Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The CIA's rules for writing

Don't tell anyone, but it has them. You didn't hear it from me.

A freedom of information request brought them in out of the cold. Here's what the spymasters think their underlings should know.

All writers using the agency's style guide, it says, "are assumed already to possess the three essentials of intelligence analysis: knowledge, clarity of thought, and good judgment. No writing, however skilled, can conceal deficiencies in these requisites.”

Hmm. I don't think it's just spies.

See if these rules are helpful for you:
  • Keep the language crisp and pungent; prefer the forthright to the pompous and ornate.
  • Do not stray from the subject; omit the extraneous, no matter how brilliant it may seem or even be.
  • Favor the active voice and shun streams of polysyllables and prepositional phrases.
  • Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power.
  • Be objective; write as a reporter or analyst or administrator unless you are entitled to write as a policymaker.
This is a commandment for any business writer.
For the most part, Directorate of Intelligence analysts are writing for generalists. Generalists may have deep expertise in specific areas, such as missile technology or a country’s tribal politics; nonetheless, the analyst’s goal is to do away with the specialist’s jargon and to put everything into layman’s language. If your audience consists of just a few people who thoroughly understand the subject (or who cannot be trusted to follow the reasoning without jargon to guide them), by all means sprinkle your piece with technical terms. Most of the time, however, write for the nonexpert.
I'm glad this secret leaked.

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