Old Patriot's Pen

Personal pontifications of an old geezer born 200 years too late.

NOTE The views I express on this site are mine and mine alone. Nothing I say should be construed as being "official" or the views of any group, whether I've been a member of that group or not. The advertisings on this page are from Google, and do not constitute an endorsement on my part.

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Location: Colorado Springs, Colorado, United States

I've been everywhere That was the title of a hit country-and-western song from the late 1950's, originally sung by Hank Snow, and made famous by Johnny Cash. I resemble that! My 26-year career in the Air Force took me to more than sixty nations on five continents - sometimes only for a few minutes, other times for as long as four years at a time. In all that travel, I also managed to find the perfect partner, help rear three children, earn more than 200 hours of college credit, write more than 3000 reports, papers, documents, pamphlets, and even a handful of novels, take about 10,000 photographs, and met a huge crowd of interesting people. I use this weblog and my personal website here to document my life, and discuss my views on subjects I find interesting.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Tongue in cheek.

There aren't many military manuals that have a fan following, but "Tongue and Quill" is - or at least used to be - the exception. Officially labelled as Air Force Pamphlet 13-2: Communicating to Manage in Tomorrow's Air Force, it provides 280+ pages of the best ideas available on researching, writing, editing, managing, and reviewing written communication, and plenty of first-rate ideas that help the average Joe in uniform how to become an effective public speaker. My copy is the third edition, issued in 1977 by the Air University staff. This is the second copy I've owned - I wore out the first one.

If Dan Rather had had a copy of this manual, he'd have known the papers he received from Texas were fake. Of course, that assumes first that he would actually stoop to reading a military manual, and secondly that he'd be swayed by truth.

The first thing anyone does upon getting a copy of the manual is to flip through it and read the cartoons, one-liners, and brief statements. Most are humorous, but they also have a serious side. They focus the reader on the key elements of the chapter being studied. They frequently make a dull subject more interesting, and provide a fresh approach to a problem that the reader might not otherwise have considered.

Almost everyone in the military writes something. The lowest ranking enlisted member may be tagged to write up maintenance or discrepency forms and supply requisitions. Military clerks who see to it that every office in the Air Force run smoothly may have to prepare more than a dozen types of written communications every week. Non-Commissioned Officers write everything from supply requisitions to performance reports to training documents to dozens of kinds of letters. The bane of all officers are the hundreds of different types of reports, studies, evaluations, comments, and suggestions they are required to make, day after day, regardless of what unit they're assigned to or what their current task is. Most of the actual composition, editing, and even coordination may be done online, but the final product will be a printed document with someone's signature on it. Some military members may be better than others at writing, but no one ever escapes actually doing it.

The military jokes that there are always three ways of doing something: the right way, the wrong way, and the military way. Communication is no different. Most documents are set up to be written in a particular format. Sometimes (frequently!) it's hard to see why a particular report has to be in what appears to be a disasterous format, but the military wants it done just that way, and no other. That way, at least they're all in the same format. That does make it easier to dig specific information from a report quickly. If a particular bit of information is ALWAYS reported in paragraph 3.a.(5) of a report, you can go to any past report and quickly find what was reported previously, because it's going to be in paragraph 3.a.(5)., too. Standardization stifles creativity, but the military doesn't necessarily want creative writing. It wants standard reports that have the proper key elements, in the proper order, with good references and appropriate footnotes. Standardized documents help a harried officer or NCO to grasp what they need from such a report quickly, without having to search the entire thing to find the one or two lines they need RIGHT NOW!

It's sometimes hard for writers to "break the mould" once they leave the military, but it's never impossible. Military writing guides stress establishing timelines, building a good draft, getting things in the right order, writing with the minimum of padding, and keeping on topic. If you follow the book, your writing (and speaking) will always satisfy the military demands. If you can learn to do it right for the military, doing it "right" for anybody else is a snap!


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