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Learn from the CIA: Writing is a Critical Skill for all Careers

Learn from the CIA: Writing is a Critical Skill for all Careers


blind-copy-emailBy Leischen Stelter
Editor of In Public Safety

When you apply for a job, what’s the skill most commonly listed in the job description? Communication. Employers, in all fields, seek professionals who can effectively communicate, specifically through writing. Regardless of what field you work in, improving your writing skills can give you a better shot at landing that next job.

While all employers seek strong communication and writing skills, there are some fields that require employees to be excellent writers. For example, to work as an intelligence analyst you must prove you can write succinctly and effectively and do so under strict deadlines and high-pressure situations.

I recently spoke with David Cariens, a 31-year career CIA officer, who has made it has career to help other intelligence analysts improve their writing skills.

“Quite frankly, if you can’t write and you can’t master the specific style of intelligence writing, you do not have a career at the CIA,” said Cariens. He spent the majority of his career as a political analyst specializing in Eastern European affairs. He wrote for all levels of the U.S. government, from the President to policymakers.

The CIA gives new hires 18 to 24 months to become standalone analysts and, if they cannot meet stringent writing standards within that time period, the CIA helps them find work elsewhere. At one point, the CIA was losing nearly 60 percent of its analysts in the first 24 months. That was when CIA leadership approached Cariens and asked him and another analyst to develop and teach an intense writing program for at-risk analysts.

This intense writing course was limited to six analysts. Cariens, who is retired but remains a consultant with the CIA, said the program was highly successful and helped save 90 percent of analysts enrolled in the course.

“Many of them just needed that extra help and attention,” he said. “And, in many cases, they needed to be retaught how to write.”

How to Master Writing

Surprisingly, one of the biggest hurdles to mastering intelligence writing is untraining analysts from academic writing styles and retraining them in the intel style. “Academic writing helped get an individual a degree and that degree shows certain mastery skills, but it often encourages a verbose writing style,” explained Cariens.

For example, intel writing eliminates almost all adjectives and does not include nuance or innuendo phrases. “It is a basic, clear, and concise form of writing, which often runs counter to all the writing that a student has done to this point,” he said.

Vocabulary and sentence structure usage are also very different in intel writing. “Intel documents must be written for the specialist and the generalist, so intel writing relies on using the basic aspects of the English language.”

One of the greatest challenges for intel analysts is to take a highly complex situation—of which they only have fragmentary evidence—read it, analyze it, and write it in a way that does not lose the complexity of the situation, nor presents information above the head of the generalist.

Those in other fields can learn a lot from the intel style of writing. It is always important to be succinct and clear in your writing and to eliminate any “fluff.” Do not try to dress up your writing with lots of adjectives or try to use complicated language to express the concept. Rather, work to make your writing as readable and clear as possible.

[Related: Writing for Readability]

Let Go of Your Ego

When it comes to improving your writing, it is critical to let go of your ego. When you ask for feedback on your writing skills, there will be things that will need to be eliminated or changed. Don’t take this feedback personally or be offended by constructive criticism—you will never become a better writer unless you know the areas you need to improve.

Letting go of one’s ego is absolutely critical for analysts who must be very accepting of editorial feedback, said Cariens. “Some people take editorial comments as a personal attack on them, which is not true,” he said. “For me, the sign of a good writer is someone who is open and willing to accept editorial feedback.”

[Related: You’re Not Fooling Anyone: A Lesson in Resume Writing]

How to Improve Your Own Writing

So how can you improve your writing skills?

Cariens recommends students read a lot of news articles and pay attention to the journalism style of writing. In his experience, people with journalism training are best able to adapt to the intel style of writing. “The journalist style can capture a lot of information in a few sentences,” he said. “Paragraphs are ordered by most important information first followed by supporting sentences.”

Individuals seeking careers in other fields can learn a lot from these strategies to improve intel analysts’ writing. Learning to write succinctly, using as few words as possible, can help others quickly comprehend the message being communicated. Always remember that it takes practice to be a good writer. Take every opportunity you can to write and then be sure to ask for feedback from supervisors and colleagues. Improving your writing skills can only help you become a better employee and help you move up in your career.



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