Amro Ali, one of Arab Awakening's columnists from Egypt, presents his personal approach to crafting and promoting his work as a guide for present and future openDemocracy columnists.
One advantage you have being in the Arab world, or connected/researching into it, is that the societies foment a passion and intensity in you of some sorts. You cannot be a good writer if there is no passion. You need to be convinced of what you are writing. Doing so, will not only show up in your writing and engage the reader, but it will make sure you promote it effectively to get the message out there.
Two: Pick a unique angle
Every Tareq, Ahmed, and Boutros in Egypt, for example, is writing about Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood and 'the constitution'. Now that is fine, just make sure your angle has not been explored. For example, recently I chose to discuss regional implications of the MB and the role of Egyptian soft power in the Arab world. If you choose to write something not connected but relevant it will be surprisingly picked up. People need reprieve from the avalanche of news. For example, in the midst of the constitutional crisis, if a piece was written called Nubians: the forgotten Egyptians - it will garner attention simply on the basis that it's fresh and not about the current crisis.
One of the pieces I wrote, “The Arab World’s ‘Call me Doctor’ Complex” went viral although it really had nothing to do with the political chaos we are witnessing over the past two years. However, because we encounter it every day, Arabs obsessing over the title doctor, it found a wide audience. So what you can do is look at everything in your life that pleases and peeves you and expand on it. Obviously, make sure it has some relevance to the progress (or not) of Arab politics/societies. Japan’s whaling policy won’t fit well into the Arab Awakening section :)
Your ideas will be sparked by the news you read, coffee conversations you have, tweets you encounter, facebook newsfeed posting that’s been shared. So always be on the lookout.
Three: Limit your focus
Don’t try to do too much in your piece, the aim is to deliver a major point, backed up with key points. Although I have been guilty in the past of not doing that, the point is not to confuse the reader. Often you’ll find yourself bursting with ideas, but the reader has only so much time and mental capacity to absorb what you are trying to say.
Also studies have shown that writing your ideas on paper, rather than typing, is more effective and fires up your brain to start connecting the dots. The pen is mightier than the keyboard.
I can’t stress how important this part is. Fortunately, oD gives you considerable leeway with the title, unlike other editors at news sites. You are more likely to grab a reader’s attention if your title makes allusions to puns and pop culture, without sounding tacky of course. My column titles included “Eating the democratic crumbs from the Arab ruler’s table” (Biblical); “Egypt and Iran: it’s Complicated” (Facebook); “Brothers in the Hood” (play on Muslim Brotherhood and African-American subculture), “The revolution will not be eroticised” (take on famous 1970s pop song).
One way you can do this is to think about the key words in your topic, and play around with them. You would be surprised what you will come up with. Be careful you don’t recycle overused clichés like, “Road to Damascus” and “Walk like an Egyptian.” You can still do it, just make sure it’s really creative and doesn’t make the reader punch their computer screen.
If you are not able to do that for some reason, then employ emotive words. So for Jadalliyah, I wrote an investigative piece called “Power, Rebirth, and Scandal: A decade of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.” Remember, readers respond to emotive words that trigger the imagination.
Sometimes, the subject just sells itself. When I wrote a piece very dear to me, I called it “The Alexandria mafia’s new adversary: civil society.” There is nothing creative about that. Yet anyone with a particular interest in Alexandria, real estate/architecture, civil society and organised crime (or even because of the pop culture allusion) will most likely read it.
Having said that, no good title will make a good column out of a bad one. It will be no better than tabloid trash. So the key aim is to ensure your piece does justice to the title.
You don’t just jump into the topic, but you need to give it a hook so that it grabs the reader’s attention. The intro is so critical, it is the bait allowing the reader to discern whether he/she should continue reading on.
One way to do this is to narrate a personal event or invoke the ghosts of the past. For example, from my piece “Egypt’s history repeating itself fallacy”, the intro goes:
In the nascent days of World War II, French Premier Paul Reynaud remarked to General Philippe Pétain: “You take Hitler for another Wilhelm I, the old man who seized Alsace-Lorraine from us and that was all. But Hitler is Genghis Khan.” Reynaud’s subtext was clear: if you wish to use the ‘history repeating itself’ line, use the right history.
From my piece “Eating the democratic crumbs from the Arab ruler’s table”:
Saudi Arabia’s revered King Faisal once remarked in 1960: “If anyone feels wrongly treated, he has only himself to blame for not telling me. What higher democracy can there be?”
Educated readers have an unbridled adoration for history. History is authoritative, even though it can be misused.
If you are not able to employ a history intro, then even from your life is just as great. Bring out the anecdotes from your life. That would be more compelling. For example, my recent piece “Brothers in the hood”:
A Jordanian Islamist recently expressed his disappointment: “Egyptians are not giving President Mohammed Morsi a chance!” I responded, “Would you be this forgiving had Hamdeen Sabahi, a secular Nasserist, issued a decree that gave himself exceptional powers?” Silence. Irrespective of Morsi “rescinding” those powers, the continuing theatrics matters to a larger, if at times, unacknowledged, constituency.
Remember, what you may feel is insignificant in your life is actually gold-dust to a wider audience for the very reason that they don’t have that same perspective as you. Importantly, this is what readers can relate to, they can relate more readily to a dinner conversation you had with a party supporter more than they could with a NATO commander ordering a strike on Libyan targets.
Simply put, every paragraph/sentence needs to reinforce your key argument in the intro. Also the best pieces in my view are the ones that employ evidence backed by external sources and personal experiences. You need to be fair to the reader, they have taken time to read your piece; don’t make them regret it. If you have the chance to acquire personal perspectives, please do so. If you can’t meet with a senior member of a party, then that’s fine, attend their events or even speak to their supporters. What may look like mundane asking of people in Amman’s coffeehouses, translates very effectively to the wider world.
Whatever you do, don’t come across like you are recycling news that can be picked up from the BBC. The most qualified global journalist in the world will rarely match the sheer intimacy you have with the society you are dealing with every day. So glean as many gems from it as you can and put it to good use. OK, I’ve swayed a bit from discussing the body :), but let me just say this, a strong intro has a remarkable way of guiding you to write a coherent column. You cannot have a good body that has a weak intro.
The reader will often remember the final lines more than anything else. It has to be punchy! It needs to reinforce your intro and not sway from it. I love to use quotes here (usually I use them everywhere) and ideal if it ties to current events. The conclusion below is from my piece, “The President and the fatal trilateral logic of US, Egyptian and Israeli relations”:
The late Ismail Sabri Abdullah, Sadat’s Minister for Planning, lamented “If we [Egypt] wanted to have a good relationship with the United States, we needed to spend the night in Tel Aviv.” Now once again, Egyptians, will be spending the night (and nights) in Tahrir to tell the Morsi government that, first and foremost, a good relationship comes from a subservience to the people, not to themselves, let alone to foreign capitals.
Imagine if I had written the above as, “If the Egyptian government does not seek to redress the inherent problems in its relationship with the US and Israel, then the public reaction could be unfavourable to its long term stability.” Asleep yet? So try to experiment with your conclusion by mix and matching it with appropriate quotes. Give it a poetical touch. It takes time, but I assure you, you’ll get there eventually.
Eight: Promote your piece
If you don’t have a Twitter account, get one! Mine is @_amroali. You need to tweet your column, and tweet it again to power tweeps. This is not a narcissistic trip. You want to establish networks with similar minds like you. You are doing yourself a grave injustice by churning out your talent in isolation. Also tweet strategically which, for the Middle East, can be afternoons and nights. Moreover, insert your piece into relevant tweet discussions. Don’t hesitate to tweet your piece way long after it has been re-published. It could be a relevant event to your piece like an election or an anniversary, tweet then!
Seek out news sites to republish your piece. The advantage you have publishing at openDemocracy is that it does not have bitter enemies (not that I know of anyway :). So if I first publish in one Egyptian news site, a rival Egyptian news site may refuse to republish it. However, at openDemocracy, both these Egyptians news sites will republish it and happily acknowledge openDemocracy as the source. So seek out the English news sites that will republish it, or even if you can translate into Arabic, seek out the Arabic sites. If they don’t respond, then tweeting them can at times be the best way to reach them.
Don’t have a blog? Create one! It’s easy to start one at wordpress.org. There is no excuse in this day and age, at the very least, it can act as your depository for your articles in one place, so once you publish in openDemocacy, you can link back to it from the site. Check out my site as an example www.amroali.com
One UN official told me “Your blog has done more for you than your two masters and current PhD”. He had a point, most media contacts come through my blog. It is a first stop that visitors choose to look at when enquiring about you. So do the Twitter and blog and let Google take care of the rest :).
Nine: Benefits of writing frequently
Remember, writing takes time. The good thing I’ve noticed writing at openDemocacy is that it disciplines you into a routine. But it’s not enough to submit it and leave at that. You need to follow it through. You are all great columnists, and your voice is critical to bridging misunderstandings that people have of your respective societies. Please remember this, the internet is not biodegradable. So what you write will stay on there indefinitely. So make sure you are writing with a long term view, and that you back up any claims!
Ten: Final thoughts
· - Many of you might want to have friends review their piece. Personally, I don’t like that approach. It takes away from the uniqueness of your perspective. This is an op-ed, not a journal article.
· - Never think that your topic is already covered, we are talking about the Arab world, it’s a Whitman’s Sampler of hyper societies that will allow you to carve a niche in whatever you like. It’s big enough for whoever wants to discuss it. Unfortunately, there are not that many.
· - Past assignments you've done at uni or even FB posts can trigger off great ideas. Don’t overlook them.
· - There is no such thing as a bit pregnant. You need to give it your all. This means reading widely and engaging outside your comfort zone. You all are great writers, with some fine-tuning, it will continue to get even better.
So that’s my ten point plan, I hope it has been of some help to you all, don’t hesitate to ask me questions. Importantly, I hope to some day get to meet you all in person. Please stay in touch by email: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @_amroali