Opinion piece: Writing for the Other – As writers and freelancers, we are constantly writing about people and for people that are different to us. The following is advice on how to approach writing for the Other.
When you are a freelance journalist you rarely know where you will be stationed in the coming weeks or months. One week you might find yourself ensconced inside four rigid office walls in the middle of a large capital city and the next in some remarkably exotic and far flung location where the luxuries of the previous week are a world away.
The latter scenario – and less extreme examples – throws up a whole range of challenges. Freelancers are constantly writing for people and about people who are different to them.
This requires a degree of cultural sensitivity and nuance.
Here are five things I have learnt when covering events occurring in different cultures.
Be aware of the cultural influences
As a writer you can’t make cultural assumptions – be mindful of the influences at play in the context of your writing. Different environments can be influenced by cultural worldviews and other factors.
For example, when adhering to the Afrocentric cultural worldview, a ‘successful person’ will be the one who improves the community. S/he lives by the proverb, “I am because you are”. Success is for the entire tribe – heroes are those who raise the status of the nation as opposed to the that of individuals.
In Eurocentric cultural world view settings, the ‘successful person’ has an enviable lifestyle, is financially rich and considered a captain of industry because of their influential leadership role.
In simple terms, those that value Asiocentric cultural worldviews revere the spirit as opposed to fleeting things. The ‘successful person’ is one who has harnessed the power of their mind and is a spiritual guru or mentor.
Being aware of the relevant influences will help the freelance writer to ask the right questions and be aware that truth is somewhat relative.
Redefine the ‘experts’
As a freelance writer, you need to leave your comfort zone and go grassroots; talk to the people involved, exchange stories, spend some time in their shoes, go there!
Online research doesn’t cut it. You have to be there to see and smell things with your own eyes, to speak to people on the ground. In most stories, it is the citizens that have the most important stories to tell. Listen to them; they are the experts.
Before you write, know who you are and what you stand for. Failure to do so may result in the writer skewing the story to answer their own questions as opposed to what is of public interest. Be aware of your place in the context of your writing and know your limitations.
Minorities matter too
In all societies there are minorities. and groups that receive less attention and understanding than others. A journalist should never forget that these people are deserving of a voice, and are perhaps in more need of one than anyone else.
For example, with the rugby world cup coming up, a lot of attention is given to male players. Women are still generally considered to be the Other to their superior male counterparts. Look at the statistics, look at the fame, viewership and sponsorship given to the male teams as opposed to the female teams. As a freelance writer, one needs to be aware of that.
While it is true that an interview with a male soccer/rugby player may most likely go viral – even though the same questions are asked – the freelancer must always strive to represent both sides. Believe that all people are equally worthy of respect, coverage and recognition.
Seek wisdom; It is not static
Wisdom can come from tone, an indexical image, gut feeling, research, books or expert insights. Don’t limit yourself to the conventional. Wisdom is enduring, and can be found in all sorts of places.
Writing for the Other requires a constant and contemplative sense of awareness. Be mindful of the context, your own disposition, and your sources of information.