By: CDR Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong
Writing professional articles has a long history in all the U.S. military services. American naval publications date as far back as the 1830s. While military personnel are commonly lauded for their willingness to take physical risks in defense of the nation, sometimes we are less open to taking the intellectual risks involved in the betterment of our profession. In #RTSW 2 we discussed the fear some writers have that they might embarrass themselves through a small mistake or problem in a professional article. Taking an intellectual or academic risk is far different than strapping into an aircraft, rigging to dive the boat, or free-falling out of a perfectly good airplane.
The reality is there are a number of things military authors do which are sort of embarrassing from an editor’s perspective. Military personnel hold themselves up as professionals, but occasionally behave like inexperienced freshman undergraduates when it comes time to submit an article for publication. Most of the issues can be addressed by acting like the professional we all claim to be. These are not actually hard things to do, but generally fall into the GI Joe category of knowledge.
Follow the contributors guidelines. Seriously. If the journal or publication says they take feature articles with a maximum word count of 3000 words, do not send them 4500 words. Some will give you some latitude, maybe 10% overage, but not always. It is not the editor’s job to turn your over-length piece into something appropriate. You are telling them either you could not be bothered to check the guidelines, you have never read their publication, you just don’t care, or you think you are so brilliant the rules don’t apply to your ideas. None of these interpretations will help you impress anyone.
From my experience as an editor this is an across the board issue. Frankly, most junior personnel tend to follow the rules, but sometimes they don’t understand the difference between “departments” at some journals. Some mid-grade officers, senior officers, and Flags, however, have issues understanding the rules apply to them. One would hope the professors from our PME institutions who encourage officers to use their school papers for articles would help them understand how it works. Yet, I have also seen PME professors who submit articles which are thousands of words over maximum, so sometimes they are part of the problem.
Papers and assignments written in the professional military education system, or from academic work, are a great source of material for articles. I have used the work I wrote for class in a number of articles I have published. But, a school paper and an article are not the same thing. We’ve already covered the length issue, but this is a common problem with academic papers. There are also differences in style and tone, occasionally in formatting, and in the types of arguments that will fit at certain publications. Do not simply send your PME paper to an editor. Always rewrite and reformat the paper to ensure it fits the publication you are sending it to. The editors will still help you make it better, but it is on the author to make the first effort of getting it right for the publication in question. It should not require mentioning, but the editor is also not interested with the grade you got on the paper. No need to share, the work should stand on its own.
Ensure you are sending the right submission to the right publication. If a certain publication has a name for a “department,” or type of article, don’t use that same name at a different publication. For example, Proceedings has opinion pieces called “Nobody Asked Me But…” An author who sends a commentary submission to War on the Rocks or The Bridge “for your Nobody Asked Me But section” is immediately off on the wrong foot.
Simple freelance manuscript format is the best way to approach an editor. Do not try and impress with multiple fonts, complicated formatting, etc. Depending on what software they are working with, your fancy format may get thrown off anyway. You aren’t applying for a job in desktop publishing, the words in the article are what matter and speak for themselves. Name, contact info, word count, title, one font, double spaced, simple paragraph format. Use bold, underline, or italics to set things off, but only sparingly. It is designed for fiction authors, but William Shunn’s website gives a good image of how to set things up. Avoid pdf’s to the best of your ability, because the editor will probably want to digitally mark up the piece.
The concept of authorship is directly tied to the question of personal integrity in the academic world. Almost every university or institution of higher learning has an authorship policy statement (read Yale’s here). Fundamentally “authorship” is the question: who belongs on the byline of an article? Who should get credit? This is a question every senior officer looking to publish an article must ask themselves when they think about the staff process which might have helped them produce the article. Senior officers and civilian leaders sometimes have speechwriters who help them. At what point, and in what venues, should they get mentioned for written work? Is a shared byline proper? Or is a mention in the author bio at the end of the article the right place? “LCDR Jones contributed to the writing of this article.” Perhaps a junior officer on the staff amassed the research and wrote the first draft of sections of the piece. Do they deserve some credit? These questions don’t always apply, but in colleges and universities this is a key ethical question. If we are going to pursue professional integrity in the military services, and consider it intellectually, it makes sense for us to examine authorship as well.
Professional articles on military subjects are not the place for personal attacks or for antagonism. Even if the spark which got you writing was disagreement with someone else’s idea, take a step back and make sure you are writing about ideas and content and you are not being antagonistic. Sometimes this is unintentional, and requires you to look at your own work closely. Also, some publications do not publish this kind of tit-for-tat writing, so expect rejections if you are writing something focused on being critical. You should be focused on new ideas and solutions. It is ok to be constructively critical of another writer, thinker, or publication, but avoid personal or professional antagonism: try and follow Dennett’s rules. Aim at the ideas, not the people, and give credit where credit is due.
Cite Your Work
Footnotes, endnotes, hyperlinks…they matter. They help prove you have done the research and reading discussed earlier in this series. More importantly, perhaps, they acknowledge the hard work of others who have tackled the same or similar subjects and on whose shoulders your work stands. They offer the editor and the reader a chance to check up on you. None of us form our ideas or opinions in a vacuum. Even senior officers haven’t come to all their knowledge through experience or epiphany. We should acknowledge that through good use of notes and links. This does not mean every article must be peppered with quotes from Clausewitz or Mahan. You do not have to tackle the great masters. Sometimes it makes you look silly. I know from experience.
Say something in your article. Identifying a problem is certainly a contribution, but often times it is not enough. It only becomes a good article when you also suggest a solution or a path to a solution. You have to argue for something, not just report on a situation. In the first post in this series we talked about John Adams’ call to “dare to read, think, speak, and write.” Professional articles are at their best when they remember that first word. Writers must dare.
Take It or Leave It
This series of three posts has tried to offer a starting point for military professionals and members of the national security community who want to take up the call to contribute to our profession, all call which was recently echoed by the CNO and Lt O’Keefe. The observations offered are intended as a little bit of what naval folks call gouge to get started. Like all gouge, the advice offered is worth exactly what you have paid to read it. These are simple observations from my past several years both writing and editing on military and naval subjects. Individual experience will vary. As we say in the navy, if you live by the gouge you’ll likely die by the gouge. But it least it gives us somewhere to start.
This post is the third in a three part series where the author shares lessons learned from a decade of his own professional writing, almost four years on the editorial board of the U.S. Naval Institute, as a Senior Editor with War on the Rocks, and as series editor of the 21st Century Foundations books from the Naval Institute Press. The opinions expressed are offered in the author’s personal capacity and do not represent the policy of the US Navy, Department of Defense, or any government agency.