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The new writing guide for the Command and General Staff College
With value for all #ArmyAuthors
Army professionals must think and write clearly. The Army writing style demands writing that readers can easily understand—clear, concise, and well-organized. Effective Army writing puts the main point up front and avoids jargon. It uses active voice, short sentences, and short words.
Nevertheless, Army writing sometimes falls short. For example:
The physical locality of regions will be further defined in order to assist the SRAO’s with their rotation plans. Regions will receive a list of all of their positions that may be used for rotational purposes. Also, a list of organizations that are exempt from the regionalization program will be provided to each region.
Quarterly updates via VTC are being implemented in order to offer regions a forum in which they will receive updated information, provide their lessons learned, and receive assistance with their issues and concerns.
Metrics are being developed to help identify the strengths and weaknesses of the regionalization program. The results of this new requirement will be reported bi-annually by each region, and will be used to further develop and improve the process.
This passage raises many questions. What is the “physical locality of regions”? Are “positions that may be used for rotational purposes” the same as rotational positions? Recurring passive voice leaves the reader asking, who defines regions, provides lists, implements updates, and develops metrics?
To improve writing of the Army’s field grade officers, the Command and General Staff College (CGSC) recently introduced Student Text (ST) 22-2, Professional Writing. The new guide aims to close the Army writing gap—the difference between what the Army writing style demands and what Army writers produce.
Benefits of Student Text 22-2
Like the example above, much student writing at the CGSC does not reflect the Army writing style. We wanted to help CGSC students—and other Army writers—fix this problem by writing more effectively.
Professional Writing helps Army professionals achieve Army writing standards in four ways:
First, Professional Writing helps writers accept that writing is hard. “Writing is hard work,” writes William Zinsser in his classic guide On Writing Well. Acknowledging this fact reassures struggling writers that they are not alone. Writing is hard for everyone.
Second, Professional Writing shifts focus from product to process. Existing Army writing guidance (e.g., AR 25-50) gives writers a list of demands their products must meet. However, it doesn’t tell them how to meet those demands. Writers need a process to help them turn a first draft into a finished product that meets the Army writing standards.
Shifting to a process unlocks the secret to writing—rewriting. Rewriting is the revising, editing, and proofreading writers do between the first draft and the final product. Many writers mistakenly believe “writing” is turning ideas into words. These writers can lose hope when their “writing” turns out terrible. But a process view assures writers that drafting is not writing. First drafts are supposed to be terrible. They are the starting point for rewriting. As the late, great writing teacher Don Murray said, “When a draft is completed, the job of writing can begin.”
Third, Professional Writing draws on a broad range of writing sources. The old CGSC writing guide cited just eight sources—only three non-military. In contrast, Professional Writing cites more than 50. Sources include classics like The Elements of Style and On Writing Well, and recent guides like The Little Red Writing Book and The Sense of Style. It also incorporates best practices from civilian universities.
Finally, Professional Writing advances a professional writing style that builds on the Army writing style. The main style goal is clarity—writing that is easy to read, simple, and concise. Professional Writing urges writers to choose simple, concrete words and short, direct sentences. It shows writers how to construct sentences and phrases that pull the reader smoothly from one idea to the next. And it advises readers to cut clutter—unneeded words, sentences, and paragraphs. Finally, it strikes a formal yet conversational and confident tone.
Impact of the new guide
Professional Writing is already making a difference for students. We used the guide to completely rebuild the six-hour writing course all Command and General Staff Officer Course students receive in their first two weeks of school. The new course walks students through the writing process. They see and practice each writing activity and receive formative feedback along the way.
Initial feedback suggests the new guide is working. Students told us that the new writing refresher is the most beneficial course in the introductory block. Over the next year we will build on this success by embedding Professional Writing more deeply into the curriculum and culture of the CGSC.
Although Professional Writing is a CGSC guide, it can help all Army writers—especially Army leaders. The ability to communicate clearly and concisely is essential for effective leadership. Yet too much Army writing does not meet this standard.
Professional Writing helps Army writers write well.
Trent J. Lythgoe, PhD is an associate professor of military leadership at the US Army Command and General Staff College and the Major General Fox Conner Chair of Leadership Studies. Dr. Lythgoe is the project editor of Professional Writing: The Command and General Staff College Writing Guide.