Good advice can come from anywhere, right? Why not our proud United States Navy?
Today I ran across an excellent essay about bad writing and how to avoid it, by the U.S. Navy’s current chief information officer Rear Adm. John Kirby.
If you’re an aspiring writer, real or (in my case) imagined, you will get a chuckle or two – and some pointers – from his examples of those in the military who “over-write,” and consequently under-communicate. I found it here. I hope you enjoy it.
You’ve heard me talk about good storytelling. Today, I want to spend a little time on good writing and speaking.
“Adm. Jim Stavridis once said that all military officers should learn a second language. I think he’s right. I think that language should be English.”
That’s the way Mary Walsh, Pentagon producer for CBS News, kicked off a talk recently to students at Defense Information School. The line drew chuckles, but it also hit home with me.
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard Adm. Greenert urge Navy leaders to “say it in plain English,” well, let’s just say I’d have a pot full of nickels. And yet I’m amazed at how often we continue to ignore him.
I don’t think it’s intentional, this butchering of our own language. It’s more a crime of neglect. I think many of us have simply forgotten what it is to write well and speak well. We know good writing when we see it. We know a good speech when we hear it. But for some reason, or maybe lots of reasons, we can’t measure up to the task ourselves.
For one thing, we’ve never met an adjective or adverb we didn’t like. We don’t “exploit operations in the electromagnetic spectrum.” We fully exploit them. We don’t integrate functions; we seamlessly integrate them. And it’s not sufficient to make investments. We need to remind you they are “essential, long-term” investments, because, hey, some of our other investments aren’t really all that important.
According to this year’s Navy program guide, the world isn’t a dangerous place. It’s a “dynamic and complex international environment.” And the Navy’s “most pressing challenge” in coming years “will be sustaining Fleet capacity while maintaining relevant capability.”
I guess I just assumed all our capabilities were relevant.
And why can’t we talk about problems? When did that word become so bad? Everybody has problems. Problems are real. Problems are what we get paid to solve. But no, we in the military have challenges to meet, face, overcome, deter, or defeat.
Jargon and gibberish always win out.
We didn’t tell people we were reducing to one the number of carriers in the Middle East. We told them we were responding to a “1.0 carrier presence requirement in the CENTCOM AOR.” We aren’t defending America at sea. We’re “delivering offshore options.” And we do not sustain troops through supply routes. We do it through “lines of communication.”
I once heard a general say — no kidding — that he was worried about a “kinetic provocation” on the Korean peninsula. I’m pretty sure he meant attack.
We do not come home. We redeploy.
We do not muster out. We reintegrate.
And when we do reintegrate, it’s to places INCONUS rather than just plain old stateside.
If you’re not stateside, well, you’re OCONUS … not simply overseas.
Let’s be honest. It’s just a lot easier to complicate things — to rely on fancy words and acronyms — than it is to be clear and concise. Being clear and concise might get you quoted. Fancy words might convince people you are smarter than they are. And then, maybe, they’ll leave you alone.
I call it the Prego Proof. I named it after that television commercial, the one for Prego spaghetti sauce. “It’s in there!” says the announcer, making sure customers know every possible ingredient they need to make good spaghetti sauce is in that jar.
We do the same thing in our writing. We cram as much information as possible into every paragraph and power-point bullet so that, should any Hill staffer dare ask about this or that, we can say with a straight face, “You bet, it’s in there!”
Here’s another example from the program guide, this one about the Zumwalt-class destroyer:
“This advanced warship will provide offensive, distributed, and precision fires in support of forces ashore and will provide a credible forward naval presence while operating independently or as an integral part of naval, joint or combined expeditionary strike forces.”
I count 14 adjectives in that sentence, maybe three of which are necessary. If you remove the 11 others, you come up with this:
“This warship will provide fires in support of forces ashore and will provide a naval presence while operating independently or as a part of expeditionary forces.”
That’s still a bit stodgy, but it’s a whole lot easier to understand. And it gives the reader a better sense of what the ship can actually do, which is what I think we were trying to accomplish in the first place.
Editing out the adjectives reveals something else: a weakness in verbs. “Provide” is used twice, and the word doesn’t exactly instill confidence. Warships don’t provide. They fight. They destroy. They defend. They chase, shoot, engage, transport and steam.
My insurance company provides.
My doctor provides.
My mother provides.
Somehow, somewhere along the way, we grew scared of verbs. That’s a shame, because the English language boasts plenty of verbs that convey action and purpose. And the American military, perhaps above all professions, has reason to use them. Action and purpose is what we’re all about.
To be fair, I’m guilty of butchery myself. A reporter asked me last year about the development of an East Coast missile defense system. This was my response:
“Well, we always look very seriously at the broad scope of our missile defense capabilities and how to make them more robust and to improve them. But the general also said … that we don’t believe we need that kind of a capability right now. It’s not programmed for in the budget we just submitted back in February. But just as a matter of course, we constantly look at ways to improve our capabilities, particularly in a field as dynamic and technologically challenging as missile defense.”
Well, isn’t that a flash of brilliance …
I killed a lot of words right there saying a lot of nothing. The second sentence was all I needed, and it could have been made more crisp. Indeed, I’m sure people will find other mistakes and missteps in this email.
But here’s the thing. We can no longer afford to say nothing. Each word must count. Each word must work as hard as we do. With resources declining and the gap growing between the military and the American people, we must at least try to communicate better and more clearly.
I am reminded of a story that illustrates the point. I found it in Max Miller’s book, “The Far Shore.” Miller wrote about the Navy in World War II, but this particular story is about a U.S. Army officer trying to get information from a British outpost near his location.
“You say the Germans are coming,” the colonel said into the phone. “But you don’t tell me how many. Tell me how many.”
“Considerable,” replied the Brit in a heavy accent. “Considerable.”
“No, for God’s sake,” the colonel begged, “tell me how many!”
Again, the answer came back: Considerable.
The corporal came to the phone.
“Now,” said the colonel to the G.I., “tell me how many Germans are coming.”
“A whole piss-pot full of ‘em, colonel!”
“Thanks. That’s all I wanted to know.”
Whether it’s a pot full of nickels or a pot full of German soldiers, we need to remember it’s not merely what we say that matters. It’s how we say it. It’s about the words we choose … or don’t choose. It’s about the sentences we build, the stories we tell. Frankly, it’s about how we practice — yes, practice — our own language.
That doesn’t just apply to the people who write the program guide or other policy wonks. It applies to PA professionals and the bosses we advise, too.
Mary Walsh had it right. When it comes to English, we have met the enemy. And they are us.
It’s time to put down the adjectives and back away.
(graphic credit) Click to enlarge
Here are 10 tips to help us improve, inspired by William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well:”
1. When in doubt, leave the clarifier out. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. If it’s easier, go ahead and write them in. Then walk away from the document for an hour. Come back and take a fresh look. See if you really need them.
2. Run, Forrest, run. Active verbs lend momentum to your lines. They propel your ideas forward. And if you’re smart about the ones you choose, you won’t need many adverbs anyway.
3. Short words win. We get enamored of long, fancy words … like enamor. They make us sound smart. Shorter is better. Of the 701 words in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, 505 are words of one syllable and 122 words contain two syllables.
4. Short sentences sing. Long sentences, though necessary at times, are also tough to plod through. Give the reader a break every now and then. Mix in some short ones.
5. … so do short paragraphs. Again, it’s about giving the reader a break. Long paragraphs are cumbersome, daunting things. Keep them short and punchy; limit them to one idea. There’s nothing wrong with a little white space.
6. Acronyms are lazy and cheap. They may help us abbreviate the long and complex names we assign things, but they suck the life right out of a sentence. Avoid them ASAP.
7. Read well, write well. Spend a little time with Austen and Hemingway and Twain and Shakespeare. Read the speeches of Kennedy, Churchill and Lincoln. Read poetry. The best way to write and speak well is to study those who perfected those skills.
8. Lend me your ear. Readers read with the eye, but they actually “hear” the words in their head. Write for the ear. Read your stuff out loud before you turn it in. How does it sound?
9. Whose line is it anyway? Write in your own “voice,” exactly the way you would say it if you were talking to friends and family. When you put on airs in your writing, you come off haughty and distant. Write it — or have it written — like you would say it.
10. Lighten up, Francis. I’m not suggesting we throw out all the rules, but every now and then it’s OK to write a sentence fragment, or end a sentence with a preposition, or even throw in some slang. If it’s how you would say it best, and it strengthens your message, go ahead. Say it.