writing struggleAs a liberal arts guy with issues stitching decent prose together himself, who spent a career surrounded by a bunch of technical school types – I’ve always thought that each seabag should include Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style, along with Lynne Truss’s, Eats, Shoots & Leaves – but perhaps we need to add two more items.

My pet theory was that our own rather particular Navy writing style came about as a byproduct of a strange mix of the old requirements of HF TTY record message traffic from the warfighter, an other-worldly and opaque self-affirmation cant that we use to write FITREPS and awards from the terminal-N1 – sprinkled with a healthy dose of passive voice CYA concerns from the suffering fonctionnaire with one two many tours with the Potomac Flotilla.

To help get around that habit, a few more should be added in the seabag to join the previously mentioned two. The third on the list should be an email you can find in full here, one that CHINFO, RDML Kirby, recently put out to the PAO Knitting Club titled, “Killing English.” Here are a few of the pull quotes that hopefully will lead you to read the whole thing;

Here’s an… example … 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.

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.

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.

… 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.

Yes, great Neptune’s trident – YES.

First step is to speak clearly. Then we can lead to speaking directly. Then we can get to a place where in open we can speak as adults about adult problems in a way that can stand up to the follow-on question.

Ah, ha! There we go. A good PAO stays long enough for the follow-on question. I can see why this conversation is starting here.

Well done CHINFO … now let’s see if we can get it to grow roots.

Oh, I promised the reader a 4th bit for the intellectual seabag, didn’t I? You’ll need to read his email in full to see how he applies it, but RDML Kirby mentions On Writing Well.

I might have to give that a spin.




Posted by CDRSalamander in Books, Training & Education
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  • Ken Adams

    Thank you, sir!

  • http://www.militaryairships.blogspot.com campbell

    K.I.S.S…….BZ!

  • XBradTC

    Amen.

    Worse still, virtually all communications intended to enlighten the public contain jargon that is wholly impenetrable to them. The description of a system that you would use with another servicemember is completely unsuitable for use with the lay reader. Learn to translate military into civilian.

  • Chris H.

    Amen….this is so going to work with me tomorrow.

  • FoilHatWearer

    The Zumwalt-destroyer example sure looks like a run-on sentence to me.

    And what’s up with “provide fires”? That’s some strange wording.

    • TheMightyQ

      “Fires” is a way of writing rounds on target. By “providing fires,” the ship would be, in other terms, “firing weapons at enemies, likely in support of ground forces.”

  • http://www.hmstypicallydefiant.blogspot.com/ Curtis

    I’m sure you appreciate the humor in reading your post about over-use of adjectives and then finishing with your, “about CDRSalamander”. :)
    A Navy Commander who started his blog in 2004.

  • GIMPGIMP

    Yes. As for emails, “don’t scroll me, bro.” If it’s long enough to force scrolling, take words out until it isn’t.

  • CAPT Mongo

    Um, would that be Needle gunning” in the title? Anyway, points very well taken . If I had tried that memo in Freshman English (a thousand years ago–we still used Blue Books then) it would have come screaming back at me covered in red marks surmounted by a scarlet “F”.

    • http://cdrsalamander.blogspot.com CDR Salamander

      No. My verb. Go away.

      • CAPT Mongo

        :+)

  • Patrick Stafford Golden

    My first CO as a newly minted USNR PAO was a Washington Post editor who pared down all our writing to the essentials. I found that an invaluable benefit that I took with me throughout both my Navy and civilian careers. All those books are excellent resources and I’ve encouraged my son to read and follow them in his career path as well.

  • LT B

    As Mark Twain said, “eschew surplusage.”

  • totalitat

    There was no golden age where men were men, verbs were verbs, and adjectives ran scared. People have always tortured prose.

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