What the CIA style manual can teach you about writing

A symbol of strong prose - the CIA's seal in the lobby of the main building
Be frugal with adjectives – nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting.
Spies aren’t exactly known for their literary exploits. But, as in business, intelligence work requires a precise, lucid writing style that can easily be ruined by failing to adhere to a few critical rules. And sloppy writing can be costly. Communications consultancy PowerSuasion reviewed nearly 3,000 emails at a large US company, and found that 15 per cent lacked a main idea or clear instruction for the reader, while 16 per cent had to be re-worked to make sense. It put the cost of poor communication at up to $12,600 (£7,365) per employee per year.
It’s no surprise then that the US Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) style manual (recently shared online) displays a near-obsessive focus on precision: “Good intelligence depends in large measure on clear, concise writing. The information the CIA gathers and the analysis it produces mean little if we cannot convey them effectively.” The guide is packed with tips to make your prose as “crisp and pungent” as possible. Here are a few highlights from the 190-page book.

ALWAYS USE THE ACTIVE TENSE

After roughly 150 pages of rules on numbers and punctuation, the guide moves onto some “helpful precepts” for clear writing. Chief among them is to reject the passive tense wherever possible: “Favour the active voice and shun streams of polysyllables and prepositional phrases,” it says.
It’s not unique to the CIA style guide, but important nonetheless. At the heart of every good sentence is a strong verb, willing the reader onwards to your conclusion. Weak, passive verbs are a quick way to turn your report or business presentation into a snoozefest. Instead of: “it is shown in our market research that Birmingham would be a good location”, say: “our market research shows that Birmingham would be a good location.”

SHUN ADJECTIVES AND ADVERBS

Descriptive words may be indispensable to poets, but they’re largely redundant in business and intelligence work. “Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power,” urges the CIA guide. Frankly, no one cares if you think the performance of a stock is “surprising”, or came about “suddenly”. Such phrases only serve to smuggle your own biases in, with nouns, verbs and figures carrying the real meaning.

SHORT, VARIED SENTENCES

It’s extremely difficult to hold a reader’s concentration across more than three clauses, and precise writing should minimise sentence length accordingly. But the CIA guide also recommends chopping and changing where possible: “Keep sentences and paragraphs short, and vary the structure of both.”
If you maintain the same sentence structure across a whole paragraph, it’ll sound extremely mechanical. Try following longer, descriptive sentences with a neat, punchy one. This should keep the audience or reader on their toes, and also help to drive home your point.

Write well on the move
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An increasing number of people seem to have changed their smartphone email sign-offs to something like: “written on my iPhone, excuse the typos.” Ginger Software aims to make this a thing of the past. This app uses complex algorithms to proofread or translate text, making suggestions on how to phrase things in a clearer way. It’s almost a beefed-up version of the spell checker on most desktop word processing programmes. Simply input the text with Ginger, and then copy and paste into an email.

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