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On Style: Army Writing v. Column Writing


This post is part one of a series on writing style. Style is akin to the accent or dialect of a language. The grammar and vocabulary may be the same, but style changes how messages are conveyed and received. It gives writing humanity and has the power to clarify or obscure your point.

We’ll begin with the most important lesson I’ve learned across 20 years of writing and four universities: there is no incorrect style. I’ve quit writing several times, convinced that I was terrible because I couldn’t recognize that I was writing in the style I liked, not the style that was called for. Each style has strengths and weaknesses that render it perfect for some situations and counterproductive in others. Writing mastery is a never ending process of mastering individual styles and applying them appropriately.


Note: This post references Army Regulation (AR) 25-50: Preparing and Managing Correspondence, which is publicly available here. The lessons discussed here apply to all services and government writing.


Purpose:

Writing in the military takes a few forms. AR 25-50 specifically refers for writing for correspondence. That means memoranda, e-mails and letters. For academic and research writing, institutions typically publish their own style books, though unsurprisingly, they are strikingly similar to the regulation.

In general, Army writing is direct in its purpose, clear in its audience and simple in its construction. Anyone that reads your writing is doing so for business, not pleasure, and therefore, brevity and clarity are more important than engagement or persuasion.

On the other hand, columns are written for an audience that can stop at any time. Being provocative and engaging are prerequisites to your persuasion. You must engage the reader at a personal, and often emotional level, early and often enough to keep them from walking away.


Quality:

There are no hidden tricks here with the Army Writing Style. It’s even codified in law. Emphasis added.


In accordance with Plain Writing Act of 2010, Public Law (PL) No. 111–274, DA writing will be clear, concise, and well-organized. Army correspondence must aid effective communication and decision making. The reader must be able to understand the writer’s ideas in a single reading, and the correspondence must be free of errors in grammar, mechanics, and usage. -- AR 25-50, Paragraph 1-11

Opinion columns are more flexible in their guidelines. Simply because you must take your audience into account. A highly specialized audience may understand immediately what leaves a general audience in a stupor. If you are writing for an audience that is likely to agree with you, you may gloss over shared assumptions where a critical audience may require more justification.


Structure:

AR 25-50 outlines two “essential requirements” to achieve its objectives. Similar to journalistic writing, Army writing requires the main point early in every paragraph (the bottom-line up front). This helps the reader understand the point quickly and keeps them engaged. It also, conveniently allows them to skim the piece for your main arguments as necessary.

Active voice is the second essential. The Army hates passive voice so much, I’ve been in courses that docked points on essays for every use of the verb “to be.” This crusade against the passive voice is flawed and often irritating, but it doesn’t matter. It’s the Army writing style, and you must learn to apply it.

Columns have general structural trends, but any rule can be broken if done so purposefully. Columns start with a hook that grabs the reader’s attention because they have to convince the reader to read the second paragraph. Great columns make their point through “showing” instead of “telling.” That is, they make their point through the sensory data of experiences, often tied to emotions, to keep the reader involved and moved by their message. See this post for more information on op-ed structure.


References and Additional Resources:


Excerpt from Army Regulation 25-50 (As of 10 October 2020): Preparing and Managing Correspondence


1–38. Standards for Army writing

a. Effective Army writing is understood by the reader in a single rapid reading and is clear, concise, and well-organized in accordance with PL 111–274.

b. Two essential requirements include putting the main point at the beginning of the correspondence (bottom line up front) and using the active voice (for example, “The time you spent in training last year entitles you to jump pay.”).

c. Active voice writing—

(1) Emphasizes the actor of the sentence.

(2) Shows who or what does the action in the sentence and puts the actor before the verb.

(3) Creates shorter sentences. By eliminating passive voice, you reduce the number of words in a sentence.

(a) Passive voice: The test was passed by SGT Jones (seven words).

(b) Active voice: SGT Jones passed the test (five words).

d. Passive voice is easy to recognize. A passive construction occurs when the object of an action becomes the subject of the sentence. A verb in the passive voice uses any form of the verb “to be” (for example, am, is, are, was, were, be, being, and been), plus a past participle of the verb, which usually ends in “en” or “ed” (for example, were completed, as requested). Additionally, in passive voice the subject receives the action instead of taking the action.


1–39. Constructing military correspondence

a. General techniques. Focus on the main point when constructing basic military correspondence. Use of active

voice is the basic style of Army writing.

b. Specific techniques. Incorporate these plain language techniques to improve effectiveness:

(1) Use short words.

(2) Keep sentences short. The average length of a sentence should be about 15 words.

(3) Write paragraphs that, with few exceptions, are no more than 10 lines.

(4) Avoid jargon.

(5) Use correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

(6) Use “I,” “you,” and “we” as subjects of sentences instead of this office, this headquarters, this command, all individuals, and so forth.

(7) Write one-page letters and memorandums for most correspondence. Use enclosures for additional information.

(8) Avoid sentences that begin with “It is,” “There is,” or “There are.”

(9) Place one space between the punctuation and the text that immediately follows it for colons and periods. For commas and semicolons, place one space between the punctuation and the text that immediately follows it.

(10) Space ¼” to the right of the parenthesis when numbering subparagraphs.


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