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9 Things Bloggers Can (and Can’t) Learn from the Army

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

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. Adam says:

    Milibloggers, I never heard of this niche, but it does make sense..I wish that blogging had existed 25 years ago when I was a soldier. It would be great to look at my blogs from my time serviing the country.
    fyi your links to OnViolence are not working..

  2. Jami says:

    The link to “The Army writing guide” is broken.

  3. Josh Garcia says:

    Hey Michael,

    I like how you tied this with the Army. I was in the Army. They use tons of jargons.

    The one thing I like to add is take action regardless how you feel…Execute!

    Chat with you later…
    Josh

  4. Wow hey some times your own lingo is the way to go though. A tribe building sort of thing.

    Plus what about the “Be all you can Be” slogan the US has?

    Plus I agree with the bureaucracy statement I have also seen the outside thinking (which gets them into trouble) developed from the army.

  5. Gayle Pescud says:

    I worked with some West Point folks once and it taught me a lot about preconceived notions and the army. Great post and advice. Thank you.

  6. Great ideas about how to really “crisp” up a post.
    I
    like your jargon point. My wife is a nurse and when my daughter was in the hospital I would have to read my wifes blog posts to “dumb” them down and temper the medical jargon so grandparents could understand what was going on.

    On that blog I wrote to inform friends and family what was going on at the hospital and I had to run everything through the “is this understandable for Grandma” filter.
    Thanks for the good info
    -Justin

  7. Steven says:

    Very informative topic however as I read the introduction I was placed in a defense position when I read “The U.S. Army isn’t exactly known for its literary excellence”.

    While I did not server in the U.S. Army, I did serve 15 years in the U.S. Air Force and your statement comes across as a bit harsh when it comes to writing skills… Just my opinion.

  8. Eric C says:

    I’m Michael C’s co-blogger, and I wanted to repsond to some of the comments.

    @ Adam – I think blogs are a fantastic research for our Soldiers. I’m we could teach people about the niche.

    @ Josh – Nice anecdote. I’m happy our post seems to have resonated with past Soldiers.

    @ Darren – You’re right, it should be a rule as much as a guideline. BUt the bigger you want your tribe, the less specific you need your langauge to be.

    @ Justin – Thanks.

  9. i-Blogger says:

    Relating the army with blogging, that is honestly one thing that I have never seen done before. However, it was done beautifully! Great post Michael C. and thanks for posting it Darren.

    Brian M. Connole | i-Blogger
    http://www.i-blogger.info

  10. Michael C says:

    @Adam- Definitely check out the milblogging niche, its a place that is thriving but not many know about.

    For Adam and all others, the link to my site is http://www.onviolence.com, I’m working with Darren to get the link fixed.

    @Josh- Agree completely with action, action, action. We get distracted all the time, and sometimes putting your nose to the grindstone to get work done is all it takes.

    @Justin- Perfect story to illustrate the problems with overusing jargon. Thanks.

    @Steven- No offense was intended to the Armed Forces, especially since I am apart of it, it is just that as a group we really are not complimented much for our military abilities.

    @I-Blogger- Thanks for the compliment.

  11. Awesome says:

    The hyperlink for “on violence” is leading to your 404 page

  12. drt says:

    Cut, cut, cut! That’s exactly I’m doing right now with my draft. Love the ideas and am working hard to write mistake free posts.

  13. Dave Doolin says:

    Good writing is good writing, period.

    I suspect having bloggers posting from the front lines is going to change more than we can imagine… for the better.

  14. hmmm army and blogging, who would think you can bring those two together. You did it beautifully Michael!

  15. Angela says:

    Interesting post…never would have made the connection between blogging and the army! But it just goes to show you can make anything relevant if you really want to…

  16. Stilus says:

    This is a great post – I like the analogy of the army, as blogging takes a lot of discipline and hard work to get it up and running properly. I’m also going to check out the ‘avoiding e-mail addiction’ post…once I’ve checked all my accounts!

  17. One post a day keeps the doctor away!… That’s what you should write next Darren!…

    @asittingduck on Twitter if you want to quote me ;]

  18. Glen says:

    Thanks Micheal that was a great post!

    It was a very different post but I really liked it.

  19. Very helpful and useful article – especially 2 and 3: BLUF and clear + concise

    When I received professional writing training (and I could use some good refresher courses now, too), being clear and concise was one of the main points that was drilled into me over and over again. BLUF is an extension of that:

    *creating an accurately descriptive title
    *intro’ing the main point right away at the beginning of the article
    *reiterating the main point again in closing your article

  20. David says:

    Like it!

    it feels like “the art of war” by Sun Tzu :)

    thank you

  21. Sarah Baron says:

    Michael,
    Wonderful post. Well written, easy to read, and tough. I think I’m going to tack it to my bulletin board and salute you when I write. ;)

    Thanks,
    Sarah Baron

    PS As a mom, I want to thank you and your buddies for what you do for my children and me. Pass that word along, if you would. It’s appreciated!

    PSS Is the Art of War still considered mandatory reading for the military?

  22. Marcie Hill says:

    I like the comment that short and concise does not mean simple. I sometimes feel like I’m extreme with my sentences when there are points to be made. This give me comfort in knowing that I’m on point as long as I don’t overdo it.

  23. krissy knox says:

    Michael, What an excellent post. This was very timely for me, and will help me immensely. Such practical advice, yet often overlooked. I will print this out and post it by my computer. And I’m going to check into how to keep my emails under control. Email has become entirely too much a way of life. Thanks for all this info!

  24. Trace Mayer says:

    Michael, good job with blogging and joining the battlefield of ideas. I think blogging, transparency and discussion by the armed forces and those within them is a good thing as sunshine is the best disinfectant for nefarious behavior.

    “As a blogger, when your post is finished, ask yourself, what will my detractors say? What will they argue against me?”

    I find it interesting that the latest video released by Wikileaks has not been syndicated and discussed on many milblogs. I was wondering if you would comment and perhaps address it directly on your site On Violence.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rXPrfnU3G0

    The military said that standard engagement procedures were followed. During the encounter 10+ Iraqis and 2 Reuters journalists were terminated. After the initial assault which killed almost almost all the intended targets; one of the Reuters journalists was wounded, lying on the ground unable to flee and unarmed. As the video clearly shows, rather that capture and interrogate the suspected insurgent (the Reuters journalists camera was misidentified as an RPG) the Apache helicopter opened fire again and killed him.

    Is this standard operating procedure like the armed forces asserted? If so then are there encounters like this happening on a daily, weekly or monthly basis?

  25. Julius says:

    I like your point about keeping your writing concise and avoiding jargon. One way of keeping your writing concise is to read out what you typed. You may find that you could shorten your sentences if you tried reading them aloud.

  26. Eric C says:

    @ Trace – Please check out the milblog we referenced by Starbuck called wings over iraq. He is a pilot, and he covered the topic in depth.

  27. Beautiful Tips – I’ve been trying to figure out a new way to write that will make visitors of my blog more happy – I think you’ve done it, your really the “problogger”.

    Caleb

  28. Aaron B. says:

    I think you forgot a witty concept. Comparing the blogging art of military to milbloggers was a pretty smart concept. What caught my attention to read this blog was the concept of the do’s and don’t’s of military influenced blogging….smart.

    Aaron B.

  29. Gayle Pescud says:

    I meant to write (but got cut off while writing the other day) that this was one of the best items I’ve ever read about writing, anywhere. Excellent, to the point. My problem is waffle. I’ve striven to learn to cut it. I showed the post to several people I teach who have trouble with the same issue and also with organising their ideas in a logical manner and expressing them without using overly-complicated language, and they really appreciated it. Thanks again.

  30. extenze says:

    It is good to have the opportunity to read a good quality article with useful data on topics that plenty are interested on. The fact that the data indicated are all first hand on actual experiences even assist more. Continue doing what you do as we love reading your work.

  31. Alan says:

    Like it!

    it feels like “the art of war” by Sun Tzu :)

    thank you

  32. Joseph says:

    Very helpful and useful article – especially 2 and 3: BLUF and clear + concise

    When I received professional writing training (and I could use some good refresher courses now, too), being clear and concise was one of the main points that was drilled into me over and over again. BLUF is an extension of that:

    *creating an accurately descriptive title
    *intro’ing the main point right away at the beginning of the article
    *reiterating the main point again in closing your article

  33. Rolf Inniss says:

    been looking for a post like this all night to finish my work, cheers!