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Meet the Speaker: Interview with Miles Litvinoff
Miles is a writer and editor with more than 30 years’ experience of international development, human rights and environmental sustainability. Author and editor of several books and numerous reports, Miles has worked with organisations including Amnesty International, Aqua for All, ARTICLE 19, CAFOD, the Center for Economic and Social Rights, Forest Peoples Programme, Friends of the Earth, GIZ (Germany’s international development agency), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Institute for Environment and Development, Publish What You Pay, and Transparency International. Miles was educated at Liverpool University, Imperial College London, and Birkbeck, University of London and is a senior-level consultant based near London, UK.
We sat down with Miles for a short interview to learn more about his experience in writing and editing, and the sector. Follow our conversation below:
Hi Miles, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today, we really appreciate it! You have enormous experience in the area of writing and editing and worked on a large number of publications for various development agencies. You also published several books! This is really impressive and we are sure you have a lot to share. Tell us what it is you enjoy most about your work? What are the motivational factors in doing what you do?
“There are many aspects of the work that I enjoy: from online research and interviewing people who are at the centre of issues I write about, to drafting and revising original articles and other publications, to detailed editing that helps other people and organisations convey their findings and their advocacy messages as clearly as possible. Crafting engaging human interest stories is also always enjoyable.
Another aspect I enjoy is the learning that comes from understanding and making sense of issues that are relatively new to me and from responding to new writing or editing challenges. I feel fortunate to work on important issues that humanity faces.
Two overriding and interconnected concerns motivate me: questions of justice and of sustainability. Injustice is as old as history, while the challenge of ensuring that present and future generations have a habitable planet is a relatively new one. The science shows what we need to do to address climate change and biodiversity loss, and there are plenty of steps we can take. It’s not too late, but it is urgent, and delay can be costly. I want my work to contribute to the changes and processes needed to tackle these challenges – all of which are bound up with the Sustainable Development Goals.”
Are there any specific types of publications you prefer working with the most? What about topics/subject areas?
“For me, every publication type has challenges and rewards – whether you’re researching and writing a full-length book, editing a long report, writing up an interview, or drafting a press release, blog or social media content. I enjoy them all. The variety of work I do in different formats and for different organisations is part of the satisfaction.
In terms of topics and subject areas, we all need hope. So perhaps what I like best is working on positive examples of the sort of change the world urgently needs when it shows both benefits for individual people and their communities and potential to address current global challenges.
I also find fulfilment in helping expose the systemic changes needed to make human society more equitable and sustainable. We need more clarity about what’s not working – for example, the dominance of indiscriminate economic growth in conventional economic and political thinking, whereas it’s the location, nature and quality of growth that matter most – so that we can improve life chances for present and future generations.”
Have there been any special assignments (or a client) that really stood out or affected you in any way?
“There are many highly committed and effective development, environment and human rights organisations active in the non-governmental sector, and I have been lucky to work with a fair number of them.
If I had to single out one assignment, it would be the first book I wrote, The Earthscan Action Handbook for People and Planet. The two years I spent researching and writing the book educated me on issues as diverse as hunger, gender justice, racism, world trade, deforestation, marine pollution, climate and militarisation, and on organisations and campaigns working to tackle each problem area. Earthscan was in its early days as a book publisher part of the International Institute for Environment and Development, and I’m pleased to still work today as a freelance editor for IIED.”
Could you share a few qualities of a well-written piece, based on your experience?
“For me, key elements of a well-written communication or publication must include factual accuracy, relevance to the intended readership, realism about causes and consequences, the human dimension, a sense of underlying values (what is good and what is bad, and why), positive proposals for change, and clear messaging.”
This is really interesting, could you elaborate on the human dimension?
“By ‘human dimension’ I mean how development-related issues, processes or situations affect people’s lives and future prospects. What is the impact on low-income rural households in the global South, for example, or on children with disabilities, or on women and girls? Stories that highlight effects on people’s day-to-day living appeal to our common humanity. The task of international development, in my view, is to improve the life chances of ordinary people who currently lack fulfilment of their civil, political, social, economic and cultural human rights.”
What about tips or best practices for good technical writing and editing? What should a writer or an editor consider when working on a report or another type of publication?
“I would say the task is to make reading and understanding the subject as straightforward as possible without oversimplifying or dumbing down. This requires good organisation, clarity, conciseness, directness and consistency, among other qualities.”
Could you elaborate on all of these qualities? Which are the most important or should be prioritised?
“All these elements are important in a piece of published writing. For me, good organisation and clarity mean continuity, logical arrangement, clear signposting of descriptive elements or the steps in any discussion, and accessible use of language to convey the intended meaning (for example, steering clear of clichés and jargon and explaining specialist terms). Conciseness and directness involve using no more words than needed to communicate the message, avoiding repetition and redundancy, and using plain rather than fancy words and phrases. For consistency, you need to maintain the same tone throughout an article or longer publication (unless you deliberately decide to change the tone) and achieve a steady flow of ideas, words and phrases without unintentionally springing confusing surprises on your readers. You need to build and maintain your readers’ trust, as well as their interest.”
Anything to add?
Just to thank you for this opportunity to speak with Consult KM International and to share some thoughts about my work.
Thank you Miles, it has been a pleasure speaking with you today!
Learn more from Miles during our third ‘Live with an Expert’ session or Writing and Editing for International Development on 28 September at 3pm GMT | 10am EDT.