Document created: 4 September 03
Air University Review, September-October 1975

An Effective Writing Formula
 for Unsure Writers

Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Emmons, Jr.

If you are the kind of guy who gets a lump in the pit of your stomach every time the boss assigns you a writing task, then this article is for you. Its purpose is to provide some techniques, both psychological and practical, to help unsure Air Force writers overcome some of the more common obstacles to effective writing.

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself”

The first obstacle is, strangely enough, you. A change in attitude is the first step in becoming a successful writer. It is a proven fact that you aren't going to do a good job as long as you think you can't. But it is also a proven fact, particularly in writing skills, that it is never too late to develop your innate abilities. Now, don't start making excuses! I've heard them all and made up a few myself. If you think about it, you will recognize that you have developed your language skills to a pretty high degree already. Linguists estimate that the average college sophomore has a vocabulary of over 200,000 words.1 You have been putting words together into meaningful arrangements, both oral and written, most of your life. You've also spent a great deal of time interpreting word arrangements, i.e., listening and reading. “Yes,” you say, “that's true, and so has everyone else to one degree or another. But does that make me a writer?” No, it doesn't. No one is going to become a writer until he decides to develop his innate abilities into useful skills. So, overcoming the first obstacle requires a decision on your part. That might be an easy decision to make since your boss expects you to be a writer.

The second hurdle to get over is pride of authorship. This is a high hurdle, which, for most people, has been reinforced over and over again since a seventh grade teacher put the red pencil to their first theme. Unfortunately, most of us took those constructive (although not always very tactful) critiques the wrong way. I know just how you felt. I too saw “red” every time a teacher or boss had the unmitigated gall to correct my peerless prose. The result of these unseemly deprecations upon what I then considered inviolate was that I developed an uncommon aversion to writing anything more profound than a grocery list. It didn't take me very long to get into a vicious cycle: no matter what I wrote, someone criticized it, so I wrote less and less, exactly the opposite of what I should have been doing.

Writing is a learned skill or craft that requires constant practice for improvement. Although it took a long time, I finally realized that writing was like business: “The customer is always right.” If he doesn't like what you are selling, then you've got to improve the product until he does like it. Getting over the second major obstacle, then, requires changing your attitude toward your reader. You are the seller and he is the buyer. There is no way you can force him to buy your product; you've got to make him want to buy. Look at it this way--the parts he didn't mark are the parts he bought, and the parts he did mark up at least give you a clue to what he didn't like. Once you know what a customer doesn't like, you can fix it up so he will want to buy. Knowing what a customer likes or dislikes is half the battle.

This brings up another point that seems almost too elementary to mention but is tied closely with knowing what your reader likes. As you've probably found out, every boss you've had wants it done a little differently. Usually by the time one or the other of you is reassigned, you've got a general idea of what he likes. Then you have to start all over with a new boss. Terrible waste of time, isn't it? Rudolph Flesch, noted author of A New Guide to Better Writing and Why Johnny Can't Read, says that most peoples' writing is an unconscious imitation of what they read.2 Put this fact to work for you. Start right now by making a copy of every draft your boss has corrected for you. Study them carefully, especially those he is going to sign because most bosses are not about to put their signature on anything that isn't the way they like it. Generally, after two or three corrected drafts, you'll be an expert on what your boss likes. Compare these drafts with things he has written personally. You now have a gold mine of information on the communicative likes and dislikes of your boss.

Before you begin to write another letter, background paper, or position paper, go back and review what you have learned from your collection of corrected drafts. There are two reasons for this review: first, you are exercising your power to discern what your boss wants--sort of tuning in to his wavelength before you transmit. Second, you are unconsciously sharpening your ability to analyze writing. Both actions help you get ready to write and reduce the anxieties associated with writing. The next portion of this article will show you a way to organize your thoughts without a lot of extra writing.

“Up the organization”

How do you get organized to write? All the experts agree that you must get your thoughts organized before you start to write, but few tell you how. My purpose is to give you a technique that will show you how to get organized and avoid the agonizing mental gymnastics of trying to put scores of unrelated ideas into a logical order. It will also save you a severe case of writer's cramps by eliminating the need for several written iterations before you get your ideas in a logical sequence. I will introduce this organizing technique by using the outline I developed for this article. I'll take it step by step, in sequence, explaining as I go along.

The first step is the task itself: you have to have a reason for writing. Whether your task is a background paper assigned by your boss, a letter to your insurance company, or an article for publication, you must decide what you want the paper to accomplish. Notice I said, “what you want the paper to accomplish.” It is important--part of that change of attitude--to realize that the only thing the reader has in front of him is the written word. The “word” must stand on its own merit and must appeal to the reader enough to make him want to finish the paper and comply with your wishes. Therefore, the words are only as strong as the reason that supports them. That is a pretty tough order, but it can be done.

Start by taking a clean piece of paper and writing in big, bold letters at the top exactly what you would like your paper to do for whom. My paper reads:

Objective: To provide some practical techniques to help unsure Air Force writers overcome some of the more common obstacles to effective writing.

The second step in the process of organizing to write is compiling ideas. Guide for Air Force Writing calls this the brainstorming step.3 In essence, it is brainstorming, or the free-wheeling gathering of ideas. Unfortunately, this is the point where the experts usually drop you. They expect you to be able to dream up the ideas, eliminate the irrelevant, and put what is left in logical order. Poof! Magically you have a model outline! The next statement they make, ordinarily, is that poor organization can often be traced to a poor outline. How right they are! But how can you develop an outline that is a help instead of a hindrance?

Take the piece of paper on which you wrote your objective and draw a line down the center. Left of the line write in sentence form everything you can think of about your topic. Don't try to evaluate your ideas, and don't modify ideas you have already jotted down. If a modification comes to you as you are thinking, write it down also, but don't change the original idea. You'll find that one idea suggests another; usually, you'll wind up with chains of related ideas. When you have exhausted your memory bank, number the sentences consecutively. My brainstorming page for this article looked like pages 78 and 79.

As you can see, my brainstorming produced 48 loosely connected ideas on the same subject. No need to worry about comprehensiveness though, for this is not the stage to refine ideas. The important thing to keep in mind is that if you have taken the time to list that many ideas about one subject, you certainly have sufficient material to write a complete paper. Limiting your subject will be more of a problem than searching for more ideas. Now you must sort out your ideas and develop a plan or outline to write from.

An outline--what is it? An outline is your blueprint for a paper. Just like the blueprints for a building, your blueprint has got to be drawn so clearly and logically that anyone could build a paper from it. In fact, if you develop your outline with the thought that someone else might be writing the paper from it, you're more apt to insure that it is structurally sound. With that mental set established, let's step through the outline development process.

My next step was to review my objective statement. What did I say I wanted to do? I wanted to “provide practical techniques to overcome common obstacles.” From my list, then, what were the most common obstacles? Judging from my own writing struggles, I felt that number 19, a change in attitude; 1, getting organized to write; 41, developing a usable outline; and 33, knowing how to rewrite effectively were the more common obstacles. I considered items 2, 8, 11, and 21 but decided to eliminate them because I felt they were not as important as the ones I had selected. If I had been writing a longer article, I would probably have included them.

Again referring to the objective statement, I started selecting those items that were related to or that expanded the main points. These were subsumed under the main points as befitted their priority and abstraction level.

The outline as it stands now was the result of several iterations, any one of which would have consumed an inordinate amount of time had I written out each one separately. Changes, however, required only a few minutes to rearrange the numbers. What the experts say is true: “Poor organization can usually be traced to a poor outline.” Yet I suspect that most poor outlines are the result of being faced with a seemingly overwhelming task.

In the past, I would have accepted my first try at outlining, thinking I would be able to correct it while I was composing. I was naive; not once was I ever able to salvage a leaky outline while writing the paper. This failure could be compared with trying to build a house without a set of blueprints--structural weaknesses are inevitable.

Plan Your Work

There is another step in the organizing process that I feel is important at this point, although some authorities suggest waiting until you have written the body of your paper. That step is planning your introduction and ending. Planning these two important parts helps you maintain coherence and unity in the paper. Adding these vital parts to your plan also helps overcome the mental hesitation associated with writing the first sentence.

For the basic structure, I have divided my outline into three major parts: introduction, body, and ending. The specific elements of the introduction are the purpose, method, and motivation. I have applied pertinent sentence numbers to these as I did to the main points in the body. The summary, conclusion, and remotivation sections of the ending were handled the same way. Now I had a complete plan, or blueprint, and one from which I could work.

In writing there is a great deal to be said for the trite but true motto: “Plan your work, and work your plan.” In this section you have planned your work, and the next section will deal with working your plan, or filling in the empty spaces of the framework.

Work Your Plan

There is a strange phenomenon about writing that can cause people to sit transfixed before a blank sheet of paper for hours. It is often accompanied by ever increasing degrees of panic--especially if your deadline is rapidly approaching. Even the most notable authors admit to occasional dry periods, especially when beginning a new piece. Most of them have devices for getting started. One starts by writing the word “the,” then adding another word, and another, until his momentum has built up and the creative juices start flowing. 4 Another begins by describing something he can see on his desk or out the window. These exercises are devised just to get started, and most of them are largely unproductive. In the workaday world of the Air Force, we can't afford the luxury of leisurely warm-up exercises. Fortunately we don't have to rely on devices or gimmicks to begin writing if we've produced a workable outline. We can start by merely writing down the sentence we selected as the opener in our outline. There are, however, a couple of rules to keep in mind when working your plan.

The first rule is simply to work your plan without deviation. Since this is the first cut, you will be further ahead to write as you’ve planned rather than try to refine as you compose. It is tempting, of course, to try to say exactly what you mean the first time, but unless you are a literary genius, it is generally a waste of time.

Revising is a mandatory step in the writing process, and it is unproductive to mix the composing step with the revising step. I call this grasshopper progress--lots of movement, but getting nowhere --it's all up and down. We shall consider revising in the next section, but for now suffice it to say that filling up pages from the product of your plan is paramount. Once you have overcome your inertia, keep on writing.

The second rule is to use applicable outline sentences as paragraph topic sentences and limit your paragraphs to that single idea. Stick to your plan like epoxy glue because deviations will be irrelevant and slow you up. You'll be surprised how much of your writing task is already done if you follow your plan and limit each paragraph to one idea. Nothing is quite like the feeling you get when page after page of coherent copy begins to roll out of your typewriter.

If you have followed these two rules--work your plan as you've planned it and limit each paragraph to one idea--you'll find that you have a completed draft, rough though it may be, in no time. Now you have something you can really develop. One final tip about composing that will be invaluable during the next phase is to type your copy, triple-spaced. It will save you untold aggravation.

R and R Time

“R and R” doesn't mean “Rest and Recreation” when you are talking about writing. On the contrary, it means labor and hard work, but here is where your labors “literally” bear fruit. R and R means revise and rewrite--the most vital step in writing. Noted author Bergen Evans underlines the importance of revising by stating:

Revision is important to a writer because it is really a part of the writing process. Many pieces are unsatisfactory not because they are badly conceived but because their possibilities aren't realized. A thing must not merely be said. It must be said effectively.5

Rarely does one say it effectively the first time.

Revising could also be classed as the most traumatic part of writing because no one likes someone taking liberties with his peerless prose. But remember that second obstacle to writing: reduce your pride of authorship and please the customer. No one but you knows how many times you have rewritten a particular passage; those other people only see the finished product. It stands or falls on its own merit--not on how much labor went into it.

The question is, How do you revise effectively? What yardstick can you use to see if each sentence, paragraph, or section measures up? Gordon Carroll, director of the Famous Writers School, suggests you ask yourself three questions as you revise:

1. Can this be stated more simply?

2. Can this be stated more aptly?

3. Does this have to be stated at all? 6

These three measurements are fine for the first cut. They eliminate much of the rambling and muddy prose that we all have a tendency toward. In short, they add snap to your writing. The U.S. Army Command and General Staff College calls it the ABC'S of writing: accuracy, brevity, and clarity. Either or both yardsticks make your copy more succinct, but succinctness isn't the only essential characteristic of military writing.

Everything in military writing, like military operations, should be pointed toward accomplishing the mission. Your writing mission was spelled out in your objective statement, and you should keep it constantly in mind while revising. Measuring your copy against your objective is imperative, but without more precise dimensions it tends to make you write telegraphically. The telegraphic style can become pretty boring, as anyone who has ever read a two- or three-page TWIX can testify. My solution to this obstacle is to take the “CUE.”

CUE is an acronym for coherence, unity, and emphasis. Let me define these three dimensions, and I think you'll see how they apply to measuring your copy against your objective. CUE makes your writing more readable, and in the final analysis readability has a lot to do with selling your ideas because the reader becomes your ally instead of your adversary.

Coherence is a sticking together, as in cohesion, of all parts of a piece of writing. The dictionary further defines coherence as the quality of being logically integrated, consistent, and intelligible or congruent. The most common way of achieving coherence is by using connectives or word bridges to prepare the reader's path and lead him smoothly to your next point. The Guide for Air Force Writing (AFP13-2) calls these word bridges transitions. 7 Transitions may be mere words or phrases, or they can be sentences or paragraphs. Transitions keep your writing from becoming jumpy or jerky. Whatever their length, they tie the various aspects of your main theme together.

Unity is the core dimension of all writing but especially of two specialized forms of writing--short stories and military writing. In both forms, time and space are precious commodities. Since unity is defined as singleness of purpose or consistency of theme, it behooves the military writer to insure that everything he writes contributes to achieving his objective. Much of the progress toward unity was made while developing the outline, but a conscientious writer will go through his copy, carefully eliminating anything that causes his reader to' detour. Digression is the mortal enemy of unity, and it is the writer's enemy, too. Nothing irritates a busy reader more than discovering he has been led into a “cul-de-sac of irrelevancy.” It is especially dangerous when the busy reader has eagles or stars on his shoulders.

Creating unity in writing is analogous to weeding your garden. If a plant doesn't contribute to the harvest or the beauty, pull it out. You've got to be absolutely ruthless in cutting out the irrelevant or unnecessary.

The final dimension to CUE is emphasis. Where you were cutting to create unity, you are usually adding to achieve emphasis. Emphasis is the stressing or illuminating of the important parts of a piece. Without emphasis, writing would be monotonous and dull, just an endless string of uninteresting facts. The writer has many ways of achieving emphasis. Technically, emphasis can be achieved in seven legitimate ways:

1. By using mechanical means, e.g., capitalization (CAPS), underlining, heavy (boldface) type, or italics. These means are often overused.

2. By making a flat statement, usually in the form of an opinion. This is analogous to the pitcher's change-up.

3. By an isolated paragraph. This method is often used in combination with indention and boldface type.

4. By repetition, or the old trick: “Tell me what you're going to tell 'em, tell 'em, and tell 'em what you told 'em.”

5. By proportion, or giving one section fuller treatment than another.

6. By style. Zesty phrases and zingy words are examples of emphasis by style.

7. By position--the strongest positions of any piece of writing are at the beginning or at the end. And of these two positions, that which is remembered longest is at the END.

You will note that I referred to the seven ways above as “legitimate” means of emphasis. There are, unfortunately, other ways to emphasize that are not recommended but that are too often found in writing. They include exaggeration, Innuendo, half truths, and even bald-faced lies. Needless to say, these emphases have absolutely no place in any writing.

Of the legitimate seven, emphasis by proportion, by style, and by position are the most effective.

Emphasis by repetition is also effective, so I will use it to emphasize the importance of revising. Take the CUE and revise, revise, revise. As Gordon Carroll has said, “Revision is the healthiest act of writing.”8

Up to this point, you have done everything alone. Now it is time to hire a helper. The hardest obstacle to get over in writing is recognizing that what you have written may not be understandable to others. That old demon, pride of authorship, is back again. That is why you need a helper. You need someone who will tell you honestly what parts of your writing he doesn't understand. Essentially, you need someone on whom to try out your writing--sort of a “practice customer.” Whom you get and what you pay are personal problems, but there are a couple of tips that, if followed, will keep your helper on the payroll. The first is to ask him only whether or not he understands what you wrote. Don't ask him to correct your copy, just ask him to mark those passages that are fuzzy. The second tip is: don't argue! Your helper is doing exactly what you asked him to do, and if he didn't understand because he was ignorant of the subject, or he got the wrong connotation, or he just plain got bored, it isn't his fault. It is your fault, Writer! You must determine why he didn't understand, or you won't be able to correct your mistakes.

Summary

What I've tried to give you is a structured formula for turning out acceptable and effective writing in your job as a member of the Air Force. The first factor in the formula was a change of attitude. You must get rid of the notion that effective writing is an artistic gift. Effective writing is a skill or craft that can be learned. And, once learned, it can be improved through practice.

Another attitude you must get rid of is pride of authorship. Nobody knows or cares how much blood, sweat, and tears went into a piece of writing. All the customer wants is a message he understands and finds pleasure in reading. It is amazing how many writers can rationalize away the need to make their readers comfortable, and yet they complain bitterly about dry, dull prose.

The next hurdle in writing is getting organized. This is a thinking process, and the quality of the finished product seems to be directly proportional to the quality of thinking that went into the process. Most Air Force members are good logical thinkers, but trying to keep the myriad of details straight literally boggles the mind, usually resulting in a less-than-sparkling finished product. A workable plan is needed. The plan or outline was developed by first deciding what your objective was. Next came the brainstorming step where all ideas were uninhibitedly written down in sentence form and numbered consecutively. Once the ideas were down on paper, the next step was to organize them into a number-coded outline.

Your number-coded sentence outline had by then become a workable topic sentence framework; therefore, the composition step was little more than filling in the open spaces. The time-saving tip to speed composition was to keep moving rather than try to refine your copy into finished work.

The finishing touches were reserved for the revision step of writing. Here you polished your work, using as many applications of CUEas were necessary to bring out the sparkle. CUE, you’ll remember, stands for coherence, unity, and emphasis. Finally, you ran your product through your quality control section, a helper who was to inspect it for “rough” spots. Again, you had to revise, revise, and rewrite.

Conclusions

Writing is hard work. Anyone who has put pen to paper will attest to that, but hard work hasn't yet been added to the list of the top ten killing diseases. However, the worry and anxiety associated with writing have taken their toll. Hopefully, this article will help to reduce your anxiety about writing by giving you a simple formula to follow.

There is a tremendous amount of information about writing that hasn't been included here, but then it wasn't my intention to repeat what the experts have said. My hope was to supplement what you already knew about writing with some rules that will make the job a little bit easier. “Keep on writing.”

Murphy Dome AFS, Alaska

Notes

1. Norman Lewis, Word Power Made Easy (New York: Pocket Books, 1971). p. 3.

2. Rudolph Flesch, A. H. Lass, A New Guide to Better Writing (New York: Popular Library, 1963), p- 160,

3. Guide for Air Force Writing, Air Force Pamphlet 13-2, Washington, D.C., 1973, p. 63.

4. Principles of Good Writing (Westport, Connecticut: Famous Writer, School, Inc., 1960), p. 38.

5. Ibid., p. 194.

6. Ibid., p. 195.

7. Guide for Air Force Writing, pp. 125-27.

8. Principles of Good Writing, p. 232.

Acknowledgment

Credit for the handy outlining technique for getting organized to write goes to a former Air Command and Staff College student, Major J. William Rice.


Contributor

Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Emmons Jr. (M.S., Troy State University) is Commander, 744 Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron (AAC), APO Seattle 98750. He recently completed an assignment as Deputy Director of Curriculum, Air Command and Staff College. He has served primarily in air defense or tactical air control operations, on the ADC Operational Readiness Inspection team, the NATO staff, and as an adviser to the Vietnamese, Italian, and German air forces. Colonel Emmons is a graduate of Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College, and Air War College.

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.


Air & Space Power Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor