Writing for the CIA, or for Me

Good writing is important. I tell my students that. When I find senior people in prominent organizations delivering the same message, I am pleased. I don’t need convincing or reminding about the importance of good writing, but I think that some of my students do. So I find this quote useful and pleasing.

The information [our organization] gathers, and the analysis it produces, mean little if we cannot convey them effectively… [Our organization has always] been home… to people who enjoy writing and excel at it.

As you might have guessed from the title of this post, the organization is the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Had the post title not given it away, you might have guessed that the organization was in the business of market research, or of consulting.

The quote is from the Foreword to a document that I’ll call the CIA Style Manual (follow the link for a PDF of the document, including its full title). The Foreword, written by CIA Director of Intelligence Fran Moore, is refreshingly concise, comprising just four short paragraphs.

Based on what I’ve read, or seen quoted elsewhere, the Manual provides some very good advice on informative and analytical writing. Here are a few more quotes.

  • Keep the language crisp and pungent; prefer the forthright to the pompous and ornate.
  • Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power.
  • Be aware of your reading audience; reserve technical language for technical readers.

Given that it recommends that language be “crisp” and “frugal”, the CIA Style Manual seems rather long: it runs to 190 pages. A glance at the Contents shows that many of those pages provide guidance on things that most of us never have to be concerned about, such as capitalization while writing about “Top Officials of First-Order Subnational Administrative Divisions”.

Many other pages of the Manual provide rhetorical rules. Here is just one particular persuasive tactic: regime “has a disparaging connotation and should not be used when referring to governments friendly to the United States.” Open Culture deploys opposing rhetoric, describing the CIA as “fiendishly good at manipulating language.”

The emphasis on rhetoric provides an additional reason to study the Manual. This reason may be even stronger for those who disapprove of the CIA’s activities than it is for those who approve. Whatever the argument, whatever side we are on, we should all seek to understand and anticipate the rhetorical devices used by the opposing side(s).

The students to whom I referred in the first paragraph are in a highly-rated MBA program. (Hello, students, and no you don’t get extra credit for having read this far.) They are, in my courses, students of communication (as well as of Strategic Management, or Organizational Behavior, of Business Ethics, or…). Here are my guidelines for written assignments the current semester; the assignments tend to be short (about three single-spaced pages), since I encourage conciseness.

We should all be lifelong students of communication, including writing. We can learn a lot–about clarity, about rhetoric, and about other aspects of writing–from the CIA Style Manual.