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Developing Writing Skills

Basics

  • Use short words whenever possible, and avoid Latin-root words. English sounds best when you use Anglo-Saxon origin words.
  • Avoid the passive voice. It is convoluted, sounds stilted, and obscures your meaning.
  • Whenever elegant, use the apostrophe-s possessive rather than the “of the” prepositional construction.
  • Write clear sentences. If you cannot avoid writing a long sentence, follow it with a short one to give the reader a rest.
  • Do not repeat a word in the same sentence. Better yet, do not repeat it in the same paragraph. Ideally, just don’t repeat it in the article at all. Repetition should be used only when there is a compelling reason to do so (as in this case), or when quoting someone else, such as,

    As Michael walked along the lake, he heard a splash. Immediately, Help, help! cried a voice, loudly and with a tinge of panic. As he scanned the water in the direction of the sound, he saw splashing about, some 300 feet from the shore. The victim seemed to be in distress. Michael was puzzled, since he couldn’t see any vessel: where had that man fallen from?

  • When quoting, it is permissible to use the quoted person’s own words, even if ungrammatical, within the boundaries of taste. But the sentence leading up to the quote, and whatever explanation or parenthetical comments follow it are your own words and need to be in correct grammatical form.
  • Keep your verbs in harmony and synch. If you are not comfortable with complicated verb tenses, write the article in the present tense or the simple past. Do not write an entire section (or worse yet an article or essay) in the present participle; if you do, you’ll probably lose your reader by the second or third sentence. If nothing else, it’s boring.
  • Avoid slang at all costs. What makes sense to you locally might have quite a different meaning elsewhere (and, at times, it could be objectionable).
    Paragraph your writing, keeping a thought to a paragraph. But only in rare cases should you have a paragraph that has a single sentence. (An exception is when after a long paragraph you draw come conclusion and state it succintly by itself. However, this might not be work in Associated Press Style, where you are not allowed to express opinion.)
  • English derives its grammar from German, which in turn got it from Latin. This grammatical tradition gave us prepositions and rules for what must follow them. In general, prepositions must be followed by either a direct object (accusative) or indirect object (dative). This comes into play big time when using personal pronouns, such as: he (nominative), him (accusative), to him (dative), or his (genitive). It works with “who” and others as well. Using the wrong personal pronoun is a very common grammatical error.
  • A verb following the preposition “if” must be in the subjunctive mood. One commonly hears or reads, “If I am ready to go…” when that sentence fragment should have read, “If I were ready to go…” (Remember “The Fiddler on the Roof,” who sang, “If I were a rich man, …” – and he was right.)
Writing for CAP

  • There is no better training than hands-on, up-to-your-eyebrows commitment to an article. Do your best and send it up the PA chain for editing. When you get it back, read it carefully and compare it with your original submission. Your Higher HQ PAO will probably have published articles up to and including national publications, so you’re likely to get good advice.
Writing Style

  • Get a copy of The Associated Press Stylebook. It’s more of a specialized dictionary than a book, but its aim is to codify how things are written or said. Be warned: it falls off on military ranks, and things military in general, since it was written by civilians who wanted to generalize. It is a valuable resource book because most newspaper editors adhere to it, so if your article is written in that style, it’ll stand a better chance of getting published. www.ap.org *
  • Download a copy of the Air University Style and Author Guide.* There is much good advice here.
  • Get your own copy of The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White. This short and wonderful little book will serve you well for a lifetime.
  • Get a good English Grammar book. Read it, study it, understand it, and practice it.
  • When reading the work of good authors, read for form as well as content. Writing is a craft: the more you practice it, the better you should get at it. However, that alone won’t do the trick, as you also need to have something to say. Here is a very short list of your Region DPA’s favorite authors (and recommended works):
    • George Orwell – “Animal Farm” (Great writing bordering on satire and political criticism – it’s online *)
    • George Orwell – “Shooting an Elephant” (A short essay – cameo drama wrapped in indifference and guilt – it’s online *)
    • Ursula K. Leguin – “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (a narrative of ethical dilemma, pity and sympathy – it’s online *)
    • Ayn Rand – “Anthem” (A journey of discovery and enlightenment – it’s online *)
    • R.D. Laing – “Knots” (An interesting journey of the mind that became a best-seller – it’s online *)
    • Oscar Wilde “The Nightingale and the Rose” (And other short stories. This one portrays dramatic altruism in a world of selfish carelessness and is largely allegorical – this one and more are online *)

    • Ernest Hemmingway – “The Old Man and the Sea” (A mature study of human nature and the best book he ever wrote. It makes his previous works seem childish by comparison.)
    • Martin Buber “I and Thou” (An existential / theological short essay. Should you read it yearly over the next 20 years or so, you’ll find something new in it every time. Get the Walter Kaufman translation!)
Drama

“Drama cannot exist unless there is at least the possibility of death,” postulated Federico García Lorca, noted Spanish dramatist and poet. Neither can drama exist unless at least one person is in great danger.

In CAP, especially in emergency services and disaster relief, we may face drama both as observers and as a personal tragedy. Also, there are non-fatal conditions that could qualify as devastating (such as losing one’s credit and good name, and thus becoming unemployable).

Reporting drama effectively in Associted Press Style is a challenge.

PAO Seminars & Workshops

  • There will be PAO training opportunities throughout Southwest Region. Attend as many of them as you can, and take along your questions and experience.
  • LESA,* a Southwest Region activity that is run by Texas Wing, normally offers Basic and Advanced PAO/PIO training. Take it. This is a must for specialty track advancement and mission work.

Essential Publications

The Associated Press Stylebook (Buy this book. The media live by it.) www.ap.org *

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Last updated: 09/17/15

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