By: CDR Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong
The June issue of Proceedings offered a call from CNO Admiral Richardson, and his speechwriter Lt. Ashley O’Keefe, encouraging naval professionals to engage with their service through the act of professional writing. The CNO has not discovered a new idea, but instead lends his voice to something a number of recent senior officers have called for, from Stavridis to Winnefeld. Even some “not so senior” officers have suggested the same. Others have written indications and warnings about the risks the voyage entails.
There have been a long list of professionals throughout our history who have participated in the development of naval affairs in this way, from Maury to Mahan, Nimitz to Zumwalt. And while the spark for this post came from the CNO and the Navy, the other services have a history here too: from soldiers in the 19th century to leaders like Patton in the 20th century. However, the repeated calls to arms over time, or perhaps calls to pens, have missed something. How do you do it?
Our Navy is a technically oriented service. This is also generally true of the other services to greater or lesser degrees. Our educational policies focus on engineering and technical study, and rarely encourage us to learn how to communicate in writing beyond a bare minimum. In our staff positions we use briefing slides and other communication methods which inspire partial thoughts, quick hits, and incomplete sentences and no concept of paragraph structure or style.
The mission of USNI is to:
Provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to global security. [emphasis added]
The bold words are borrowed from President John Adams. In his 1765 pamphlet “Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” Adams examined monarchy and feudalism and compared them to the growing movement for freedom and liberty in the American colonies. The future president called for Americans who valued liberty to develop their knowledge, and their argument, by daring to read, think, speak, and write on the subject. It was a clarion call, but it also hinted at a certain amount of process. Adams was a careful writer and it is quite possible he put these words in a very specific order. Following his counsel can help professionals chart their process for developing an article which contributes to understanding of our profession.
In order to make a contribution to the field of military, naval, or national security knowledge, you have to know the state of the field. The way to do this is by reading. If you have come up with an interesting analogy for a current debate the only way to know if someone has made the argument before is by reading the field. If you wonder what counter-arguments may be against your position, that also comes with reading the field. Articles in journals like Proceedings, Military Review, or Naval War College Review, online publications like War on the Rocks and The Bridge, blogs like Next War, all contribute to the state of the field. Not only will reading them give you new information, and new ideas, but they also tell you what others have said before. It can save you from the embarrassing retort: “yeah, Lieutenant Commander Jones said it six months ago and had a better argument.” (Not that you have to be entirely original, but knowing the field helps you understand where you fit.)
It is not just articles and online posts we should be reading. Books have long given us the deep knowledge needed to understand where the profession has been and where it may head in the future. There is a common refrain in the modern world that we simply do not have time for books. The watch schedule keeps us too busy. Digital media has affected our attention span. Military service is demanding, and we need time with our families. Yet we find time for physical exercise, while we discount intellectual exercise. According to some studies the average college graduate reads around 300 words a minute. If we read 15 minutes each evening, it totals up to 18-20 books a year. The excuse there is “no time” would never be accepted when we failed the PFT. Accept the challenge to read more widely. Maybe this sounds “high brow” or too “egg headed” but as President Truman, a WWI Army veteran, said: “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.”
Once a servicemember or natsec professional has an idea of the subject they want to write about, has done some research and reading about it, and has come up with the initial kernel of an argument, they must spend some time thinking about it. This advice probably goes against the grain of what digital media incentivises, or what social media seems to encourage. However, the point of this effort is to make a contribution to the field of military and naval affairs or national security, not to rush into being a “thought leader” in the crashing tide of the blogosphere. Thinking hard about the subject you intend to tackle includes attempting to employ the skills of critical thinking.
Critical thinking gets a lot of attention these days and there are numerous competing definitions of what it means. Unfortunately, too many people seem to think “critical thinking” means “thinking about important or critical things.” That’s not the case. Instead we need level criticism at ourselves and our ideas. We need to examine our ideas with depth, and rigor, in order to get to the heart of whatever issue we want to write about. This includes becoming a critic of yourself and your own ideas, as well as the ideas of others. As you develop the concept for your article, be exacting and penetrating with the evidence you have amassed either through research or your own experience.
Having researched, considered experience, and critically examined the subject in your own mind, it is important to get a sanity check from someone else. In the academic world, this is part of the reason there is peer review before journal articles are published. In the professional and popular press, editors and editorial boards will judge your work with a dispassionate eye. The best way to ensure your argument makes sense, and you have developed a sound approach before contacting an editor, is to talk about it with other people.
Speaking about your idea can take a number of forms. It can happen with a pint in your hand at a pub with a mentor or group of respected friends. In the lost days of our Officer Clubs this was actually a common way of helping people develop professional ideas. It could also involve a cup of coffee. Seek out a mentor who you trust, whether a senior officer or a former professor or co-worker, and see what sticks in your conversation with them. Speaking also does not have to be taken literally, even if some of us work better in the give and take of live conversation. It can take the form of an email or social media exchange. The goal is to introduce new criticisms the writer has not considered, or clarifying the way to express the ideas.
Sit down and write the article. Just do it. Don’t allow the blank page on the computer screen to intimidate. One of the benefits of having thought through the idea systematically, and then spoken about it with a trusted friend or mentor, is you have already started to develop the words to express the idea. As many successful authors have told us, from Stephen King and Anne Lamott to Ernest Hemingway: the first draft is going to be bad. It does not matter. Sit at the keyboard and bang away until you have said everything you want to say.
Once the words are on the page, raw and terrible as they might be, the writer has crossed a major hurdle. After that, it is a matter of editing, organizing, and rewriting, which should be easier than putting the idea down the first time. The editing does not need to be rushed, and the mentor or friend you spoke with probably will be excited to take a look at the article and help make suggestions to improve it. You have already made them feel like a part of the process. When the draft is something which reads well, and you’re happy with it, then it is time to start looking for a place to publish it. Good editors, strong editorial boards, and the review process they use will help strengthen the piece even more. Be ready to make more adjustments to help clarify any issues they discover.
The RTSW Loop
The steps of RTSW might be seen as a sort of OODA loop for professional writing. In some ways it is similar to Boyd’s strato-tactical ideal. For example, each element can send you back to a previous spot. Speaking with a mentor may send you to a book or article you had not heard of before which you need to read, or the process of writing may cause you to return to your thinking and reorganize your approach. But there are also differences with Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act sequence, most notably speed. Speed can be your enemy when writing a good professional article. There is no hurry. Please do not try to beat the rush of modern media, this can lead to shallow writing, weak argument, and poorly sourced facts. Doing it right may take time, and multiple rounds of the “RTSW loop,” but that only makes the article stronger and a better contribution.
Writing for publication can be a rewarding challenge. It is also something a legion of Sailors, Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, and security professionals have done throughout history. Many discover the process of writing clarifies their thinking. It also develops our communication skills, our critical faculties through practice, and our leadership ability. All of these make us better military professionals. Writing for publication is not something we should do because we need another FITREP or evaluation bullet, or because we think we can impress our boss. We don’t do it simply because the CNO says so. It is something we do in order to move our profession forward and to improve our service or our nation’s security. So, it is time to dare. Dare to read, think, speak, and write.
The author would like to thank Cdr Mike Flynn and his Naval Academy summer school class on “Professional Writing” for their invitation to join them for a day of class, where the author had a chance to speak about and refine some of these ideas.
This post is the first in a three-part series where the author shares lessons learned from a decade of his own professional writing, almost four years on the editorial board of the U.S. Naval Institute, as a Senior Editor with War on the Rocks, and as series editor of the 21st Century Foundations books from the Naval Institute Press. The advice contained is worth exactly what you have paid to read it and individual experience will vary. The opinions expressed are offered in the author’s personal capacity and do not represent the policy of the US Navy, Department of Defense, or any government agency.