The good CDR’s post helped to solidify in my mind some notions I’ve had for some time now. These notions concern why there is such fear and hesitation when it comes to writing as a Naval professional.
My hope here is to put forward a different perspective on writing professionally. I will start with the obvious, and work towards what may be less obvious. It is my hope that my thoughts here might make some headway towards changing the minds of readers, and in turn (and in some small part) the Navy’s culture. Additionally, all I have to say assumes that we’re all well versed in and practice good OPSEC.
There are issues, and what are to me warped perceptions regarding writing in both the institutional aspect Navy and on the part of individual Sailors. In my talks with others more well versed with the state of writing in other branches, it would seem the Navy has a better culture than most, but still it remains that there is much room for improvement.
Foremost is the impression of what it is to write. Many, who step up the first time confuse their trepidation with how their audience will perceive their writing. In this, it is assumed that their words will reverberate with great force, and be a bellwether for change.
In reality, no. It won’t be. Even articles published in Proceedings are rarely of exceptional paradigm changing quality. This isn’t the fault of anyone, or any single organization. It’s the fault of everyone. The ~2 megabytes worth of data (including pictures. If none, then ~150kB) you just introduced into the World is the equivalent of the faintest star you can see in the night sky. Even if what you wrote is considered on par with the greats, your impact will fall well short of making you a household name.
Remember this: you’re just part of the system. Your words will be absorbed, digested, and then repeated in a novel way that you may or may not agree with. What writing does is give others ideas that little belong to you once learned by them.
For COs, and senior personnel of all flavors, it’s important to remember that as well. That junior person whose 1k – 5k words you might fear is far weaker than it might seem. Take a breath and put their words in a perspective larger than your immediate concerns.
It may seem obvious, but the nature of writing online demands this be mentioned often – don’t call people names. This is worth mentioning since much of blogging and the resulting comments (especially the comments) turn into a bull session where finger pointing, name calling, and condemning of whomever the content of the blog involves. That’s not writing, just as you’re not a poet when you’re drunk and blowing off steam at McGuires or Seville Quarter.
Don’t mention names, mention ideas. I personally don’t care whom thought of what. Everyone has good ideas, everyone has a unique perspective. More often than not, those who are listened to the most are only the ones who can write the best, with their ideas hovering around 3rd rate. A given idea is not better just because it came from someone with senior rank. Neither should an idea be valued more from someone with name recognition more so than it is from someone without. The person doesn’t matter, the idea matters when it comes to discussing ideas. Of course if you’re rebutting someone else’s writing I get that a name must be mentioned. But, aside of ensuring continuity or getting a reader up to speed, don’t talk about people, just talk about the idea. The whole point of this is to remove ego from ideas as much as possible.
A second order effect of this notion is that there is significant benefit to someone writing anonymously. Based on my own personal experience, I would even encourage many to start off that way. Reflect on why you are motivated to write, is it to build name recognition, or to better your Navy? Exactly, in talking about ideas and not calling anyone names the need to have a face and name to the words quickly begins to evaporate.
Don’t value your life less than you do your career. A military full of people willing to give their life in the line of duty, but just as many who do not write for the sake of their career. This is so counter intuitive I don’t think I need to elaborate.
Unless your staff refers to you as the ‘old man/woman’ or ‘the boss’ you’re not making policy, and your words won’t either. What’s more is that your words do not reflect the official opinion of the Navy, you’re some rank just like a bunch of other people. Actions speak louder than words, if you comport yourself in a professional manner with good military bearing, then your words are just that – words – feeble, devoid of action words that are only an attempt to contribute to the discourse and bettering your Navy. The Navy and your boss do not have much to fear from you.
But, there is a logical limit to such a claim. I wouldn’t publicly write anything critical of a decision made by my direct chain of command, or a decision made by those I have to work for/with. Doing as such, and being publicly critical of colleagues, seniors, and shipmates is just bad form, rude, and yes probably insubordinate. But, giving a public opinion regarding a decision made echelons above can be (and should be written towards being) productive. Blogging: real time 360 degree evaluation of ideas.
We’re nearly 10 years into military personnel saying things they shouldn’t on social media and online. The first year I was in the Navy, my CO warned us at an all hand’s to ‘stop saying bad things about the command on Facebook.’ Such a scenario isn’t new, that happened nearly seven years ago. We know how to handle it, and we should all be used to this by now.
Never write to be thanked or praised. I’d rather have my Navy not care that you write than to have it formally recognize you for writing. Why? Because writing is not about the promotion of self. It is about selflessly working to improve your Navy and Country. Non sibi sed patriae, or don’t pick up the pen.
The Navy needs your ideas to compete with all the other ideas. The Navy needs you to be well read, and versed on how ideas compete with each other (how it happens online is not too dissimilar in how it happens anywhere else).