The (unearned) authority of written publications

09.10.2021Food for thought

magnifying glass with question marks and large red "x" through graphs on paper

I love words.

Ever since I was a kid I have been – let’s be honest – obsessed with words. I would read literally anything that came across my path, all of the time. The back of cereal boxes while I ate breakfast. A set of encyclopedias my parents got the year I was born. The latest story I was immersed in while walking down the hall at school (which might have been the source of much of my clumsiness – I just couldn’t be bothered to look around!) Menus even after I’d ordered my food. Heck, I couldn’t even shower without reading the ingredients on back of the shampoo bottle when I was a kid. One of the nicknames I was given by friends was “vocab girl”, which I wore like a badge of honor.

So it’s not surprising that in my design work I’ve realized that I most love working with publications – written documentation of a process, an idea, an action, a tool. Yes, I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can visually represent ideas in ways besides words, but I start with the words.

Yet I do know that the written word (particularly the written English word) is just one form of knowledge sharing. And, in so many ways, it is an exclusive and limiting form of expressing ideas.

I was reminded again the other day when I was reading the intro to a great report that “The very nature of reports relies on external, ‘authoritative’ sources being used to corroborate the lived experiences of some of the consultation’s participants.” Formal written publications like the ones I work on are often more prized or seen as being more legitimate than other ways of sharing the same information, which we know is not the case.

Incorporating alternative voices and sources of knowledge

Despite acknowledging that this “worship of the written word” is problematic (and a hallmark of white supremacy culture), publications aren’t going away any time soon. They remain the preferred format for sharing results and findings with audiences like donors, development practitioners and policy makers. And likely, those of us creating these written publications are steeped in this world – it’s our expertise, afterall. How can we try and make sure that they are as inclusive of different voices and forms of knowledge as possible? Here are four ideas:

  • Start from the very beginning. First, recognize that in the decisions of what stories are told and how they are told itself is power. Really think through how you can authentically incorporate a variety of voices and ways of expressing knowledge right from the beginning – everything from your research design to who sits at the planning table for the publication. If you use the same methods or only hear the same people, you’ll always get the same results.
  • Decenter the written report. While it still might be necessary to create your written publication, maybe it can be just one of many ways you’re telling a story? Pairing a publication with a number of other storytelling mediums (video diaries, performance art, etc.) can share different aspects of your work and center a variety of voices. (It’s important to note, of course, that the same issues of power and representation can come into play when we’re looking at video, for example, so be mindful again of whose voice is being centered.)
  • Integrate other media INTO written reports. Especially now that so much of our reading takes place online, there are infinite possibilities for embedding videos, audio interviews and stories, oral histories, art, music, and more into the publications themselves. Use them!
  • Pass the mic and write from a different perspective. When you are relying on the written word as your main format, seek out voices from your team or community to write and contribute significantly to the content creation. This will help incorporate different points of view and perspectives into your publication. And, importantly, make sure to avoid over-editing – there’s a very fine line between “polishing” up someone else’s words and erasing their authentic voice. (This doesn’t even begin to touch on translations and the many pitfalls that can occur there – another whole topic itself!)

This is far from an exhaustive list, but hopefully enough to spark some thinking.  Perhaps the simplest and most immediate action we can take is to acknowledge that our written work is NOT the only avenue that “counts”. The written word, while still very often prized as a higher form of knowledge and expertise, is only one way that we can and should share voices and learning.

Over to you

The next time you’re working on that end-of-project report, or capturing the impact that your work has had on the community, think of how you can find ways to acknowledge the limitations of and decenter the written word.



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