars, impact of Brexit on cross-border studying or jobs, refugees, migration… The list is long. For this reason, we have created an additional writing component, notably a My Coronavirus Story column aimed at a broader age group of young people (14-25 years-old) from anywhere in the world.

We are seeking compelling personal accounts on coping with the pandemic or how they believe it will change their world in a post-Covid-19 era. We will be publishing the best of these on an ongoing basis in our online Youth Writes section and pay 100 CHF/USD per piece. Recommended length: 700-1000 words.

It is important to understand the role of trusted, quality journalism. Whether writing, video newsgathering, photographing or drawing cartoons, providing information that is both credible and accessible is imperative for communicating with people. Two French film-makers at the 2019 Rory Peck Awards in London. (Photo: Rory Peck Trust)

Even in the digital age, getting published can be a rush!

For an aspiring writer, there is nothing more exhilarating than to see one’s piece in print. My own first (very short) published story was about local island snakes while living in the Bahamas at the age of 12. This appeared in Animals, a London-based magazine which featured articles by some of the world’s top wildlife specialists. I was elated. Later, I edited and wrote for school magazines. Eventually, at 19, I won second prize in a British student journalism competition held by a weekly magazine with my piece about a full moon feast in Nepal. Such achievements are not only great for the creative soul, but for one’s CV. You should check out the three 2019 Youth Writes Award-winning stories, all of which have been published both in print and online.

Depending on how many quality entries we receive, we also plan to publish a special Global Geneva print and e-edition. Just imagine an array of 20-25 imaginative if not unique stories written by high school students from Liberia to Singapore and Mexico! We have already received critical funding from the Jan Michalski Foundation but we still need additional backing for 2020/21 in order to truly develop the Youth Writes initiative across the planet and to partner with high schools across the planet. This includes the creation of Youth Writes journalism and writing clubs.

Our hope is to then distribute complimentary copies of this Special Edition to all participating schools. Several sponsors, for example, are already interested in helping to make copies available to international schools in Thailand and Singapore. If you are able to support us, please let us know.

Global Geneva editor Edward Girardet discussing writing with students and a teacher at the College du Leman international school of Geneva, Switzerland. (Photo: CDL)

Encouraging students to embrace good writing

What is important for students to understand is that writing will never be a shoe-in. Despite all my years as a foreign correspondent covering wars and humanitarian crises, it remains a challenge. If it becomes too easy, then you’re probably not writing properly. To this day, I continue to learn the craft of writing even if it remains both a pleasure and a torture. I know that it is the same with many other writers.

But you keep learning and there are always useful tips to help you get over that writer’s hump. For example, overcoming the problem of that first incisively perfect paragraph. One suggestion: Simply start in the middle – or anywhere – and then build up or down. Just jot down a quote or an observation that you feel is – or should be – part of the story. Very quickly you will find a narrative emerging, even if you eventually delete all those initial first paragraphs.

Or, if you know what you want to write, but don’t know how to tell it, then take the advice of one battled-hardened war correspondent, who served as one of my mentors. “Write as if a letter to a friend explaining exactly what’s going on,” he told me. “Make every story a ‘Letter from…’ – But not to your mother. She doesn’t need to know what you’ve been up to”

It’s all about telling the story. And telling it well.

Youth Writes 2019 Award winners: Maxine Rechter (R), Mohamed Diagne (C) and Nicholas Machen (L) (Photo: Edward Girardet)

The Global Geneva Youth Writes programme: Helping with tricks of the trade

So this is where we can help. As an initiative of our non-profit Global Geneva Group association, Youth Writes can access our worldwide network of over 2,000 editors, reporters, cartoonists, film-makers and media specialists in order to share some of the “tricks of the trade”. Not only can we help young people dare to write stories that can make a difference, but also to help them better understand the need for quality reporting in the public interest.

Good journalism can stand out as one of the most effective means for informing people, such as during the current pandemic. But this includes countering cyber abuse, false news and deliberation disinformation, now considered by The Economist, World Economic Forum and other leading international analytical institutions to be – not unlike pandemics – one of the world’s gravest, long-term threats.

Youth Writes and Global Geneva are now in the process of launching regular online webinars and “How to” journalism and communications modules. With what may prove more difficult months ahead, students should use their time to improve their writing skills and we can help. So students, parents and teachers, please spread the word.

  • First pilot journalism and communications webinar: Saturday, 2 May, 2020 (1330-1430 Bangkok time). In collaboration with Nexsteps in Bangkok, this is aimed at international high school and college students in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. We then plan to develop similar initiatives for other parts of the world.
  • “How to” journalism, writing and communications modules: With time on their hands, students will have the opportunity to download our special video modules with each hosted by a journalist, photographer, film-maker, cartoonist or media specialist from different parts of the world. Each will focus on different aspects, such as how to write a compelling story; how to produce a short, but professional video; how to write a science article for non-specialists; how does a cartoonist find a theme, and then develop it into a cartoon…
  • Global podcasts: From Geneva, Philadelphia and Bangkok, Global Geneva will soon launch its own 20-minute podcasts on key planetary themes. This will be aimed at Global Geneva audiences seeking to be even better informed.

For more information, please go to the Global Geneva

Edward Girardet is a foreign correspondent and author who has reported humanitarian crises, wars and development issues across the globe for nearly 40 years. Based between Geneva and Bangkok, he is the author/editor of at least half a dozen books, including Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan. He is editor of Global Geneva, a Dublin-incorporated magazine, and director of Youth Writes, a Geneva-based non-profit journalism-cum-educational initiative.

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