Immerse Yourself in the Topic

Part four of the Becoming a Great Technical Writer Series

Veteran Tech Writers are often able to write across multiple technical sectors and geographies, but most of them did not start out this way. Like most people in international development, there was a specific sector or geography that got them into the industry in the first place. Maybe their parents are from El Salvador, they did Peace Corps in Cameroon, or they studied early childhood education and that lived experience is what drove them to the industry. You likely have a similar lived experience that brought you to international development, and that has now gotten you assigned to Tech Write an upcoming proposal in your “sweet spot”. Or, maybe you have simply been assigned to write an upcoming proposal in a sector and/or geography that you know nothing about. Either way, immersing yourself in the topic is a great way to become a great Tech Writer.

Read project reports.

A big part of successful Tech Writing is designing an overall approach and detailed activities to achieve the results that USAID is seeking. Even if you have spent decades implementing projects in the field, understanding the latest-and-greatest technical approaches within a given sector and in comparable countries is crucial to writing a compelling technical. Has your organization implemented a similar project in a similar context? Read the quarterly and annual reports, success stories, project workplans, and MEL plans to learn what has worked well and what hasn’t. If your organization is trying to break into a new sector and/or geography, then read up on what other USAID implementing partners have done in the space. USAID’s Development Experience Clearinghouse is an excellent tool – once you get the hang of effective searching – to find project deliverables across USAID’s suite of programming. By reading up on what has and hasn’t worked well, you will begin to develop a deeper understanding of the challenge that the new project seeks to address. “Re-inventing the wheel” is one of the biggest criticisms in our industry. Understand what your organization and other implementing partners have already done, then build on those ideas, to avoid this pitfall.

Read USAID literature.

USAID is far more than your organization’s client. Their workforce includes some of the most innovative thinkers in international development and they provide significant resources at to help you prepare for your Tech Writing journey. Click on the “WHAT WE DO” link at the top of their website and you will find a wealth of information – white papers, success stories, videos, and other technical resources – for each of USAID’s primary sectors. Need to know more about USAID’s efforts and latest thinking in a particular country? Just click on the “WHERE WE WORK” link and you will find country-specific resources to expand your country context knowledge and help you understand what USAID is doing in your target country and similar environments. Taking the time to understand USAID’s latest thinking, successes, and challenges within your technical sector and/or geography will strengthen your ability to deliver a strong overall approach and detailed activities on your proposal.

Look to local experts.

While USAID and their international implementing partners often deliver outstanding work, the most knowledgeable organizations and individuals were born and raised in the countries that USAID serves. Use LinkedIn to connect with individuals and organizations that are located in the country that you will be writing to and working in the technical sector that you will be writing about. Use USAID’s Partner Directory to find local organizations that are doing similar work. Many local organizations use Facebook as their primary communications channel, so reach out to them through there. The more you talk with actors on the ground and read about what they are doing, the better connected you will be with both the technical sector and the country. This connection will shine through in your writing and bring that “taste and smell” that Red Team Reviewers constantly tell proposals they are missing.

Dig in, but know when to stop!

Particularly if you are preparing to write a technical that is in your “sweet spot”, you need to know when to stop reading and start writing. The process of learning more about a particular technical sector and/or country is extremely interesting for most development professionals. Ultimately, to be a great Tech Writer, you have to actually type words on the screen. At a certain point, you need to put the research aside and get to the writing, so make sure to dig into the recommendations and resources above while you still have the time.

Susanne Barsoum

Susanne Barsoum

Susanne is the CEO of Keylime and before that was the Middle East new business director at Chemonics. She is an expert at leading and writing USAID proposals and is also an angel investor.