Thinking and Writing (1953)

By Colonel John A. Gavin, Infantry
Canadian Army Journal, Vol. 6, No. 6, January 1953

[Reprinted from the Military Review (U.S.). The author is an instructor at the Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. – Editor.]

The purpose of this article is to encourage career Army officers to avail themselves of every opportunity to reduce to writing their considered opinions on problems confronting them. At the outset, it should be self-evident that the ability to write in understandable language makes for clear thinking and a better Army officer. When the career officer examines and studies the career pattern for an officer of his particular arm or service...he will note that he will be called upon to serve as a staff officer at various levels of command. He will realize also that his opportunities for troop command assignments decrease as his service lengthens. Hence, it should be apparent to the career officer that he is slated for various staff assignments at different command levels following his initial basic troop duty.

The Staff Writer

What is the implication involved? The answer should be obvious. One of the primary requisites for any able staff officer is that he must be capable of expressing on paper, in a clear, concise, and logical manner, the results of his personal analysis of a given set of facts, in the name of his commander or immediate superior. Whether his staff action calls for the preparation of an endorsement, a directive to subordinate commands, or a detailed staff study, the capability previously mentioned is ever present. He must be able to apply common sense reasoning to the facts given to him or obtained by his intelligent research, and reduce the results to understandable writing.

The Well-Written Directive

To be considered well prepared, a written directive must satisfy the questioning minds of the party or parties receiving it. Is the directive clear? Is it complete? Are there any "bugs" in it? Only when it satisfies the affirmative answers to these questions can the action staff officer feel that he has turned out a good job. Therefore, in order for the career officer assigned staff duty to be properly prepared to assume his duties, we conclude that he must possess the ability to express his thoughts in writing in such a manner as to be readily understood. Now we arrive at the crux of the matter. Is this ability one that must be developed before he receives high-level staff duty or can we assume it is inbred in the average career officer? Let us examine the question briefly.


The basic elements of writing are taught the officer during his grammar and high school days. Here he learns not to split the infinitive, how to paragraph and spell correctly, and how to avoid entangling sentences, as well as the many other fundamentals of grammar, punctuation, and composition. During this period, his thinking is directed at following a given set of rules of grammar and punctuation. Little, if any, original thinking is required.


The career officer's ability to think clearly and to arrive at a sound recommendation or decision concerning a problem is, in the author's opinion, based on two main factors: his common sense and his intelligence. In approaching a problem, he must so train his mind to recognize readily the facts pertinent to the problem at hand. By a studied analysis of these facts, he must arrive at the decision or recommendation required. He must be able to secure a firm mental grasp of the important facts bearing on the problem, and, by weighing the advantages and disadvantages of the lines of action open to him to resolve the problem, determine the one that will offer the best solution. Throughout this process of reasoning, the officer must assiduously avoid diverting his efforts down interesting paths which have little or no bearing on the problem under consideration. Here is where the element of common sense must be applied. The amount of intelligence possessed by the individual will be, in a large measure, indicative of the scope of the problem he is capable of undertaking.

Thinking and Writing

Now let us combine thinking and writing and examine the ability of the average career officer to express his thoughts in writing in such a manner as to be readily understood. In his early commissioned days of troop duty, the young officer is faced with solving many problems. Seldom, however, do the solutions to these problems have to be reduced to writing. Most times they may be resolved through fragmentary oral or written directives. It may be concluded, therefore, that during this formative period there exists no requirement for the young officer to reduce to writing the results of his thought processes, other than in fragmentary or routine form. Unless this officer, on his own initiative, should make some attempt at placing his thoughts on paper as they may relate to a problem, he may find himself suddenly and unexpectedly assigned to a staff position, wherein he will be expected to prepare directives and studies based on facts and data presented to him without adequate preparation. It should be apparent, therefore, that any prior practical experience in the technique of good writing will be of substantial assistance to him in his newly assigned job. Otherwise, he must begin to apply himself diligently to the task of developing the art of clear, concise, logical writing. It would be a fallacy to state that this development can be attained to a high degree in a short time. In fact, the time element will depend, to a large extent, upon the age of the officer at the time he starts to apply himself conscientiously in the field of writing. The younger, the better.


Based on the foregoing discussion, we may conclude that:

1. The basic elements of writing which require little original thought are taught the career officer in his grammar and high school days.

2. His ability to think clearly is based primarily on his intelligence and common sense.

3. There exists little requirement during his initial troop duty assignments for reducing his thoughts to writing.

4. His ability to place his thoughts in understandable writing is one of development to be attained objectively by displayed initiative on his part.

Suggested Remedy

The author's advice is for the career officer to commence writing, preferably on military subjects, as early in his career as possible. To overcome his natural reluctance to write, he must force himself to do so. His success as a staff officer or commander of an independent installation or unit will be measured to no small degree by the quality of the reports and studies rendered by him. It cannot be overemphasized that orderly thinking is fostered by the developed ability of clear, concise, logical writing. Service journals: Without question, the best outlets for expression of original thoughts by Army officers are our very excellent service journals. Here the opportunity is offered to all officers, regardless of branch or arm of service, to submit open and frank, thought-provoking articles on subjects which are military in nature. Comparatively few officers take advantage of this splendid opportunity to better themselves professionally by presenting, in written form, their considered views on a controversial or original subject. At the same time, those who do seize the opportunity are improving their ability to analyze facts, to research issues involved, and to arrive at their own personal conclusions on the problem involved. What better training in presenting his thoughts in writing could the young career officer possibly ask for in preparing himself for higher staff and command assignments? Proper Form: The prospective author will improve his chances of having his manuscript accepted if he sends it forward in the proper form. Editors prefer two copies of a manuscript and all material should be either double or triple spaced. It is good practice to include a self-addressed envelope with the necessary postage to ensure the return of the work in the event it is not considered suitable for publication. However, the fact that the manuscript is rejected by one publication, or several for that matter, should not discourage the author for there are undoubtedly other journals which will be interested in the article. Therefore, if the manuscript is returned, it should be sent off to another publication without delay. Tailor the Article: The type or class of reader of the magazine is a consideration which requires thought. A brief perusal of the publication in question should indicate the type of reader to whom it is directed. Therefore, it may be necessary to tailor or revise the article to fit specific publications. Even the best professional writers have rejections and occasionally have difficulty in marketing a particular piece of their work. Before it is considered a total loss, however, their work has generally gone the complete route of every magazine which carries the type of writing being offered. Frequently, comments will be received which, if incorporated, will improve the article and make it more acceptable. In any case, the experience gained by the officer in the preparation is more important than any monetary consideration that he may receive. If first attempts fail, he should keep trying. Determination will eventually meet with success and past efforts will serve to point out deficiencies that must be overcome.