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Writing Tips From the CIA’s Ruthless Style Manual

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An unclassified talking points document is shown as former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell testifies on Capitol Hill in April An unclassified talking points document is shown as former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell testifies on Capitol Hill in April Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Strunk & White, it turns out, were CIA sources. The authors of The Elements of Style, a classic American writing guide, are cited alongside Henry Fowler, Wilson Follett, and Jacques Barzun in the Directorate of Intelligence’s Style Manual & Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications, whose eighth edition (from 2011) was posted online (pdf) last week following a Freedom of Information Act request. So what role do partisans in the usage wars (pdf) have in a guide produced by an intelligence agency with a hidden hand in many real-life conflicts?

Though the CIA may dissemble as a matter of course, it speaks plainly to policymakers and operations officers—its “customers,” in the language of the manual. The foreword begins, “Good intelligence depends in large measure on clear, concise writing. The information CIA gathers and the analysis it produces mean little if we cannot convey them effectively.”

As revealed in the manual, the CIA is a prescriptivist scold, a believer in the serial comma, and a champion of “crisp and pungent” language “devoid of jargon.” It takes a firm stand against false titles used attributively and urges intelligence writers to lowercase the w in Vietnam war (“undeclared”).

Like any style guide, whether it’s produced for a magazine or a government agency, this one reflects its authors’ environment and biases. The missile-related acronyms ABM, ICBM, IRBM, SAM, SLBM, and SRBM are all deemed well-known enough not to have to spell out. “US imperialism” gets scare quotes. Most jarring are the often bellicose usage examples, which are littered with protestshuman rights positionsfree enterprisesurface ship deploymentsoilfields, and bombs.

For more insight into how the CIA writes—and thinks—Quartz collected some notable entries from the 190-page document:

  • 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.
  • Keep sentences and paragraphs short, and vary the structure of both.
  • Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power.

regime: has a disparaging connotation and should not be used when referring to democratically elected governments or, generally, to governments friendly to the United States.

tortuous (adj, twisting, devious, highly complex)
torturous (adj, causing torture, cruelly painful)

while: as a conjunction, usually has reference to time. While the President was out of the country, the Army staged a coup. It can, with discretion, also be used in the sense of although or butWhile he hated force, he recognized the need for order. Avoid using while in the sense of and.

number of: a phrase that is too imprecise in some contexts. A number of troops were killed. (If you do not know how many, say an unknown number.)

casualties: include persons injured, captured, or missing in action as well as those killed in battle. In formulating casualty statistics, be sure to write “killedor wounded,” not “killed and wounded.” (See injuries, casualties.)

nonconventional, unconventional: Nonconventional refers to high-tech weaponry short of nuclear explosives. Fuel-air bombs are effective nonconventional weapons. Unconventional means not bound by convention.Shirley Chisholm was an unconventional woman.

war crimes (n)
war-crimes (adj)

lay, lieLay means to put, place, or prepare. It always takes a direct object. Both the past tense and the past participle are laid. (The President ordered his aide to lay a wreath at the unknown soldier’s tomb. The aide laid the wreath two hours later. Yesterday a wreath was laid by the defense minister.)

affect, effectAffect as a verb means to influence, to produce an effect upon. (The blow on the head affected John’s vision.Effect, as a verb, means to bring about. (The assailant effected a change in John’s vision by striking him on the head.Effect, as a noun, means result. (The effect of the blow on John’s head was blurred vision.)

disinformation, misinformationDisinformation refers to the deliberate planting of false reports. Misinformation equates in meaning but does not carry the same devious connotation.

celebrity copycatting: can lead one up the garden path because those emulated are not always pure of speech. A venerable newscaster persists in mispronouncing February (without the firstr r sound) and has misled a whole generation. Another Pied Piper of TV is given to saying “one of those who is”—joining many others who are deceived by the one and forget that the plural whois the subject of the verb (see one). The classic copycat phrase, at this point in time, grew out of the Watergate hearings and now is so firmly entrenched that we may never again get people to say at this timeat present, or simply now (see presently).

Capitalize the W in October War or Six-Day War because either term as a whole is a distinguishing coined name, but 1973 Middle East war or 1967 Arab-Israeli war is distinguishing enough without the capital W. Avoid Yom Kippur war, which is slangy. Do not uppercase the w in Korean war, which was “undeclared”; the same logic applies to Vietnam war and Falklands war, and a similar convention (if not logic) to Iran-Iraq war.

die: is something we all do, even writers who relegate world leaders to a sort of Immortality Club with phrasing like the President has taken steps to ensure a peaceful transition if he should die. Reality can be recognized by inserting in office or before the end of his term, or even by saying simply when he dies.

Free World: is at best an imprecise designation. Use only in quoted matter.

Use parentheses to set off a word, phrase, clause, or sentence that is inserted by way of comment or explanation within or after a sentence but that is structurally independent of it. This style guide (unclassified) will be widely disseminated.

This style guide was prepared by the DI[redacted]

Reprinted with permission from Quartz. The original story can be found here

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