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Wanted: Great Writers

It is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy should be a capable mariner. He must be that of course, but also a great deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor. - From letters of John Paul Jones

In the last 10 years, the Internet has literally transformed our communications. We have evolved from the sometimes pondering and occasionally thoughtful written and spoken word to high-speed, real-time, bullet points, video, instant messaging, SMS, e-mail and PowerPoint.

The advantages of this low-friction, new world-order are many - first among these are speed, cost, and efficiency. In fact, technology convergence coupled with rapid advances in wireless broadband connectivity will soon mean that we will always be a live node on the net. In this always-on world, long prose is considered anachronistic - potentially even rude (think about how you felt the last time you received a four-paragraph e-mail). The lingua franca of the matrix is two sentence e-mails, emoticons (;->), and IM code (LOL). Unfortunately, most advances are not realized without a cost. In this case, the cost is that we are creating a generation of leaders who don't write anything but e-mails, fitreps (with great effort), and PowerPoint slides. However, for those who practice the lost art of good writing the rewards are many both professionally and personally. Fortunately, it's never too late to start.

Despite my seemingly alarmist, ludditean perspective about how technology has accelerated the atrophy of our writing skills, I am not longing for a return to quill and scroll. In fact, I am a technophile who recently rediscovered the joys and benefits of long-form writing. I have come to believe these new media are, in many cases, not appropriate for certain kinds of communications. They also potentially lack a certain aesthetic and permanence that is the hallmark of good writing.

Great communicators are in high-demand everywhere - and they get noticed. All too often, very capable military personnel stumble because of poorly written communications. If, on the other hand, you have a consistent ability to package and communicate your ideas effectively, it will often be your perspective that wins the day. "Great writers not only help themselves but also often those around them - they end up writing better performance evaluations and generally give more inspiring and unambiguous direction," said Vice Admiral Bob Dunn, U.S. Navy (Retired), President of The Naval Historical Foundation. "Navy leaders who take the time to write often find that they can organize their thoughts into a much more compelling argument. All too often, people communicate without fully thinking through the implications of their writing." One of the easiest, and most obvious, ways to improve your writing skills is to practice regularly.

Practice can take on many forms, but there are a few relatively straightforward, time-honored exercises that great writers have used to be effective. Keeping a journal is a thoroughly enjoyable form of systematic writing. It also has the added benefit of capturing a more interpretive history of your life and experiences. Fortunately for us, many great military leaders kept journals, which became the basis of the historical record. One of the greatest benefits of military service is that we have all had truly unforgettable experiences during our service - your adventures in uniform provide no better backdrop for your journal. No longer relegated to just the analog form, journals have made their way onto the web in the form of web blogs. Today, more than 8 million Americans have a blog and they are proliferating at an astounding rate.

An even higher-return activity for the budding writer is to consider writing an article for publication, such as Proceedings. It would be difficult to overestimate what an important career differentiator it is to be published. Many people have extraordinary ideas, but they often go without notice until publication. I remember an O-4 in my first squadron who wrote a brief Proceedings article - and how he suddenly went from being just a smart guy to a "thought leader in the community." Nothing had changed, he just took the time to collect his thoughts into an article and send it in for publication. Society looks to the media as an arbiter of the value of ideas and people, and there are few easier ways than writing for a publication to catapult you from being a participant to a leader.

So, I might suggest closing Outlook for 30 minutes and consider writing down some of your ideas. When you see issues requiring deeper analysis, you might resist the urge to respond immediately and take the time to package and structure your analysis. You might just find that the pen is truly mightier than the blackberry.

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