Military Writing (1948)

Lieut. Colonel M.C.A. Henniker, D.S.O., O.B.E., M.C., (Royal Engineers), in The Army Quarterly (Great Britain)
Canadian Army Journal, Vol. 2 No. 4, 1948

To be able to write clear and concise English is to possess a "pearl of great price." It is a sad commentary on our writing habits that all too often we are seized with a sort of mental laziness, and allow our pens to make unprofitable use of such cliches as "In the case of," or "in view of the fact that." There is profit in this article by Lieut. Col. Henniker for those of us who have acquired some careless writing habits, and who, realizing this, are anxious to rid ourselves of them. – Editor.

This paper tells how to write about military subjects. It is essential, particularly in peace-time, for officers to know how to wield the pen. The cunning use of the pen may get you into the Staff College; it may help you to write a report that wins the praise of your C.O.; it may help you to convince the Paymaster that you are entitled to extra pay; or it may prosper your King and Country in more ways than can be numbered here. You will often have to use your pen, but if you cannot use it properly you are just a scribbler wasting time. Military writing is subject to rules. Here are some of them. First, you cannot write anything - a letter, a minute, a memorandum or an essay - unless you have knowledge. Writing betrays a man's brain. If his brain is empty, no felicity with words will fill the void. You must therefore read up your subject and collect your thoughts before you begin. You may have to search letters in a file, or turn up books of reference; or you may have to rummage in the storehouse of your brain. This is where the real work lies. It is for this that editors pay good money, examiners give good marks and senior officers give good reports. Each writer has his own method. For quick and tidy work it is a help to record, as notes, the trophies of your research. Get ail the facts into one place. Then you can clear your desk of files and references and turn to the matter of writing. Writing is a mechanical business. I,t is an art to do it beautifully, but competence can be achieved by obeying rules.

Begin with a Heading

You must begin with a heading. This has two functions. It directs the reader's mind in the way you want, and it focuses your own on what is relevant. Write a heading in block capitals across the top of the paper. Do not just write "Question 6." In the Book of Common Prayer there are ten rules for the conduct of life. There could be no better heading than "The Ten Commandments." Let your heading be like this. It describes the nature of the work in the fewest possible words. Then write your first paragraph. "Tell the news in the first sentence" is a rule of journalism. It is a sound rule for all writings. Look at the Book of Genesis. The first sentence runs thus: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." Now you know what the first chapter is about. Read on and you will see how He did it. The remaining sentences of the first paragraph expand or explain the first. The shorter you can keep the first paragraph the better, for it does not directly contribute to the subject. It merely prepares the ground. It is an overhead charge, like levelling the site before you start to build. You cannot avoid it, so do it quickly. Then get to work on the main business. It is often convenient to link the first paragraph to the rest with a short paragraph of one or two lines. (I have done it in this paper as an example). It is a trick, an old trick used by Homer in the Odyssey, but it also serves the military writer of to-day. Sentences that form this link are such as these: The facts are as follows: The history of this dispute is given below: The two sides to this question are:*

[* Homer's link was "This is the tale I pray the divine Muse to unfold to us. Begin it, goddess, at whatever point you will."]

Having forged this link you write down the facts, history or sides of the question. This may well be called the discussion. In writing the discussion, also, there are certain rules, You must stick to the point. Irrelevant facts, unwanted dates or side-issues must be ignored. Sometimes, however, there are facts or arguments which are a theme in themselves. For the reader who knows this theme, it is boring repetition; for the reader who is fresh to the subject it is important information. Put facts like these into an appendix. The reader may read them or not as he chooses. (For example: I might expound this very theme at length in an Appendix). Record the facts in order of time. You may be tempted to record them geographically. You may think it easier to describe what Napoleon was doing before Waterloo, and then to say what Wellington was doing. This may be easy to write; it is seldom easy to follow. It is better to say what both were doing on the first day, then the second, and so on. This leads to a good climax—as, indeed, the events did. When there are two or more sides to a question there are usually arguments for and against each side. There are then two ways of discussing them. You may first record all the various sides of the question. (You may perhaps tabulate them a, b, c, etc.) Then you give all the arguments which affect them. The advantage of this system is that the reader can see the sides of the question at a glance. If these sides of the question are novel this is a good way. The reader approaches the problem with his mind on the wave-length you want. There is one drawback to this way. If you want to refer back to your sides of the question, as you usually have to, you must include such idioms as see (a) above and this deflects the reader's mind. The other method is to record, after stating one side of the question, all the reasons that make you favour or reject it. (It is the system I am using now). The advantage of this system is that you can give, at the end of your discussion on each side of the question, your opinion of its value. There is a drawback here too. If the sides of the question are, in themselves, obscure the reader will not see what you are driving at till he has nearly finished reading the discussion. You must use your own judgment in this; though in examinations the sides to the question are well known to the examiner. It is therefore usual, in an examination, to follow each side of the question by its pros and cons before tackling the next.

The Conclusion

Having stated the sides of the question and discussed each, as indicated above, it only remains to finish your writing with some conclusion. Your last paragraph should be the complement of your first. If your first paragraph begins: "I have the honour to request that, etc." your last one might be: "In conclusion I ask that this request may be granted." The reader, one hopes, will write "Yes" and give it to a staff officer to arrange. If you follow this rule you will avoid two errors. You will not put new matter into your last paragraph. If there is a new fact it is because the discussion is not finished, and you are not ready for a conclusion. You will also avoid leaving the reader in doubt as to your intention. If you want him to do something, or decide something, or learn something, he will see what you want of him. He will not say "Well, what do I do now?" It will be perfectly clear what is required of him. So much for the structure: the first paragraph, the discussion and the last paragraph. There are a few rules for your style or manner of presentation. The quality of your English is more important in examinations than in everyday life. An illiterate peasant, if he speaks with sincerity, will make his point, even though there are faults in his grammar. An accomplished speaker with soft accents will sometimes fill his hearer with such rage that he is shown the door. The art is to combine the sincerity of the peasant with the polish of the accomplished speaker. To do this you must use short words, short sentences and as few adjectives as possible. Short words are usually from the Anglo-Saxon, long ones from the Latin. Do not say "post-prandial conversations of a bibulous nature," say "drunken talk after dinner." It is easier to make your sense clear in short sentences than in long ones. Short sentences add directness to your style: like a straight left in the boxing-ring. Accomplished writers, however, occasionally use a long sentence to relieve the somewhat telegraphic effect of a series of short ones. But there is a danger of long sentences becoming complicated; and they often lead to mistakes in punctuation. So avoid them till you are sure of yourself. When you have finished writing, go through your work and cut out all unnecessary words and sentences. You will find that many long sentences become short ones and are much improved thereby.

Avoid the "WOOLLY" Sentence

In some places it is customary to avoid the first person. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. But, before doing as the Romans do, make sure you are in Rome. Avoiding the first person must not lead you to making the sentences complicated and the sense "woolly." For instance: "I advise you to pay promptly" is a good sentence. It is short and the meaning is clear. It would be appropriate in most places. If the first person is taboo in your situation, you must write: "It is recommended that you pay promptly." This is still a good sentence within the limitations imposed by avoiding the first person. The temptation into which many officers fall is to say: "It is recommended that payment should be made with the utmost expedition." This is a "woolly" sentence. Avoid its kind. Writing headings and sub-headings, numbering the paragraphs, and the use of abbreviations are matters of custom. You must use your judgment. You are compelled to do these things in Orders and Appreciations. If you are in a hurry as in an examination, well chosen headings may help you. The examiner may assume you could expand them more than you actually do. Letters and essays are often better without. (It would be easy to put headings into this paper. I think it would spoil it: you may not agree). Headings and sub- headings help the writer more than the reader; they keep his mind on the subject. Numbering the paragraphs helps you (and others) to refer to particular parts. Abbreviations save trouble in writing. They may be all right in purely military papers but they must be translated for civilian readers. For civs., in fact, they are n.b.g. The military system of telling the time, using a 24-hour clock, is not always clear outside the Services. Say: three o'clock in the afternoon, or 3 p.m., rather than 1500 hrs. And for ghosts to appear at 2359 hrs is ludicrous. Some catch phrases lead you to long sentences. In the case of is such a one. "In the case of officers, their pay will be halved" is a long way of saying: "Officers' pay will be halved." Whenever you see in the case of in official writing (and it is common), consider how much simpler the sentence might be if the phrase were omitted. In view of the fact that is another phrase that leads to long sentences. "In view of the fact that we are an island race, we must have a good navy" is simplified by saying: "We are an island race, so we must have a good navy." The simplification comes at once when you cut out the offending catch-phrase. As follows on the other hand, saves words. Macaulay uses the phrase and he is a prince of words. These last, however, are refinements. They make the difference between a competent work and a work of art. The two essentials are: to found your writing on sound thinking and to write your paper along the lines I have given.

Such are the rules for military writing. Follow them and your pen will be mighty.