Sunday, January 8, 2012

Writing for the Foreign Service

I'm passing these tips along to others in the process of applying to the foreign service. I got these tips from three sources:
1) Writing workshops for fellows this summer at State. It was immensely helpful to get feedback on my writing, so if you have an FSO to help you practice I recommend taking advantage of their help.
2) The generous feedback and coaching I received from everyone at my internship this summer. My writing improved a great deal with their help.
3) A series of 20 articles about Writing and Career Development(mentioned above) by Mr. Mortimer D. Goldstein. You can find them in the March 1985-December 1986 issues of State magazine. (Good luck finding that. I was only able to find it in the Department of State's library, and only after being pointed in the right direction by a colleague.)

The writing skills I picked up from these sources improved my FS writing from a 4.5 on the CM section of the FSOA to at least a 5.25 (and possibly higher, haven't gotten my full scores yet), so I include them in the hopes that they will benefit others as well.

The Golden rules:

1. Make it simple.
We write to communicate, so the meaning of your writing should never be hidden. Forget everything you read in graduate school. Your writing should be accessible to everyone from busy policymakers to non-native English speakers. If your reader has to reread your writing then it isn't good enough yet. A good way of thinking about this comes from Mortimer Goldstein who originally wrote a series on writing for State magazine back in 1986. "When are words clear?" he asks? "Not when they can be understood... It's when your words can't be misunderstood." You don't want to leave any room for misinterpretation.

A great example of what not to do is this paragraph, which won first prize in Philosphy and Literature's Bad Writing Contest of 1998:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Imagine that the fate of the free world depended on people being able to understand that paragraph.

Yeah. It's a scary thought.
(Click here for the original page. And/or here for a blog post on the subject.)

One final note for those trying to simplify their writing: There is a limit to how much you should simplify. Don't use childish language. Use full names and titles. Don't omit important details. Also be mindful of how you use acronyms. The general rule is to first spell out the acronym once before using it. Think twice before using jargon-acronyms (like GOB for Government of Brazil). Some people do it, but I've heard lots of advice to write things out as you would say them. (I would never say 'gob' to refer to the Brazilian government, so I wouldn't write it that way either. On the other hand, I would refer to the International Monetary Fund as the IMF, see the difference?) Also, avoid simplifying your writing so much that it sounds like a string of newspaper headlines. "Government of Brazil signs treaty" is fine for a headline, but use full sentences when you write cables and memos.

2. Use a clear organizational structure.
While structure is boring to talk about, it is essential. So you know the drill, stick to one idea per sentence, organize your ideas ahead of time and keep your paragraphs focused.

3. Write dynamically.
I heard this rule a million times at state. Use active verbs. Don't use 'helpers' to hide the verbs. A classic example is 'analyze' versus 'conduct an analysis'. There is no earthly reason to choose the second unless you are a) trying to impress someone or b) trying to cram more words into your paper to make it look bigger. Our dear friend Mortimer addressed this too and encourages us to 'express action in verbs, not nouns'. Use the verb 'announce', not the phrase 'made an announcement'. Use 'decide', not 'make a decision'. and so on.

Another great example is the tendency to make everything passive. To us it sounds formal, but try not to use passive phrases because they can hide the most important facts. You can say "the policy was approved" - which is passive - but that leaves a question in the reader's mind. Who approved it? You can avoid this by making sure that each sentence has a clear subject.

4. Eliminate everything that is not essential.
Every time I wrote an analysis this summer I had to have it approved by 5 or more people. And every time they sent back edits those edits were full of ideas for shortening my sentences. The lesson I learned? Every. Single. Word. Counts. If you can get rid of it, get rid of it. If two sentences say mostly the same thing, one of them most go. I'm sure this post would be about 1/10th as long when it finally got through the editing process.

A good way to use fewer words is to use the active tense (see above). Also, try to avoid phrases that sound formal but add clutter. Some examples? 'In relation to', 'With regard to', 'in the event of', 'in view of', 'in a position to', etc. Watch out for adjectives where they are unnecessary. The best example of course is from The Princess Bride, when Wesley is diagnosed as 'mostly dead'. Dead is one of those words that doesn't need an adjective. Other words that don't need adjectives include final, perfect, correct, full, etc. 'Totally perfect' is redundant, as is 'completely full'. Using extra adjectives indicates that you didn't really mean to use that word in the first place. If I can't say that your answer is 100% correct, then I should find a word other than correct to describe it.

I think this may be the hardest concept for most writers I know. Especially if you are highly educated, you have been encouraged (for most of your adult life) to think that more = better. But it isn't true! A 20 page paper often says just as much as a 2page paper, only it says it in a horribly long and boring way. No one wants to read that! And most importantly, no one will read that. Certainly not the Secretary of State or the President or whomever you'd like to be writing for one day. Your reader's time is precious, respect it.

Good luck and happy writing!

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