Beat the editor at his game

EDITING A TEXT proceeds in rounds, each of which takes a document up one notch, to the next level. Sometimes it may feel like playing Donkey Kong, with an angry editor throwing dynamite barrels at you to keep you down at the bottom of the ladder. In reality, the unhelpful creature tends to be the…

Professional Kung Fu

PROFESSIONAL RELATIONS are a martial art. They involve a sequence of well-rehearsed, standardized moves, in which action and reaction appear logically, predictably related. As in old-style Kung Fu movies, they follow each other in a quick but iron-clad choreography, seemingly designed to go on endlessly. Professional encounters won’t knock you out cold, but they often…

Forging consensus

LEADERSHIP is an unstable thing, constantly at risk of migrating toward the extremes; it either degenerates into highhanded decision-making or devolves into bureaucratic rule-by-committee. Whether at the apex of a state or within a small civic association, leadership poses, again and again, the same fundamental question: how to strike a balance between decisiveness and discussion?…

The hire

A GREAT PRIVILEGE of managers is to provide jobs, and there is no shortage of people looking for them. Given the abundance of available talent, it is a mystery that we struggle so much to consistently hire the right candidates. Pairing people and employment opportunities is an extraordinarily difficult equation, whose outcome remains largely random….

Why read books?

CLAIMING TO READ BOOKS is on the way to becoming an admission of idleness. Who can make time, with relentless pressure at work combined with a busy personal life? Why bother in the first place, when we can access information instantaneously, and already sift through ample written content in the form of reports, articles, posts,…

The rookie researcher’s check-list

SETTING OFF on your first research project—or, for that matter, on any new one—likely will create some sense of confusion. You face a topic that, by definition, you don’t know much about, along with inevitably high expectations regarding outcomes. At some stage, you’ll have to know the issue inside out. For now, mostly, you draw…

The research question

IT IS INTRIGUING that something as central to academic work as the “research question” would go without a clear-cut, consensual, practical definition. Some see it as a technically-worded version of the question you set out to answer when you start your research process. Others view it as a paradox—a counterintuitive formulation of deceptively familiar problems,…

Growing your network

ONE OF THE GREATEST NETWORKERS EVER, George Soros, is famously said to have declared that “networking is not working.” This possibly apocryphal quote papers over a fundamental truth regarding our professional interactions: very little comes from just meeting people and chatting with them, unless the effort is constructed as an investment. We’ve all been to…

Redefining productivity

BEING PRODUCTIVE is a key concern; we owe it to our employer, our client, our colleagues and ourselves. Most importantly, we owe it to society, especially when we work in a field defined by its ambition to generate positive social impact. In principle, the very concept of productivity, which inevitably evokes visions of greater quality,…

Life and death of the knowledge industry

WHOM TO TRUST for food for thought? In a confusing world, we are left to opt for one dominant pattern of behavior or the other: to lock ourselves into a bubble, where increasingly prolific media churn out large quantities of whatever material we want to ingest, to fit our interests or emotions; or to drift in limbo, bouncing off such comfort zones in search of bits and pieces of palatable knowledge more suited to a discerning diet. You feast on sweet corroboration, or scavenge for smidgens of reason.

Deciphering Syria

AS THE CONFLICT DEEPENED in Syria post-2011, Kheder Khaddour turned to reporting and research. His meticulous work quickly surfaced as offering some of the most valuable and durable insights, standing out in a flood of instant commentary. A scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, he focuses on civil-military relations and social boundaries. Kheder, what…

Analytic writing

IN AN ERA saturated with textual content claiming to make sense of the world’s complexity, we must face the reality: an enormous amount of wealth pours into writing that is very hard to read. A great deal of mainstream analysis is short but shallow, while much more is so long and meandering as to ultimately…

The opinion piece

A LEGITIMATE AMBITION of any aspiring analyst is to get his or her name in the paper, as a byline to an “opinion editorial” or op-ed, voicing strong personal views to the world. Established pundits will all have kept in a drawer, somewhere, that first paper edition bearing their patronym, as a trophy marking a significant…

Modern-day Socrates

A PARADOXICAL JOURNALIST AND RESEARCHER, Mongi Abdennabi articulates inspiring analysis that he never shares, other than through oral exchanges. A Tunisian intellectual who lived much of his adult life in Syria before moving to Egypt, he has traveled to and has friends in most Arab countries. Although he hardly writes himself, he has a keen…

Prepping for media engagements

THERE IS ONE CORE RULE to giving interviews to journalists: the interaction is fundamentally transactional. Correspondents, columnists and broadcasters want something from you; you must want something in return, and make sure it’s a win-win deal. What exactly may journalists seek? That varies as much as personality and professionalism among them. At one end of…

Going deep

ON MOST SUBJECT MATTER, there is no shortage of information and analysis. What’s missing, by and large, is reliability and depth. Facts must be checked, theories tested and stories well-researched, no doubt. Beyond that, however, is a quest for greater perceptiveness and more humanity—a profundity that is hard to define and harder to attain, but…

Writing in blocks

THE MAJORITY OF QUERIES made by an editor working on the first draft of a text—assuming the fieldwork, the overall analysis and the structure have already been discussed—relate to the same cluster of issues: what point is the author making, exactly? How does it connect to the previous point? Is it explained clearly enough? Is…

In the data wasteland

EVERYTHING IS DATA: from accurate figures to impressionistic narratives, through to rumors and plain lies, which carry information on the people articulating them. The issue with data is that, precisely because it is ubiquitous, it forms an incoherent slush until organized into something recognizable. Its analytical value will depend on two variables in particular: volume…

Performing in public

SOONER OR LATER, if you’re doing work of interest to others, you’ll be asked to get up on the stage and perform for an audience. Whether you’re giving a conference, moderating a panel, pushing your ideas in front of a distinguished assembly of colleagues or board members, fulfilling a mundane obligation by making a toast, or…

Giving a title

A TEXT WITHOUT A TITLE is like a building without a door. To enter it, you walk around, you break in through the window, and you definitely don’t feel welcome. Reading, let alone editing, such a text feels like trespassing on the author’s intimacy: if he/she didn’t put a title, it’s presumably because it’s still…

The cut-off moment

A WIDESPREAD MISTAKE, in the field of research as in many others, is going overboard: extending a task beyond the point where work is productive. Many analysts get lost in never-ending interviews, revealing more and more facets of an issue without truly shedding light on it, because the analysis itself never gets written. Others continue…

Self-evaluation

YOU HAVE NAGGING SELF-DOUBT. You have hubristic self-confidence. And you have structured, constructive evaluations. Many organizations turn staff assessments into a tedious, formalistic exercise, which ends up discouraging the voluntary, candid questioning that helps address your weak spots and expand on your strengths. In any event, you’ll only make real progress to the extent you…

Writing rituals

THE ONE THING TO KNOW about writing is that, as a rule, it has nothing in common with sitting at a keyboard feeling inspired. As a cultural construct, writing is strangely associated with pure genius, if not the touch of God—perfect words flowing through an author page after page, as would a prophetic revelation. Writing…

Team management

THE PROBLEM WITH PEOPLE doing fieldwork on complicated issues they feel strongly about is that they’re not sitting behind desks doing simple tasks just for the money. In other words, they tend to be driven and individualistic and strong headed. The benefit is that this makes the people, and the work, interesting. The downside is…

Pitching yourself

IT WOULD BE LOVELY if the purpose of an encounter defined it. Let’s say you must engage some official in a ministry to discuss a technical issue you have good reason to raise. From there, an apparently straightforward meeting can go any number of ways: the person you’re talking to can lock you out, pull you…

Taming social media

FRANKLY, if you’re totally comfortable with social media, no need to read this: you’re probably a lost cause already. Social media, however subtle you may be about it, revolves around promoting yourself. If you have no qualms about that, if you’re a natural, you’re beyond salvation. The various business models behind social media platforms all…

Framing your subject

ONE OF THE MOST DIFFICULT TASKS involved in turning extensive research into a digestible product is framing the topic. Sound fieldwork invariably reveals and unravels the complexity of the issue we are working on, to the point where bringing it down to something simple is perplexing. “What’s the angle?” journalists would say. An end-user of…

The melody of the interview

THERE IS A MUSICALITY to all interviews, big and small. The tempo will change and the conversation may explore various tones, but a good discussion is one where the rhythm never really breaks, and phrases respond to each other harmoniously. Even a vivid debate, or a tough negotiation, can become a pleasant and fulfilling experience, when different people playing different tunes are brought into accord by some…

Interview takeaways and throwaways

YOU’LL OFTEN BE ASKED about the “takeaways” of a particular meeting. In other words: what was new and meaningful, to you or to a broader conversation occurring on a given topic? What are you going home with, and might want to share with others? The query also suggests that there is much to cast aside…

Reconciling conflicting narratives

LEBANON IS A COUNTRY POLARISED between conflicting narratives if there ever was one. Most often, Lebanese genuinely entertain perfectly incompatible views of any meaningful event, to the point of making it difficult to establish facts or forge an opinion of one’s own. As the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst in Lebanon, Sahar al-Atrache has been…

Riding the project cycle

YOU HAVE BEEN TASKED with a whole project on a broad topic. You must produce, say, a report on innovative agriculture in the Sahel, with the goal of suggesting ways of scaling up effective programs and replicating best practices. Unless you’re an expert in the first place, you will feel overwhelmed. Are you the right…

The art of editing

A GREAT PIECE OF WRITING is always a collaborative product. We seek inspiration from others and generally borrow more ideas than we are aware of. We improve our writing skills through critical feedback we take into account, iteratively. And a good text will always gain from a good editor. But that is a rare bird: many…

Managing your manager

GOOD COMMUNICATION is critical to any successful work relationship, and that holds twice as true when colleagues are interacting within a relatively unstructured environment. Simply put, without strong communication with your manager, at least in the initial stages of a work relationship, whatever you are doing is headed to failure. Moreover, poor communication also drags this…

Realistic time management

MANAGING OUR TIME optimally is a daily challenge that requires both self-awareness and self- discipline. Our workload never seems to spread itself out evenly and in a logical sequence. Our rhythm tends to oscillate between moments of intense pressure, when just keeping up with urgent tasks and requests is daunting in itself, and periods of…

Meeting expectations

JOINING AN ORGANISATION or an ongoing project always creates some confusion, as to what exactly our role and our expected input are meant to be. It can be hard to adjust on the factory shop-floor, but it’s harder still in more abstract functions such as analysis or management. As far as research is concerned, virtually all tasks…

What writing is worth our while?

WRITING IS A NERVE-WRACKING and enthralling endeavor. We put a great deal of ourselves into it. Sometimes we torture ourselves, or hope to liberate and comfort ourselves. But what about those whom we expect to read our writing? Writing is both an extremely personal experience and one that connects us to untold others. That connection…

Drafting a briefing based on your fieldwork

YOUR NOTES taken in the field are ultimately designed to inspire, structure and support work that goes down on paper. You must go through the process of translating a mass of oral conversations, visual and other observations, and abstract thoughts into a readable text. That is one of the most challenging aspects of our work. But…

Taking the floor

WHEN ATTENDING A MEETING or a roundtable, you generally don’t have the luxury to stay mute – unless you want to establish yourself as a note-taker no one should pay any further attention to. Taking the floor is almost always awkward and intimidating. If it’s not, that probably means you’ve become one of these people…

Building your analysis on & through fieldwork

AS YOU CARRY OUT INTERVIEWS, bear in mind that your fieldwork is geared toward developing your analysis of a particular topic. Sometimes, we know what that topic is from the outset, and structure the fieldwork accordingly. Oftentimes, however, fieldwork produces insights into topics that we were not pursuing deliberately, and nonetheless impose themselves upon us….

Note taking and sharing

IF YOU THINK that you must type notes because you’ve had a few meetings, you’re wrong: we have meetings because we need notes. Our analysis is built not on impressionistic sentiments and recollections, but on a more tangible basis, which is the raw material of our craft: interview transcripts.  Without them, you’ll remain vague and shallow….

Introducing yourself when starting fieldwork

REACHING OUT to unknown people may be hard in ordinary circumstances. As we wade into an entirely new area of research—which typically, to prove interesting, must be removed from our social comfort zone—it can be daunting. In practice, though, it’s really just a matter of finding where to start. Just like a conversation may naturally flow…