'Why We Write' (#whywewrite)
Why write? Particularly in a contemporary climate where reading and considered discussion often seems a lower priority to soundbites and tweets? Because writing gives those of us not in the inner circle a chance to contribute to strategic policy debate, beyond the perceived boundaries of military rank, category, and service. Writing is an opportunity to propose alternate ideas and to be critical of the dominant narrative. Just as importantly, a successful idea that can influence change requires evidence, articulation and persuasion – writing it out is diagnostic, highlighting weaknesses and strengths ahead of the opportunity to pitch that idea freshly to a wide audience.
Getting an Idea
The hardest sentences in any piece I write are the first one I try, the one which needs the inspiration of a new idea behind it, and the last, which should sum up the idea as proven. Both will be rewritten several times over before the piece is finalised; in fact, that first draft sentence is often unrecognisable by the time the piece done. For that reason, it’s important not to dwell too long on how to begin. I start with a theme, and then rethink and clarify my point as the work progresses. The easiest source of inspiration is personal experience. For example, unusual deployed experiences, on which non-command members don’t necessarily produce post-operational reports to contribute to lessons learned, are often of interest to publishers inside and outside the ADF. My deployment as an O3 liaison officer in an Iraqi court and prison complex in 2007, part of the Coalition’s ‘Law and Order Task Force,’ produced my first thesis, critically analysing the place of ‘rule of law’ and judicial reconstruction during armed conflict and stability operations. Another option is to respond to a theme in national strategic debate, where there are other perspectives or existing schools of thought which are being overlooked. Having studied rule of law theory from a legal perspective, it struck me that the legal and strategic debates about a rulesbased order were developing independently of each other, with risk to the coherence of both. Years later, I am still working to persuade the legal community and the military community that there is utility in understanding each other’s conceptual approach and purpose. Writing down throwaway lines from conference presentations, lectures, headlines, even command briefs or the dusty National Geographic in the medical centre can prompt a new line of enquiry. In fact, anything that catches your eye, on which you think ‘that sounds interesting,’ ‘that sounds ridiculous’ or ‘how would that work if …’, can inspire great writing.
Situating an Idea
An idea must have context. I am open to persuasion, but have never yet read a hypothesis that stood completely alone and on its own merits. Writers should read widely and understand political, social, economic, cultural and historical contexts. Professional military literature and discussion in isolation represent a limited field in which to find this. I am not a regular follower of specific blogs or military journals, preferring to seek ideas elsewhere and then trawl military literature to see how discussion has developed to date. As something of a Luddite, my focus is on books, academic journals, and conversations with others, all of which are rich sources of contextual research. My primary interest is in understanding how social constructs, such as law, gender, or religion, affect human systems over time. The tendency of military commentators to focus on technology for its own sake overlooks the reality that ultimately every effect must impact upon the adversary in order to deter or defeat them. Understanding the adversary’s milieu opens opportunities to shape and exploit social constructs to strategic advantage, using technological or other capabilities as a means to that end. Thus, while society is pushing for more science graduates, I would still advocate for a reading program based on the liberal arts.
One of the things that holds back many would-be writers is time. Writing need not and should not be burdensome. I write because I enjoy it, and I want to challenge readers with new ideas or cross-disciplinary approaches. I spend a few hours a week researching and working on my current interest, and keeping a general eye on who is publishing what. Reading and writing become faster with practice, and thinking through ideas occupies the mind while getting through the chores of daily life - watching TV, doing PT, driving to work, even in spare work time if efficiency if maximised. Of the three, thinking is by far the most important and should take the most time.
2. Choose your forum carefully.
Issues can be of current interest for years or can go stale in weeks. The fashion for rule of law has passed, and the first blush of interest in gender in military operations is already fading. The South China Sea is of longer-term interest, and command is of perennial concern, but the aspects of them which are publishable change from time to time. To contribute to debate, writing has to be current or, better, pre-emptive. Moreover, every publisher has their own agenda and in-house style. A publisher seeking informal blog posts of 800 words will not accept longer pieces, whereas academic journals, at least in law, seek 8-10 000 words, formal in style and fully-referenced for peer review. It takes research to find a publisher who is likely to be interested in my subject, at the time I’m planning to write, and in the style I would like to produce. In fact, I will often consider the likely publisher for my idea before I start writing, so I can decide how to write the piece, and how long it should be. I may even approach the publisher to pitch my idea first, particularly for internal Defence publications, such as the Air Power Development Centre, or blogs such as The Forge.
3. Edit and then edit again.
The anonymous peer review of my first solo academic article described my writing, kindly as it turned out, as ‘turgid in parts’ and noted that some sentences spanned entire paragraphs. Those particular parts were the ones I had considered my best – masterpieces of lucid intellectualism. Not so. Once drafted, all work needs editing several times, with the help of test readers and mentors if possible. Submit to a publisher only after that, and expect them to have more editorial recommendations.
4. Be thick-skinned.
My work is rejected at times, and accepted at others. This may be because it’s been submitted to the wrong forum at the wrong time, as much as it may be a reflection on the ideas or the quality of the writing. Later, when it is published, not everyone will agree, or understand from the piece what I hoped they would. It is difficult, but essential, not to take rejection or criticism personally.
A blog piece is 800-1000 words, around an hour’s output in an ACSC exam. Editing and redrafting is a few hours more. Your first publication could be your best masters assignment, edited for the right forum. That’s how I started. Set a goal to do one and then keep going.
Wing Commander Angeline Lewis is currently posted to HQJOC. She holds doctorates in international law and in sea power history, and has been publishing primarily academic works since 2006. Her writing addresses conscience in armed conflict; air power in the rules-based global order; sea power and Naval history; women, peace and security; law of the sea; laws of armed conflict; emerging technologies; military personnel law; and judicial reconstruction during and after armed conflict, among others. She is the inaugural Minister for Defence’s Fellow in Women, Peace and Security at UNSW@ADFA.