Academic journal article Military Review

Effective Writing for Army Leaders: The Army Writing Standard Redefined

Academic journal article Military Review

Effective Writing for Army Leaders: The Army Writing Standard Redefined

Article excerpt

Day after day, the inexperienced commanders of a cavalry division and its small light cavalry brigade wait impatiently for the order to attack. The written order finally arrives, but to the division commander, it seems "utterly obscure" (1) The situation becomes urgent. With relationships in the chain of command strained and the means of communication severely limited by the austere environment and the hilly terrain, efforts to gain clarification only increase the confusion.

Finally, the division commander believes he understands which target to attack and passes on the order. Then, the light brigade's commander leads over six hundred brave cavalry soldiers in a charge from which less than two-thirds will return. The brigade's "noble six hundred" later commemorated in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's beloved poem The Charge of The Light Brigade, Memorializing Events in the Battle of Balaclava, October 25,1854, attack the wrong target. (2)

While Tennyson's poem celebrates the light brigade's courage and sacrifice, it also alludes to leadership failings that led to the tragedy, with the phrase "someone had blundered" (3) Among those failings were poorly written orders. The intended readers--the division and brigade commanders--could not understand the mission or the commander's intent:

   Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance
   rapidly to the front--follow the enemy and
   try to prevent the enemy carrying away the
   guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany.
   French cavalry is on your left. Immediate.
   [Signed by Gen.] Airey. (4)

Ironically, this concise order--the last of four, all ambiguous--seems reasonably consistent with the U.S. Army's definition of effective writing: "writing that can be understood in a single rapid reading and is generally free of errors in grammar, mechanics, and usage". (5) The order is a quick read, and the text appears generally free of errors. A style check shows no passive verbs. The meaning of the individual words, the phrases, and the sentences seems clear enough--even with a sentence fragment and some nonstandard punctuation. The order even seems consistent with the U.S. Army's notion of mission orders: "directives that emphasize to subordinates the results to be attained, not how they are to achieve them". (6)

Nonetheless, the order's failure to fulfill its communication function demonstrates that rapid readability--supposedly achieved through conciseness and generally error-free grammar, mechanics, and usage--does not necessarily add up to effectiveness, let alone comprehensibility. The U.S. Army's writing standard could not have helped make the light brigade's final order effective despite its worthwhile elements--even if British military leader competencies at the time had been more satisfactory.

Nor can the U.S. Army's writing standard provide twenty-first century soldiers and Army civilians the kind of guidance they need and deserve so they can become effective writers. The Army needs a new writing standard, one that would emphasize the functions of writing over its forms, one that would account for the effective thinking and reasoning that must underlie effective explanations.

A functional standard would emphasize the reasons Army leaders write and the processes they use to develop and express their ideas to their intended readers. It would integrate the conventions for various types of written products--their forms--in a way that helps writers learn to apply those conventions proficiently. A functional writing standard would help writers become skilled thinkers and communicators because it would help them profit from the unparalleled power of writing to enhance their critical and creative thinking.

Not all aspects of the traditional Army writing standard should be discarded. Its enduring elements simply need to be understood in terms of how they support a greater whole, and then updated based on modern writing situations and research on the nature of writing and functional communication. …

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