Hallelujah! The Enlisted Essay Contest has returned after a long absence, and it attracted a huge and diverse group of writers. Each submission was judged on its own merits without the author’s identity being known, but some factors were obvious: Essays were submitted by professionals from each of the Sea Services, both genders, and with military service from several months to more than two decades.
Other facts were also clear: These professionals are thinking about and want to solve issues, and they have courageously presented their ideas for potential publication before a mostly senior audience. The essays encompassed an array of topics, from consideration of a spouse’s career in military assignments to matching opportunities to service applicants’ and careerists’ unique talents; from mentoring young division chiefs and officers to new approaches toward dependent care; from strategies for selecting officers to novel ways of uncovering command weaknesses.
All told, more than 80 aspiring writers participated. Prizes were limited to the three best essays but more than that were worthy of publication. To assist the writers who did not win and others who will enter future contests, I offer some observations and tips.
Do not submit unedited college research papers. They are a great starting point but are vastly different from a magazine article and are not well suited for this forum. The time taken to rewrite the paper as an article will be well invested.
Pay attention to word limits. If your first draft is too long, set it aside for a few hours or even a day. When you return to it, identify sentences, passages, or whole paragraphs that are not vital to the background or do not strengthen your argument. Review it again and edit individual sentences for length while maintaining the intended flow. If a shorter sentence conveys the same meaning, use it. Short sentences often have the greatest impact. Deleting your own thoughts is never easy, but editing for length while maintaining your argument and tone is a great writing lesson.
Avoid complex sentence structures and obscure vocabulary. Write as you would speak, respect your readers’ time, and direct your article to all academic levels. Uncommon vocabulary and complex structures tend to make reading cumbersome; avoid this.
Stick to a single argument and present it early and clearly. Include multiple recommendations when appropriate, but tie each one logically to the central argument.
Do not rely too heavily on long quotes. Synthesize others’ statements and use them to clarify the background or support your argument. You are writing as an authority on your chosen topic. The opinions of others should support your argument, not be your argument.
Write passionately, even angrily, but edit unemotionally. Passion yields compelling articles, but anger comes through in the written word. Know where to draw the line.
Proofread, proofread, and proofread again. Misspellings and grammar mistakes distract readers and weaken your message. Writers know what the words should be and easily read past errors. Print your essay and review the hard copy; you will be surprised how the change in format makes errors more obvious. Correct errors and present the essay to a proofreader. Do not submit an essay without at least one other person reviewing it first. When possible, have someone unfamiliar with your topic conduct the review. When they understand your message, you have achieved clarity.
For those who did not participate, do not let a lack of confidence prevent you from submitting an essay, with or without a contest. No particular writing style guarantees success. Differences in style and tone keep the magazine interesting. With a little diligence, a solid argument will win the day. Remember, every magazine receives more good articles than can be published; do not be discouraged by initial rejection.
Congratulations to the participants, the Naval Institute, and Textron Systems, the corporate sponsor. The contest allowed many leaders to share their ideas and identified contributors to important debates. Each participant dared to think, read, and write. Most important, they had the courage to submit their work. Authors like these are the future of our publications. Congratulations to the award winners—and welcome to the debate.