Whether you’re fresh to your first assignment or part way through your fifth stint on the frontline, here’s some inspiration to help you write an incredible blog for MSF.
Writing a blog about your assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) could seem like an odd thing to do – especially when you might be working in the middle of a healthcare crisis, several thousand miles from home.
However, we know from experience – and hundreds of writers – that blogging helps both MSF as an organisation and you as an individual.
First, blogging plays an important part in MSF’s long history of témoignage (bearing witness), empowering the organisation to speak out about often underreported humanitarian emergencies.
Secondly, many of our bloggers report that they used it as a tool to help them process the difficult feelings sometimes experienced when working in potentially distressing situations. In short, it can be extremely cathartic.
Finally, as a sort of bonus, blogging can act as a real memento of your time on assignment. It also gives you a reliable place to point your friends and family for all those occasions when you’ll no doubt be asked: “What’s it like working for MSF?”
So, here are nine ways to write a brilliant blog for MSF…
1. Start with some action
A good story grabs your attention with the first line, dropping you right into the middle of the action and setting the tone for the rest of the blog.
Questions can be answered, and backstories explained, later. An eventful opening can inject drama into your storytelling, before working backwards to explain how you arrived there.
- Alexander, a Swedish emergency doctor, was working in a remote South Sudan hospital when a radio call came in about a rapidly approaching boat with a critically ill patient onboard.
2. Build anticipation
A strong introduction (or title) creates curiosity, teasing the reader with a hint of the story to follow.
Two easy ways to achieve this are either by using a creative “flash forward” to part of a later event, or by asking a question with your opening lines – one that will only be answered in your blog.
- Opening with the question “Why I’ll never forget my first day as a surgeon in Iraq?”, Czech surgeon Martin invited people to read on and discover what dramatic events inspired his blog.
- There’s “a first time for everything,” wrote Finnish anaesthetist Kariantti when blood supplies ran out for a heavily-bleeding patient, meaning he needed to take an alternative life-saving approach.
3. Pretend you’re talking to (non-MSF) friends
Imagine you’re chatting about your MSF assignment with your non-MSF friends back home, maybe over a coffee. Chances are you’d avoid overly technical terms, use casual language and help explain any complex ideas… You’d also tell the stories that mean the most to you: the ones that surprise you or move you, the ones that make you laugh.
The same goes for blog writing.
Writing-as-you-would-talk can make it easier for people with entirely different backgrounds to engage with your story and understand what your MSF experience was like.
To find the tone that’s right for you, a good mantra is “If you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it.”
- In an emotional blog from the Abyei Special Administrative Area between Sudan and South Sudan, Finnish surgeon Heidi shared a story about the care she provided for a critically ill patient.
- Despite the technical nature of logistics, and the work of an MSF mobile unit surgical trailer (known as a MUST), Polish logistician Piotr gave readers a behind-the-scenes look at a vital project in Iraq.
- Construction specialist Carlos Cortez from Chile wrote a brilliantly descriptive blog from South Sudan, where he was working to help MSF build life-saving medical facilities.
4. Write a letter
Whether it’s for a patient you’ll never forget, or a team member that kept you going in tough times, writing an open letter can make a very human and often moving blog post. Addressing your blog post to 'you' creates an instant connection with the reader.
- When a toddler was injured by a suicide blast in Iraq, Australian doctor Georgina wrote an emotional open letter to her young patient.
5. Try a “listicle”
Break up your blog post into a list of bite-sized points that will make your writing accessible and enjoyable to read.
A “listicle”, as it’s known, is often also easier to write if you’re unsure about how to start a more traditional story. The post you’re reading right now is a good example of this style.
It’s good to note that our readers love a listicle – they’re often some of our most popular posts.
This approach doesn’t work as well for individual events but is perfect for writing about bigger picture issues, or even your assignment as a whole.
One tip: Try and stick to a catchy theme that’ll link each point together – “Seven things I learned as a midwife in South Sudan”, “Five things every MSFer should pack for assignment” etc.
- After encountering some of the misconceptions people have about what it’s like to work for MSF, Czech nurse Michal set about busting the five most common myths.
- When British midwife Laura found herself in South Sudan, she began listing some of the most entertaining differences between the MSF health centre and her usual National Health Service hospital back in London.
6. Take inspiration from others
It can sometimes be difficult to write about yourself, particularly if writing for an audience is something you’ve never done before, or you think of yourself as an introvert.
An easy way to overcome this is to build your blog around other people, instead. Share the experience of a another staff member who inspires you, or maybe a patient who left a real impact on you.
Importantly, when writing about someone who could be identified from your blog post, always get their consent first.
- Martins, an administrator from Nigeria, wrote a series of vibrant blogs about the work of a fistula clinic in northern Nigeria, and the women whose lives the centre helped transform.
- Inspired by a local teammate she met while on assignment, Canadian doctor Joanne shared the story of Beatrice - an inspirational South Sudanese midwife who often sings to her patients during labour.
7. Say what you see (as well as hear, smell, and feel)
From sights to sounds and smells, even emotions, including little details about people, places and events can add real colour to your writing – helping your reader feel like they are there with you.
Don’t be afraid to get creative with your sensory descriptions. A blog is about your own personal experience, and only you know how it felt to be in that moment.
- During the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Luis, a Spanish nurse and Ebola veteran, wrote a series of powerful blogs from the frontline of the epidemic. He used lots of personal and sensory detail to help paint a picture of his time there.
- When political pressure forced MSF to end life-saving search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, difficult emotions resurfaced for Canadian nurse Courtney who was inspired to write a "memorial" for those lives lost at sea.
8. Use present tense
Add some drama to your blog by writing in the present tense – as if events are unfolding in front of you – resulting in a kind of live commentary.
This means writing "I go straight to the ward" rather than "I went straight to the ward".
This method works well when you're describing lots of action: for example, fast-paced medical procedures, emergency responses or even off-road journeys.
However, it can also add intimacy to slower events, such as conversations and emotional moments.
- Less than 24 hours after arriving at a maternity project in Nigeria, British obstetrician Pippa was thrown into the deep end, dealing with a complicated emergency delivery.
- Austrian mental health specialist Raimund wrote a moving story about the quiet moments he shared with a patient who had attempted to take his own life.
9. Keep a diary
If you’re unsure whether you want to contribute a blog, keeping a diary (whether written, video or audio) is a great way of recording your experiences.
Often the events that stick in the mind can be difficult ones, so don't forget to include the things that have gone well, even if they don't seem extraordinary: the patients who recovered as expected, a moment of connection with a team member, a small change on a project or process that will make a difference.
The diary might just serve as a personal time capsule of your time with MSF, or you might decide to share it on the blogs site to help others learn what to expect, and bring our supporters closer to our work. Sometimes people wait until the end of their assignment before deciding what they want to do.
Regular diary writing can also be amazing for personal wellbeing – particularly when working in stressful environments – helping you to deal with difficult events.
- Czech mental health specialist Katerina gave an insight into her role working with refugee children in a diarised account of her working week
Don't forget: all blog posts about MSF's work must be checked before publication to ensure they don't pose a risk to our staff or patients in the field. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.