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Published Airpower Journal - Winter 1987-88

Better Writing

A Heretic's View

Col Samuel E. Riddlebarger, USAF, Retired

IN RECENT years most of the guidance on better writing in the Air Force has articulated a common theme: make it simple. Write with small words. Keep sentences short. Write the way you speak. Be informal. Write for your audience.

Baloney! (Is that sufficiently short and simple?) Get the fire ready; I'm a heretic. If the nation and the Air Force want better writers, I believe they need a different approach. The current game plan is taking us in the wrong direction. Our society is losing the keys, to advanced civilization: progressive reading and writing skills.

Now, if you're not interested in what I've got to say on this subject, stop here and read something else. No one reads anything unless he wants to (pleasure, curiosity) or needs to (profession, trade, business, personal welfare), a point I'll return to later.

After pushing a pencil for the Air Force from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s and from the squadron swamps to the Pentagon peaks, I've seen lots of briefings and brochures on how to write more effectively. Much of that guidance stressed simplified writing. And much of that advice came from ivory-tower types with little "combat time" when it comes to writing. My scar tissue says it ain't necessarily so; simpler is not always better.

Why must we continue to write down? What's wrong with writing up? If grade-level literacy is declining, why should we steadily retreat instead of fighting to gain ground? As we continue to downgrade vocabulary, grammar, formality, accuracy, and other aspects of good writing, we can look forward to communicating with grunts and sign language.

Consider where the nation is now. "We are creating a new nation of illiterates," says federal Department of Education official in a recent issue of Time.1 In an article entitled "The Illiteracy Blight," Publishers Weekly calls the situation a national crisis.2 One observer claims that nearly 60 million Americans can't read or write adequately.3 Evidence abounds, and there is a consensus we are in trouble.

Why?

Experience and logic tell me that we are emphasizing the wrong things. Why must writing be aimed at the fourth-grade level, or the sixth, or whatever? Why set limits? Why create "fog count" directives that stultify efforts to properly express ourselves? (The Air Force says, "Aim High," but don't try that with a pencil in your hand.)

Let's get serious. If we want good writing, we will have to go about it the old-fashioned way--by working for it!

By now some of you think I'm arguing the pedant's view: big words, fancy sentences, and lots of ostentatious obfuscation.

Wrong! I'm calling for a return to freedom and progress in writing.

I believe in using the right word, not necessarily the shortest or longest. The most accurate term is usually the best. If the word has three letters and best represents what you want to say, use it! But if a bigger word more precisely or more powerfully communicates your thought, use it! Using the shorter word just because it's shorter is losing sight of your writing objective. Complicated subject matter isn't going to get simple by being addressed via a bunch of one-syllable words--it's only going to get screwed up.

A good writer also needs a synonym now and then to avoid repetition.

A healthy vocabulary equals power, communicative power. Just as a great painter uses a variety of colors and strokes to create a meaningful image, the writer well armed with words and phrases can convey messages that move the reader. The dictionary is full of evocative words, and we ought to use them!

Using a more precise word can save time by taking the place of a phrase or sentence, thereby making the communication both sharper and shorter. If I write "anorak" instead of "a heavy jacket of a bulky material, with a hood, worn in very cold climates," haven't I saved words? As to the argument that a reader may not understand the word anorok, let him look it up! Better communication is a two-way street. Readers have responsibilities, too. Why are we so quick to blame the writer when a reader doesn't know a word's meaning? Anorak is used in a novel by an author who sells books just as Elvis Presley sold records.4 Or how about the eminent news magazine that wasn't afraid to use the term morganatic recently to describe the marriage of Wallis Simpson to the Duke of Windsor?5

Just as short, simple words aren't always best, staccato sentences aren't always going to get the job done right. Sentences may need to have more than three or four words. I don't like to read something written with short, choppy words and sentences; it often resembles a telegram or a computer printout, with the loss in subtle human communication characteristics of such transmission modes. Complex objects and thoughts often require complex words and sentences. Why should that surprise or aggravate us?

Society and the Air Force are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Do we really think that complicated equipment and systems can be managed with rudimentary language skills? If our people can't read and write adequately, how can we handle F-15s and advanced logistics systems? Legal documents concerned with subtle points of law are written the way they are because they must be as precise and unequivocal as possible, not because lawyers and jurists are playing games.

The long and the short of the writing function ought to be articulated as follows: use the right words and sentences--even if they're long rather than short.

The chiefs, colonels, and generals know that. When the hucksters tell you that you have to straighten out the senior folks and get them to write at the fourth-grade level, just remember that the general got to be a general by writing the way he or she does.

We also are advised to write for our audience. Well, as I've already asserted, readers need to hold up their end, too. There are only two reasons why you or I have ever read anything: interest and need. In neither case must the writer compromise his meaning because of possible deficiencies in potential readers. The writer's primary allegiance is to his subject, not his readers. (How's that for heresy?) If the author is preparing a nursery rhyme, common words are consistent and appropriate. If the subject is the metaphysical connotations of Nietzsche's Zarathustra, grab your reference books.

My experience is that good writing requires a degree of loyalty to the subject.

As for the reader, if he picks up something for pleasure, he's on his own. If the material is pertinent to his job or personal life, he ought to know the terms and concepts. We may have our thinking backward when we insist the writer is wrong because the reader doesn't understand.

Before you light the fagots at my feet, let me say that I'm not advocating overwriting. What I'm suggesting is that we shouldn't underwrite, either. Furthermore, I do not deny that some Air Force writing needs to be simplified, only that all of it can or should be.

To cite just one example, an Air Force writing manual (a good one, for the most part) criticizes the following sentence: "Request this office be notified when your activity's supply of paper clips falls below the 30-day level." The manual suggests that "Let us know when you need more paper clips" would have been better.6

I don't agree. First, the original sentence is close enough (see Rule 2 in the attached guide). Rewriting a memo concerning paper clips is wasting time. There isn't that much wrong with the original version. (Don't call me a pedant if you are the kind of nitpicker who would revise a reasonably comprehensible sentence!)

Second, the revision doesn't pass the supidity test (see Rule 1). Do we actually believe that folks won't ask for more paper clips when they need them unless we send them such a memo? The revised memo is rhetorical, a waste of time, because it only states what the reader already knows.

Thus, the third problem with the rewrite is the most serious and clearly illustrates my point. The revision significantly changes the message, making the communication less precise and therefore less informative (see Rule 4). Who defines "need" in the second version? Sergeant Bilko may order a two-year supply of paper clips, just to be safe or for trading, even though he has enough on hand to last six months. The point is that the original version said something, contained useful information, and therefore was worth preparing. By trying to be simple and informal, the revision lost sight of the message to be transmitted.

Another so-called good writing tip that disturbs me is the suggestion that we should write the way we speak. I don't enjoy conversations laced with "you know," "like, man," and "I mean," so I certainly don't want to read such drivel. If many of us were to write the same way we speak, the written word would constitute a new Tower of Babel.

Speakers use mannerisms, tone, body language, inflection, and other devices to help convey the message. Writers function in a sterile environment. The two modes of communication are distinctly different. As the eighteenth-century French naturalist Buffon observed, "Those who write as they speak, however well they speak, write badly."7

Having criticized some of the current guidance on better writing, I have included with this article some suggestions of my own for improving Air Force prose.

Good writing, I believe, has three characteristics: substance (important information, serious statements--worth); clarity (organized, sequential words and sentences, using precise and meaningful words--communication); and force (style, originality, format--impact). And you won't acquire these writing skills by trying to reduce your prose to the "see-Jane-run" level.

As for winning the paper wars in the Air Force, the attached guide briefly outlines some tips (learned the hard way!) that I've used and added to over many years of bluesuit writing and teaching. These 10 rules may help you. Try them; you'll like them. And concentrate on the subject when you write. We need readers who are more erudite, not writers who are less literate!


The Heretic's Guide to Better
Air Force Writing

1. Is this Paper Necessary?

2. Use the "Close Enough" Rule

3. Clocks, Chiefs, and Colonels Won't Wait

4. Audiences Aren't First

5. Get to the Point

6. Longhand Shouldn't be Shorthand

7. Get a Dictionary and Use It

8. Proofread or Perish

9. Avoid the Common, Telltale Mistakes

10. Keep Learning; Keep Trying

 


Notes On the "Rules"

1. Don't create paper that isn't needed, or to tell people things they already know, or to cover your behind. Maybe a phone call will suffice. And most memos for record just clutter files.

2. Treat paperwork according to its importance. A statement for the base commander to promulgate on Memorial Day needs to be worded precisely and typed impeccably. On the other hand, a note to the boss reminding her that today is her husband's birthday doesn't have to be Shakespearean in composition or prepared by the word processing center on its best letterhead; it's the basic message that matters here, not the nuances or appearance. Save time for important writing by not dawdling over routine stuff.

3. Respect suspenses. Sometimes they're not reasonable, but don't waste half your time arguing about the time limit. The boss usually (not always) has a valid reason for the short fuse (maybe someone else didn't produce). If you must complain, do so after you get the job done. If the wing commander needs the paper in two hours, and you don't come through, you may never get another chance. And don't try to get everybody to agree with your words unless you have to; remember, coordination often means only to alert certain offices, not necessarily to get their concurrence.

4. Consider your subject. Don't become so engulfed in "Write for your audience," "Check your fog count," and "The paper is no good if the reader doesn't understand it" that you forget what you're trying to accomplish. Good writers get good by making their prose (words, sentences, style, length) fit their subject. Don't ignore your audience, but think about your topic and objective. Use the proper word! Those who read for pleasure are on their own; and those who read for professional or personal reasons have an obligation to learn the pertinent terms. The clichéd admonition "Keep it simple, stupid," known as the "KISS" rule, if overworked can produce documents so generalized and simplified that they're more stupid than simple.

5. Don't beat around the bush. Tell your reader quickly what your paper is all about. Don't make him read it all to find out. The first sentence should be short, simple (but accurate), meaningful, and in active voice. The body of the document can then etch with more detail, rationale, background, and precision. Don't go overboard on length, but don't underwrite either; remember, you can underwhelm readers as well as overwhelm them.

6. Take the time to write legibly. The chicken-scratching that Air Force secretaries and horseholders have to ponder over is disgraceful. You are a worthless writer and a sorry supervisor if your penmanship is poor.

7. Let a dictionary help you. You will be a better writer if, as you compose, you verify meaning, check spelling, and seek synonyms (to provide variety). You are not in a spelling bee; it's fair to look up the word. If you ensure that you've used the proper word and spelled it right, you've saved time and avoided possible grief. (Did you use "principal" when you meant "principle"? No one will know if you checked it to be sure, but everybody will know you didn't if you mess up the usage and the secretary doesn't catch your carelessness.)

8. Read what you sign. The refusal to proofread is a serious problem in the Air Force and in our society. The boss isn't going to blame the typist if there's a glitch in your paper. If the document is important (remembering Rule 2), don't weaken the impact of careful composition by careless proofreading; if the words are spelled wrong or put together poorly, the reader may conclude that your thinking and message are just as error-filled. If the paper reflects meticulous preparation, the credibility and reputation of the writer are enhanced. (And if you found three typos in Rule 8, you've got a good eye.)

9. Don't continue to make the typical mistakes that brand the poor writer. Pick one problem or weak area each week (or even one each month) and take the time to learn the correct usage. You will enjoy the increased respect your writing will receive. Those who know when to use "affect" instead of "effect," or that "consensus" is proper (not "concensus" or "consensus of opinion"), will get more opportunities to use, and benefit from, their writing skills. Sure, you may need an hour or more to check one of these points, but once you learn it, consider the time you will save over a career-and the rewards.

10. Never stop trying to be a better writer. If you do, don't expect promotion. Writing is the skill indispensable to advancement. The effective writer is the individual who realizes that there is always more to learn, and goes for it!

 


Notes

1. Robert Barnes, quoted in "Losing the War of Letters," Time, 5 May 1986, 68.

2. "The Illiteracy Blight, "Publishers Weekly, 24 May 1985, 27.

3. Jonathan Kozol, "Dehumanizing the Humanities: Scholars and Adult Illiteracy," The Education Digest, December 1985, 6.

4. Lawrence Sanders, The Fourth Deadly Sin (New York: Berkley Publishing Group, July 1986), 33.

5. "The Woman Who Cost a Kingdom," Time, 5 May 1986, 39.

6. John C. Smith and Maj John R. Grellman, Jr., Plain English, Please! (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University, 1982), 43.

7. George Louis Leclerc de Buffon, quoted in The Age of Voltaire, by Will and Ariel Durant (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965), 574.


Contributor

Col Samuel E. Riddlebarger, USAF, Retired (BS, University of Maryland; MPS, Auburn University), was commandant of the Air Force Manpower and Professional Personnel Management School, Leadership and Management Development Center, Air University, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, at the time of his retirement. While on active duty, he served as a pilot, personnel officer, administrative officer, war plans officer, and information officer with assignments at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska; Hamilton AFB, California; Englin AFB, Florida; Tan Son Nhut AB, Vietnam; and the Pentagon. Colonel Riddlebarger is a distinguished graduate of Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College, and Industrial College of the Armed Forces.


Disclaimer

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


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