Human rights content encompasses a range of social, political, economic, and environmental topics. Race, gender, sexuality, climate change, and international law represent a handful of the subjects a writer might cover in articles, newsletters, blogs, podcast scripts, books, and more. If you’re writing about human rights – or want to start – here are ten tips to store in your toolkit:
#1. Identify your audience
No matter what you’re writing, knowing your audience matters. It determines the appropriate tone, style, and information you’ll present. For human rights content, your audience could be people well-versed in human rights. They don’t need a primer on foundational information like what human rights are or why they matter. For this audience, a more academic tone with more advanced terms might be appropriate.
On the other hand, your audience could be readers only starting to learn about human rights. They’ll need background on things like human rights history, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and human rights activism. An easier reading style that defines essential concepts and terms would be more appropriate for this audience.
#2. Think about a piece’s scope
How much detail is your piece of writing going to get into? What’s your planned word count? Answering these questions helps you determine how much ground you’ll need to cover and how much research is needed. If it’s a short piece, you won’t cover much beyond the basics, so research will be more limited. If it’s long-form, you’ll need to write a more in-depth piece supported with more research. Thinking about a piece’s scope also helps you estimate how long the writing will take, so you can plan accordingly and meet your deadline.
Need to expand a piece’s scope to meet a word count? Avoid padding the piece with more complex language or irrelevant tangents. You can add more examples to flesh out your points if they strengthen your argument. If possible, you can also address other perspectives. This is an especially useful method if you’re writing about something contentious. Depending on the nature of the piece, you can further clarify why your position makes more sense. If this kind of analysis isn’t appropriate, you can describe other perspectives without adding your own opinion.
For writers who struggle with starting a piece, outlining is very helpful. Outlines focus the mind and give you something more than a blank page to work with. Because outlines don’t have to be pretty, there’s often less pressure and a writer is freer to just scribble. Depending on the length and style of your piece, outlines can look very different. Maybe yours includes just an Introduction, Point #1, Point #2, Point #3, and a Conclusion. An outline can also help you organize all your research, so you know exactly where a specific piece of information will go and what point it will support.
Transitioning from the outline phase to the writing phase looks different for each writer. Some writers use the outline as a very general guide while others stick very closely to the structure they’ve chosen. There’s no “correct” way. Sometimes an outline is just that – a bare-bones structure with a few points – while other times, an outline is a skeleton that a writer adds meat to until the piece is practically finished.
#4. Use narratives to make your writing interesting
Most human rights content is non-fiction, but that doesn’t mean it must be dry. Instead of only including statistics, look for narratives in the information you’re writing about. That can include describing historical examples or being specific about what an issue like sexism can look like. If you’re interviewing a person, make them come alive by describing where the interview took place, what time of day it was, and so on. Describing a subject’s physical appearance can be tricky. A 2019 blog from ProPublica Illinois discusses how if done well, descriptions can add “useful information about a person’s character.” Descriptions can distract from the main point, however, and even instigate prejudices based on race, class, and gender. Your job as a writer is to consider this and be intentional.
#5. Stick to reliable research sources
A lot of research goes into human rights content. In some cases, most of a writer’s time is spent researching, not writing. Knowing which sources are reliable is essential. UN agencies, major news organizations, organizations and universities with good reputations, and books by experts are good places to start. Ideally, you should cross-reference because even reliable sources make mistakes. If an article or blog cites a report or study, find the original piece and read at least the summary (or do a word/phrase search for the piece of info you’re checking) to make sure the source says what the article claims it says. These original sources often contain other relevant information you can use in your piece, too.
#6. Know when to cite information
Academic citations are complex and taken very seriously, but let’s assume you’re writing content like blogs or articles. Things are a little looser in this space, so most of the time, you aren’t expected to add detailed footnotes or bibliographies. The general rule is that if something is fact-based and accessible to the public (like UN stats on poverty), a link to the source and writing something like “According to a UN report from 2019” is sufficient, and proves you’ve done your research.
If you’re adding someone else’s opinion, analysis, or quote on a topic, you do need to tell your reader where it came from. Again, you’re showing your reader you’ve done your homework, but more importantly, you’re abiding by good writing ethics.
#7. Understand the appropriate terms
Language matters. Terms and phrases can empower or harm individuals or groups, so choosing the appropriate ones is important. As an example, you might wonder if it’s better to use the term “victim” or “survivor” when discussing sexual violence. Different sources use different terms. You’ll often find “survivor” linked to empowerment, but some people who’ve experienced assault prefer “victim.” In general, unless you know for sure what the subject of your writing prefers, “survivor” is likely the better term.
This doesn’t mean there’s no place for the term “victim,” but it depends on the context. As an example, this article about gender prejudice discusses the harmful phrase, “She was asking for it.” When describing those targeted by the phrase, the term “survivor” feels out of place. Since victim-blaming is the topic, the term “victim” makes more sense. “Victim” is also appropriate if the subject died as the result of a human rights violation.
#8. Consider the flow of your writing
Depending on where you work, you might have an editor, but even then, it’s important to polish your work before you send it off. That includes examining the flow of the piece. Think about the order of your points or arguments. Are they impactful in their current order? Is your strongest point buried or highlighted? Even if you’re writing listicles, you can usually order the points in a way that feels natural. As an example, in this article about the ten causes of gender inequality, uneven education access, employment inequality, and job segregation are listed in a row due to their thematic connection.
Flow applies to how the piece reads, as well. Reading your work aloud or using a text-reader gives you a good idea of a reader’s experience. They’re much more likely to keep reading the piece – and remember what’s in it – if it flows nicely.
#9. Use critical thinking when approaching human rights media
When you’re writing human rights content, you’ll interact with news, books, podcasts, films, photography, and so on. As you’re exploring, don’t simply absorb information. Question it. Assume that the media you engage with can’t tell the whole story. Acknowledge that things may be more complicated than they appear and that biases – yours and whoever created the media – influence the presentation. Critical thinking encourages a deeper look.
While all media should be scrutinized, movies and podcasts demand special attention. Why? These are often produced for entertainment as well as education. Creators employ methods to draw a consumer’s attention, which can come at the cost of good ethics or even accuracy. Additionally, complex issues might be flattened for the sake of clarity, time, or “a good story.” Human rights photography also presents unique considerations as images can be stripped of context or exploitative. Keep these things in mind when researching and writing.
#10. Read a lot
In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King wrote, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” King mostly writes fiction, but his advice applies to all writers, including human rights content writers. You’ll get the most direct benefit by reading books, articles, and blogs on human rights, social justice, and related fields. Not only will you learn what good (and bad) writing looks like, but you’ll get lots of content ideas and sources you can use for research.
Don’t limit yourself to academic texts or dense non-fiction. There are many memoirs, poetry books, novels, and even graphic novels that focus on human rights issues. Creative works illuminate stories through a unique lens, capturing emotions and nuances that a textbook or journalistic endeavor can miss. You most likely won’t directly reference everything you read in your writing, but reading deepens your understanding and expertise.