November 1, 2005  

The warrior’s pen

How to write on military subjects

A follow-up to October’s column on why veterans should write for publication.

One oddity of military service is that you meet men and women who are lions on the battlefield but are afraid to share their experiences and thoughts in print. Writing may be hard work, but it’s nothing to fear. In fact, the rules for writing for publication will sound surprisingly familiar to those who serve today or who served in the past.

You just have to make up your mind to do it, to communicate what you’ve learned. Procrastination is as much the writer’s enemy as it is the soldier’s.

As with soldiering, the best writing isn’t about vanity or ambition. It’s not about seeing your name in print — although that can be satisfying. It’s about making a difference.

The pen isn’t really mightier than the sword (try fending off a suicide bomber with a felt-tip). But a disciplined pen can sharpen the sword. When a veteran doesn’t record what he or she has learned at great cost, the knowledge perishes. In print, it may keep others alive, while helping to defeat our nation’s enemies.

As with any worthwhile effort, writing has to be taken seriously. That means reading good writing, not just easy junk. The printed word is the school of the writer’s craft. You have to pay attention to the effective use of language by others as surely as a new infantryman has to master the use of his assigned weapon.

You must know your subject — and you have to know yourself. Military writing isn’t about self-therapy or revenge (it’s probably best not to share stories about the funny noises the executive officer makes in his sleeping bag). Begin by asking yourself what motivates you, exactly what you want to communicate, who you want to reach and what you want to accomplish — that’s the writer’s “preparation of the battlefield.”

Keep it simple, skipper

The best writing is clear the first time you read it. Use the simplest language suited to your message. Use the appropriate word, not the longest one. Words are weapons, so use the weapons with which you’re familiar. If you need to look up a word in the dictionary to be sure of its meaning, don’t use it (if your readers have to look it up, they’ll probably just stop reading). Clarity is as important in an article as it is in an operations order.

Don’t write to impress others with how smart you are. Write to reach people, to persuade them. And don’t try to write like an academic. Nobody reads what academics write. Write the sort of article, column or book you’d like to read yourself.

The best advice I ever got about writing came from a teacher who scrawled an anonymous poem on the blackboard. The advice in those five lines has been my lifelong guide to writing — including military staff work.

The written word

Should be firm as stone,

Clear as light,

And clean as a bone.

Two words are not as good as one.

The vital writing rules are common sense. Always give it your best effort, for example. You’re not trying to win a Pulitzer Prize, but never mail an article before you’ve made it the very best work of which you’re capable. Don’t just dash something off and hit “send.” Take the time to reflect on what you’ve written and hone the points you want to make. After letting a piece cool down for a few days, you’ll spot obvious weaknesses in it. Be as hard on yourself when you write as you would be during military training.

Don’t assume that an editor will “fix it.” Editors certainly help. But if you send off sloppy work, your submission will be rejected. As on the battlefield, carelessness only sets you up for failure. Take the time to get the grammar and spelling right. If you couldn’t take the time to polish your work, why should a busy editor take the time to read it? Giving your personal best shows respect for the editor and, above all, for your readers. The article you submit doesn’t have to be perfect, but you should do all you can to reinforce your chances of success. Otherwise, your idea won’t see the light of day, no matter how important it may be.

Don’t waste words. Space on the page costs money. A good article or column is like a raid: You go in, get the job done and move out. If your message requires 2,000 words, that’s fine. But if you can say it in 600 words, don’t ramble on. Treat words as you would ammunition on a battlefield where your supply line had been cut. Make every word count.

When you think you’re ready to submit your article for publication, read it aloud to yourself. If you stumble over a sentence, it needs to be simplified. Just say what you mean and mean what you say.

And here’s the toughest hurdle for any career officer or noncommissioned officer to get over: Minimize the use of acronyms. Whenever possible, use plain English instead of obscure jargon. When writing about technical issues, it may be necessary to use professional terms and, yes, acronyms (spelled out the first time you use them), but never assume that your audience knows what you’re talking about. When in the slightest doubt, explain. If you want readers to stay with you until you’ve made your case, strive for clarity in every line.

Despite more than two decades of military service, I still encounter acronyms that baffle me. Too much jargon makes me turn the page. I always suspect that writers who can’t say what they mean plainly don’t really know what they want to say — or have nothing worth saying. The old military rule applies: The simpler the plan, the more likely it is to work.

Effective targeting

Before you sit down to write, you need to decide which audience you want to reach. Who can benefit from what you have to say? Who can help change what you believe needs changing? Your target group of readers determines the tone of your writing and the publications you should approach. Once you decide whether your message is aimed at junior officers or generals, at enlisted service members or the Pentagon leadership (or, for retirees, the American public), you need to choose the best possible forum to put your literary steel on target.

If you learned something tactical in the back alleys of Fallujah or Tal Afar, the ideal outlet might be Marine Corps Gazette or Army. If you’re offering a new strategic concept, Parameters or Proceedings — or Armed Forces Journal — would be the top venues. For brigade, division and corps operations issues, Military Review is an obvious choice, while insights on subjects as diverse as personnel matters, weapons performance or family-support issues are natural fits for the service-specific newspapers, such as Army Times or Air Force Times, or for branch-sponsored publications.

Don’t reflexively limit yourself to publications that deal with your own service, either. Sometimes outsiders have a clearer perspective than the insiders. In the age of jointness, we all need to reach out to one another — and to offer the occasional honest criticism of the emperor’s wardrobe.

Just know what you’re writing about. And be prepared to take return fire. If you criticize the traditional way of doing business or argue for axing somebody’s cherished procurement program, those who feel threatened are going to hit back. Don’t take it personally, don’t be discouraged — and don’t stop writing. The surest indicator that you’ve said something that really matters is an angry response. When you miss the mark, you’ll be ignored, but when you hit the bull’s-eye, the target comes to life and howls blue murder.

Don’t be a quitter. You wouldn’t give up the first time something went wrong on the battlefield, so don’t despair because an article over which you agonized is rejected. Editors choose not to publish specific articles for a variety of reasons and not all of those reasons have to do with the quality of the work submitted. Just don’t give up. Try again (but only submit your work to one publication at a time — that’s the “service etiquette”). If your first piece isn’t published, perhaps your second — or third — article will be. If you have something meaningful to share, your work will find an outlet. All magazines and journals are hungry for good, useful pieces. But not every good piece fits in every issue.

In the writing world, perseverance is far more important than talent.

Yanking the lanyard

You’ve worked on your article about how to revolutionize naval gunnery for the 21st century or how to amend the Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual. Before you send off your piece to the best-choice publication, take the measure of your command climate. While I rarely ran what I wrote by my superiors before publishing it, you have to judge the atmosphere in your chain of command and the sensitivity of your subject. If your piece is a positive, how-to-make-a-great-squadron-better article, you’re unlikely to run into trouble. But if your work is confrontational — and some of the best, most enduringly useful work will be — offer your commander the first look at it. While some commanders will be timid and nervous, most will back you up if they believe your work is honest and useful. But no commander likes sudden explosions in his rear area.

For their part, commanders have a responsibility to give conscientious advice and to avoid knee-jerk censorship. A good commander will prevent earnest junior officers from making fools of themselves but won’t try to kill a piece of writing just because they don’t agree with what it says. This part of the process is straightforward: Good commanders will back up subordinates who deserve it.

The one instance in which you must submit an article or column for review is if you think there could be any borderline classified material or particularly sensitive information in it. Although not required by regulation to do so, I even submitted my novels for a security review while I was on active duty (the responsible officials rarely bothered to look at them, but I had done my part). This can be a discouraging step, since security-review officials are often overly cautious and they’re always frustratingly slow. But when in doubt, do the right thing. For standard, here’s-how-we-can-fight-better-or-fix-it-faster articles, military publications will handle the security vetting, if they think it’s necessary.

None of this is as hard as it sounds. Just trust your instincts. Doing what you know is right is never wrong, even when it brings discouraging answers.

Retirees have far more freedom to publish, of course. But it’s still a matter of selecting the best venue to reach the audience you’ve targeted. If you want to sway your congressman’s vote, the newspaper in your state capital is the place to start. If your goal is to change defense policy, then you need to think in terms of national-level publications and the most-respected military journals and magazines.

Writing effectively as a retiree raises different challenges. Big-picture pieces for magazines may be written months before they go to press, but writing for newspapers is the equivalent of a fire mission in the middle of a battle. You have to get your rounds downrange before the other guy does. Your best chance of getting published is to use a breaking news event as the hook for what you want to communicate. That means getting your column out within hours after the headline hits.

The requirement for speed doesn’t give you a license for sloppy work. You need to say what you have to say in 800 words or less, to express yourself forcefully and convincingly. A column should focus on a single theme or idea. You have to grab the reader in the first paragraph and not let go until you’ve pulled him or her along to the final period. Shorter is better than longer.

The compromise venue is to aim at Sunday opinion sections, where you can take at least a few days to write about a crucial development earlier in the week (if you’ve coordinated with the editor). Commercial magazines, while harder to break into for an unknown writer, offer the chance to discuss issues in depth and to reach a self-selected, interested audience. If a retiree wants to make a difference, to shape public opinion and national policy, the opportunities are there waiting.

Write. Our country needs to hear what you have to say.

Your Route to the Objective

While it’s vital to develop good reading habits, it’s equally important not to assume that you have to imitate a successful writer’s style. Study the work of writers you enjoy, but don’t try to dress up in their clothes. You need to find the style that fits you.

A professional writer calibrates his tone to each publication, but the requirement for a military writer starting out is to avoid any hint of phoniness or pretension. If you’re writing for a military audience, remember that every human being in uniform longer than 15 minutes has been hardwired for B.S. detection. You can’t fool old sarge or the general — and you definitely can’t fool your peers.

In writing, clarity and simplicity add up to authority. Apply the time-honored Army dictum, “First, my mission, then my men, before myself.” The best writing isn’t about the writer. It’s about the “mission” of communicating to your “men.”

In the end, writing is a jungle you have to hack through on your own. Get started.

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer, a former enlisted soldier and the author of 20 books, including the recent “New Glory, Expanding America’s Global Supremacy.”