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  • Writer's pictureRob Carty

Military Secrets (of Writing), Part 1

Some of the best business writing happens in the military. Don’t believe me? As we say in Texas, hold my beer.

In warfare, lives depend on clarity and concision. If a written order, a battle plan, or even a training document is unclear, tragedy may ensue. So the military takes pains to foster communications that are crisp and precise.

My beloved Air Force takes writing so seriously that it has developed a comprehensive manual that helps writers (and speakers) impose discipline on their craft. It’s called The Tongue and Quill (Air Force Handbook 33-337). TTAQ covers all aspects of writing—including persuasive writing—in a conversational style that’s easy to digest and implement. Though written for the military, TTAQ’s lessons apply equally to civilians, even lawyers. Especially lawyers.

I know you won’t read the thing from cover to cover. But TTAQ is a superb reference tool, freely available on the web, and it contains plenty of nuggets worth sharing.

One such nugget involves getting to the point (which I’m about to do, finally).

Generally speaking, a paragraph should start with the bottom line. When I was younger, I often front-loaded paragraphs with facts and authorities, withholding the main point till the end as if it were the climax to a magic trick. While that approach is sometimes necessary, readers usually hate it. TTAQ provides excellent guidance here, and even examines an important exception:


Organizing: get your bottom line up front (most of the time). In nearly every communication situation, you need to state your bottom line early in the message. In a direct or deductive approach, state your position, main point or purpose up front, then go into the details that support your main point. When you take a direct approach to communication, your audience is better prepared to digest the details of the message and logically make the connections in its own mind.

In the future, authors will take a long time to get to the point. That way the book looks thicker.

–Scott Adams (The Dilbert Future: Thriving on Stupidity in the 21st Century)

There is an exception to every rule, and you might want to be less direct when trying to persuade a hostile audience. In such a situation, if you state your bottom line up front, you risk turning them off before you build your argument—regardless of how well it is supported. In this case you might consider using an indirect or inductive approach: you may present your support and end with your bottom line. Sometimes this successfully “softens the blow” and gives your audience time to warm up to your views.

In the inductive approach, you still need an introduction, but it would be less direct. Here’s an example of two purpose statements:

Direct: Women should be allowed in combat because . . . .

Indirect: The issue of women in combat has been hotly debated and both sides have valid points . . . .


AFH 33-337 at 54 (May 27, 2015).

There it is. Weapons-grade advice on persuasive writing, with a Dilbert quote, no less. More military secrets to come.

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