Six Military Writing Rules You Can Implement in Your Technical Writing
22 March, 2021
You may not see them in a bestseller list, but if you want to see phenomenal writing, we recommend you look to the armed forces. In the military, the quality of technical writing can mean the difference between life and death. Flawless instruction and documentation are vital, so the military and defence sectors do it extremely well.
Military writing is not just instruction manuals. It includes official correspondence, reports, academic writing projects, contracts, blog posts, press articles and many other genres. The U.S. Army alone lists over forty kinds of official army publications. As technical writers, we can learn a great deal from military style rules. But we also need to understand when and how to deviate from them, to have the right effect.
Here we explore some of the main writing principles used extensively by the military, how to use them effectively, and when to apply caution.
1. Put Your Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF)
Military writing professionals lead their documents with a short, to-the-point statement known as the BLUF. In this technique, the writer presents the main conclusion of the document and the action or recommendation in the first paragraph, followed by additional information in subsequent paragraphs. The reader should understand instantly – how does this document affect me? It is a very powerful writing tool in all business environments. Your reader’s time is valuable, so why delay your main point?
The BLUF principle is great when you have to get across a recommendation, outcome or decision. However, not all technical communication is so transactional. This article, for example, did not employ the BLUF principle—because we wanted to excite your curiosity and draw you in. So we didn’t give away everything in the first two sentences.
The golden rule in technical writing is to put yourself in your reader’s shoes. BLUF is a great way to get your reader up-to-date quickly, but it also gives them an ‘out’ if they want to avoid reading the whole document.
2. Keep It Brief
Short is good in the military. The U.S. Army defines effective writing as ‘writing that can be understood in a single rapid reading and is generally free of errors in grammar, mechanics, and usage.’
Army paragraphs should be no more than one inch deep or six lines long. Sentences should be short and avoid sub clauses. Papers themselves should also be short, always sticking to the essentials and keeping to the point. The shorter your paper, the less opportunity for error.
However, ‘rapid reading’ isn’t always the right approach. Technical writing isn’t just about conveying information in the fastest possible way; it’s often about stimulating thinking and reasoning.
Some concepts are too complex to convey in simple sentences. Writing and reading are both tools for thinking and decision making; and this involves complex, informed judgement. Even within the army, the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) requires a lot more than simple conveyance of facts. Writing often needs to outline the options and encourage creating thinking and problem-solving in the reader.
Look at the material through the eyes of your audience. Read the paper as though you have never seen it before. If it reads awkwardly, it’s likely the meaning is unclear, and you are not communicating effectively. In some cases, you may have sacrificed clarity for brevity and you may need to put in transitions or include more evidence.
3. Use the Active Voice
Military style guides recommend writing in the active voice. In other words, constructing sentences where the subject ‘acts’. It is usually clearer, more direct and more succinct, and makes clear who is doing what. For example, ‘we recommend that you…’ is more direct than ‘it is recommended that…' The active voice also adds credibility because it assigns responsibility for actions rather than evading the issue.
This is a powerful technique to produce stronger, clearer writing that applies to all types of documents. However, you should never rule the passive voice out completely. There are certain writing situations where it can be the right choice. For example, if the person receiving the action is more important in the sentence than the perpetrator. The statement ‘PerfectIt is used by multiple global organizations’ has a different emphasis to the statement ‘multiple global organizations use PerfectIt.’
4. Use Short, Conventional Words
Military environments stipulate the use of plain English. For example, the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) is a corporate member of the Plain English Campaign, an internationally recognized organization committed to clear communication. This means avoiding long or complicated words whenever possible. It also means not using technical language, foreign phrases and jargon unless writing for a specialist audience and, even then, with caution. The point is for people to understand what we are saying.
Military writing needs to be clear and fully understandable so that readers are certain of your intent. Precision involves selecting words and phrases that express your exact meaning and can only have one interpretation. This makes a lot of sense in technical writing in general. Your customers, investors or business partners are at best confused, and at worst completely turned off, by insider jargon and technical terms that have no meaning for them.
5. Avoid Unnecessary Words
‘Weasel words’ are words and expressions that suck the meaning out of a sentence. The idea is that weasels suck the yolk from birds’ eggs, leaving an empty, but seemingly undisturbed, shell. Typically, they can be ‘filler’ words which add no value, such as ‘going forward’, ‘so as to’ and ‘utilize’ (do you mean ‘use’?) or they can be words that are deliberately vague to mislead or distract the reader, such as ‘could’ (you could, but will you?).
Using weasel words not only makes your writing unnecessarily long and harder to digest, it also undermines authenticity. There is little room for doubt and hesitation in the military. Nor is there in technical writing: your audience wants to feel confident that you know what you’re talking about.
In all writing, it is certainly good practice to eliminate unneeded words. You can usually remove a third to a half of what you write in a first draft. In academic and legal writing, however, where you need to be cautious and critical in the way that you present data, qualifiers can be useful. A user manual or sales proposal needs to inspire absolute confidence. A thesis requires less certainty and more humility. In general, the advice would be to think about the information you want to get across and don’t weaken your statements by hedging them unless it’s intentional.
6. Be Correct, Credible and Complete
There is no environment where accuracy is more important than the military. Information needs not only to be correct, and free of bias or distortion, but it also needs to be believed. Even the tiniest error could undermine its entire credibility.
In military, and in technical writing in general, it’s essential to proofread your document carefully. It is critical to recognize and correct mistakes which are, at best, embarrassing and, at worst, dangerous.
Acronyms, initialisms and abbreviations are plentiful in all technical writing, and especially in military writing. Even if you take pains to avoid them, your documents are still likely to be full of them. Most military organizations have strict rules about how to present these in writing. For example, the MOD style guide states:
“If you are going to use an acronym or initialism, spell out the component words in full first, followed by the short form in brackets. For example: Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU). Use just the short form for subsequent references. If you are only using an acronym or initialism once, avoid using it.”
Another minefield in military writing, familiar to most technical writers, is capitalization. The MOD style guide advises discretion when using initial capitals: “Travelling abroad you go through customs not Customs; and the seasons of the year do not have an initial capital.” Nevertheless, there are many exceptions. For example, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs becomes the Council, with an upper case ‘C’ when referred to a second or subsequent time. Operation names and the names of Royal Navy ships must be in all caps, such as Operation YELLOWHAMMER and HMS WILDFIRE.
Drafting, reviewing and rewriting can be a positive part of writing. It can help engage you more with the document and your mastery of words. However, it won’t be beneficial if you become too bogged down in searching for tiny errors. This is where consistency software, like PerfectIt™ for Microsoft Word, can help. PerfectIt helps ensure consistency throughout your document. For example, it will find any undefined acronyms, as well as acronyms defined more than once. It can even produce a list of all acronyms used in the document with their definitions. PerfectIt also finds inconsistencies in capitalization, punctuation and numbering.
PerfectIt can also help you check different military styles. The US Naval Institute writing standards differ from the Army Military Style Guide, and of course the UK Defence Writing Guide is different again. With PerfectIt you can build in the rules of each so that it’s easy to switch from one to another.
Many of the best technical writers come from military backgrounds. Before he became the great American novelist, Thomas Pynchon was a technical writer, translating complex rocket operation information into user-friendly manuals. This is no coincidence. If you can create lists, write directions, break down tasks into logical steps, work as a team and operate technical systems, you are already halfway to being not just a great technical writer, but a great writer!
US Naval Institute Writing Standards
Digital accessibility: best practice essentials - GCS (civilservice.gov.uk)