A Guest Post by Michael C from On Violence.
I know what you’re thinking, “No, really, what can I learn about blogging from the army?” The U.S. Army isn’t exactly known for its literary excellence. And ten years ago, I would have agreed with you. But now, in the midst of the blogging tidal wave, I can tell you that military blogging–milblogging as its known–is a growing, thriving niche.
Since the beginning of the Iraq war to today, Soldiers–with and without controversy–have blogged about their experiences. For the first time in history, Soldiers on the front lines can tell their stories to people thousands of miles away in real time, and even influence the political debate.
As a milblogger, I’ve learned plenty from how-to sites like Problogger, (by starting here). At the same time, I’ve applied a lot of tips and tricks from the military to my blogging. So without any further ado, here are 9 tips all bloggers can (and can’t) learn from the military.
The Things You Should Learn From the Army
1. Have a Point to Make
First, you need to have a bottom line. Finish this statement: “I contend that…” Bam, that’s your thesis.
It doesn’t even need to be political, it just needs to help your reader. It doesn’t even have to argue something; it just has to have a point. It can be something like, “you need to write well on your blog posts, use these ten tips.” Or you can provide news, like “here is an interesting new SEO development.” Too many blog posts are aimless. In the Army, we have a point to every operation called the mission statement. It ensures that every patrol has a purpose. Look at this post on TwiTip. The writer isn’t arguing something complex, he just wants to provide 5 new ways to use twitter. This is his point, and it sharpens the whole post.
2. Put Your Bottom Line Up Front, or BLUF
Time constraints force commanders to prioritize the information they see, and they demand the best stuff first. When you are planning a movement of hundreds, or thousands, of men in battle, then seconds can mean the difference between life or death. Generals and Colonels want the point, and they want it up front.
Military planners learn early on to tell their bosses the bottom line up front, or as we call it, BLUF. Take that thesis/point/bottom-line you just determined, and put that in your first or second paragraph.
Use BLUF in your blogging. Look at this recent post by Darren. By the third paragraph, Darren explains what he is going to tell you, and where his post is heading. (Some astute writers will put their point or thesis at the end. If you want to do that, at least give your readers the topic in the beginning. Use this technique sparingly.)
3. Keep Your Writing Clear and Concise
Imagine the stereotypical Army Colonel, chomping on a cigar, and firing off questions to his subordinates. When this boss demands an answer, do you think he wants vague or unclear answers? No, he wants them clear and concise. The Army writing guide specifically asks that writers, “(1) Use short words. Try not to use more than 15 percent over two syllables long. (2) Keep sentences short. The average length of a sentence should be about 15 words.”
Your blogging should be the same way. Instead of embracing the freedom of not having an editor, and putting every word you’re thinking on the page, cut, cut, cut. Take your first draft and cut it by 10%. Then cut some more.
4. Back Up Your Argument
Let’s keep going with my analogy about the Army Colonel. Let’s say that, as one of his intelligence officers, you tell him that you expect an enemy attack in the next 24 hours. With such a bold assertion, he is going to demand one thing: proof.
So after you put out your BLUF, give your evidence. Find links, quote sources, give examples. Tom Ricks was a preeminent war journalist, and now he is one of the biggest milbloggers. In this post, he sets out a bold assertion, then provides several quotes and analysis to prove his points. He puts his BLUF in the first paragraph, then spends the rest of the time backing it up.
5. Plan For Comments and Questions
Most Army Colonels love peppering their staff with questions, so good briefers plan ahead for them. For example, if you say that your men will run out of water, you should be able to answer when and why. The good subordinate plans ahead to counter what his boss will ask.
As a blogger, when your post is finished, ask yourself, what will my detractors say? What will they argue against me? Figure that out, and then counter it in your blog post. In the Army, we call it “war-gaming” and we usually use it against the enemy. Smart planners use it on their boss as well. Your blog won’t please everybody, but you can at least figure what they will argue against you–especially if you have a controversial or political blog.
6. Write Mistake Free Posts
A mistaken order can spell the death of an Army unit, literally. In the “Charge of the Light Brigade,” immortalized in verse by Tennyson, a misheard order resulted in the tragic deaths of over a hundred cavalry men. In the military, accuracy is supreme.
Your blogging will suffer from careless mistakes too. Punctuation errors or typos will make your prose seem amateurish. Even worse, a mis-written title or thesis could rebound around the blogosphere if it doesn’t mean what you think it does.
I have a co-blogger, and we both read everything we put on our blog, and our first major guest post still had a typo in the bio. So embarrassing. If you don’t have a co-blogger, always read everything you publish two or three times.
The Things You Shouldn’t Learn from the Army
7. Don’t Use Acronyms or Jargon
The Army loves acronyms, from DFACs to IEDs to EOD to UAVs to METT-TC and so on. With acronyms and jargon, I can write posts that are virtually unreadable to the average person. Luckily, I have a non-military brother who keeps me in check, but not everyone has this.
As your blog moves from its niche–finance, business, self-help, milblogging, whatever–your writing needs to move away from jargon and technical slang. This will open your blog to new audiences. Also, when guest posting on a new site, use their jargon or style.
8. Short and Concise Does Not Mean Simple
A few points ago, I argued that we could all keep our writing short and concise. Too often, though, the Army mistakes clear and concise for short and simple. The difference is subtle but important. You can keep your arguments clean, but still use complex words. You can keep your writing concise, but still write compound sentences.
Army language suffers, like all bureaucracies, from a lack of creativity. Always look for ways to spice up your language. And if you hail from a bureaucracy, like the US Army, avoid your own bureaucratic instincts. A fellow milblogger, Starbuck, received a safety gram before Halloween warning that children in the Fort Bragg area will be conducting trick-or-treating operations.” Sigh.
9. Avoid an Email Addiction
The military embraces technology, but it embraces some technologies a little too much. Email is one example. A couple years back Darren went over how he kicked his email addiction by reorganizing his inbox. I wish that post were required reading in the military. Whenever possible, avoid email when doing business. If you can call, do so. If you can meet up in person, do that instead. Email is a tool, not a way of life.
And if I could give fellow bloggers one takeaway, it would be to check out the milblogosphere. If you want the low down about Soldiers experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, why not get it from the people who are there? Although most milblogs started out as a way to stay in touch with family, many have morphed into foreign policy and military hubs of knowledge. Start with milblogging.com and see what this niche can offer you.
Michael C writes for On Violence, a blog on military and foreign affairs. He is an active duty military officer who deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom VIII with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Follow us on Twitter @onviolence