As someone who has now spent two decades bridging the two worlds of academia and professional practice, I am often in a position to mentor people who feel inspired to make their voices, arguments, and analytical innovations heard on a grander scale, across larger platforms. Also, as someone who has been fortunate enough to have relevant success publishing ideas in both formats (ie, formal, double-and triple-blind, peer-reviewed scholarly articles that exceed 7000 words and informal, immediate, topically-in-demand public scholarship commentaries that rarely go beyond 2000 words), I am asked even more often for tips and insights as to how to be successful in the latter category. First, before anyone with the Academy dismissively waves their hand at this supposedly “lesser” achievement, let me be clear: for the world of national security, global affairs, and intelligence, this category that officially falls outside of tenure-review academia is critically important. Articles within this genre often end up being the spur of inspiration all scholars need to launch into much bigger projects. Indeed, when you consider audience size, immediacy of impact, and quality of readers overall, the reality is we have long needed more attention paid and more respect given to those contributors that fill the virtual pages of think tanks, grassroots organizations, governmental agencies, and policy drivers the world over. So, in deference to that need, I offer some helpful rules of construction and execution that tend to be successful time and time again. May these suggestions not simply be helpful but also be the building blocks for producing new intellectual product that makes our world a better, safer, and more peacefully-inclined place.
1. Scope out the venue
One of the most common errors people with great ideas make is to overly rely on the “importance” of the idea itself. The reality is no intellectual meritocracy is solely focused on substance and completely dismissive about thematic/topical style. Meaning, with the almost limitless number of high-quality venues in the world today looking for content, it is important as an author to find the specific individual venues that are most appropriate for the topic you want to write about. As much as some may protest this reality, the fact is it is usually not enough to just have a great idea. It matters having a great idea and then finding the venue where that idea already truly matters and the editors have a history of interest. Just a little bit of preliminary research in this area can dramatically improve the likelihood of being published.
2. Write for the broadest audience possible
First off, let us be clear: this rule is not an entreaty for authors to “dumb down” their work because the masses tend to be not smart enough. That type of intellectual arrogance has long plagued the Academy and tends to produce written pieces that read, quite literally sometimes, as if they were created for the tiniest little clique of specialists that speak to no one but themselves. While this approach may make you a hit with your small group of close intellectual friends, it is not the approach that wins you admirers in the editorial committee meetings that discuss new submissions. After all, there is something both noble and practical about trying to write complex ideas so that everyone can connect to them, about taking highly confusing situations and making them clear and compelling for as many that bother to read your work. Which leads to the final point of this rule: it is simply irrefutable logic that the point of writing is to be read. So, aim to make that group as big as possible and strive to make the arguments as compelling for them as they are for you. Love them first so that it is easier for them to love you.
3. Ask important questions and do NOT give self-evident answers
While most will read this and instantly think the rule itself is self-evident and therefore perhaps not necessary to print, it is in fact one of the easiest rules to violate. One only need take a casual perusal of the articles within many of the finest think tanks and non-profit organizations across the world to find new product that really does not honor this rule. That’s because, in short, the rule is asking an author to write something different. And do it consistently. While it is helpful to have summary articles and historical biographies and quick, little overviews that give us all the necessary background and critical information, I am more interested in helping produce the next generation of authors who take in all of that information and turn it into something we have never thought of before. As an author, try to see the things we do not see. Express the ideas we could not at first grasp. Capture the critical elements that most of us are missing. If you can aim your work to regularly remember and achieve these mini-goals inside of your pieces, then it is almost a definitive guarantee that you will not just be well-published. You will be widely-heard and deeply-respected. And that is never a bad thing as a writer.
4. Be analytical, NOT polemical
I can freely admit this rule tends to be the hardest and most subtle skill to acquire for people who want to write in my controversial fields of national security, global affairs, and intelligence. This is mainly because these fields force us all to address some of the most critical, often deadly, and too regularly depressing situations happening across the world. Discussing new ideas about war, peace, genocide, rape, criminality, corruption, civil war, terrorism, and the like somewhat turns all of us into more than just analysts: we become impassioned through our analyses. Make no mistake: passion is a good thing. A very good thing indeed. But it is a very delicate and easily missed line to cross beyond passion and end up with polemics. Many people believe that objectivity and rational thinking cannot by their very nature also be compelling and moving on an emotional level. I respectfully disagree with this. True, it is harder to write something that is objective and compelling, both rational and passionate. Harder. But not impossible. So, you must ask yourself when you are done with a piece: did I achieve my passion goals while fulfilling my analytical necessities or did I achieve them at the cost of my analysis? It is easier to write a piece full of condemnation and judgment. But it is not usually better to write it. Never sacrifice the power of your analysis just to take an easy pull on a reader’s heart strings.
5. Embrace the “E” word
This last rule is, without question, the one most often ignored. And always to the detriment of the author and to the destruction of the impact of the piece. In this case, the “E” word is simply EDIT. Edit, edit, edit! While most countries have a beautifully romantic mythology about how the greatest writers are simply born with a gift, please allow me to tell you that mythology is not worth the paper or screen you read it on. Especially in my world of scholarly analysis, it must be unequivocally stated that there are no “born” writers. Our world creates success through diligence, fortitude, and good, old-fashioned grunt work when it comes to editing. While the core of your argument is likely a very good one from the beginning, it is in the refining and higher crafting of your written words that takes the very good and transforms it into the great. In this particular case, I like to use an interview taken a very long time ago from one of the greatest performers of the 20th century, Mr. Gene Kelly. When asked how amazing it must be, to perform such complicated and innovative routines on film and on stage and yet make it look simply so effortless to the audience, Mr. Kelly smiled bemusedly and explained, “what the audience should know, and what it doesn’t see, are the thousands of takes done in rehearsal, the pain and agony suffered with no one watching, just so that when they finally get the chance to see it live or up on screen, they don’t just see perfect: they see perfectly natural and effortless.” I have told that story to literally every person I have ever mentored and asked that they learn to live, think, and write by that code. If editing was critical for one of the greatest “natural” performers to walk the earth, then it should be good enough for us all when it comes to this non-natural talent we call analytical writing.
And so there we are: five little rules, that, when approached seriously, are not always so easy to honor and achieve. But if you do honor them, your analyses will benefit beyond measure. And consequently, we all will benefit from reading them.