Professional writing is one of the most effective and far-reaching ways military members can lead. This idea has buy-in from the top: In 2016, then–Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson endorsed professional writing in his call to read and write.1 Still, many incredibly bright and talented sailors and Marines hesitate to enter this arena.
I have been fortunate to find resources and mentors who helped cultivate my own ability to write. Perhaps more important, other leaders inspired me to take the leap and submit my work for publication.2 With time, my pieces began to be published in several outlets, and, in turn, I found myself guiding other aspiring writers.
Often these discussions revolve around the craft of writing: how to order one’s thoughts, how to get published, and other mechanics. Yet, throughout these conversations, one theme remains dominant, and it is the one least represented in the literature on the subject: fear.
Fearing to Write
Fear of writing may seem out of place in military professionals. Courage is a core value of both the Navy and Marine Corps. Surely, putting pen to paper pales in comparison to the trials of combat and the dangers of realistic training. Those capable of the latter should have no problem attempting the former . . . right?
Unfortunately, this is not the case. The fear of writing is based on legitimate concerns that, left unaddressed, will prevent a host of potential writers from bringing what might be game-changing insights into the professional discourse. They are fears I have had myself and are rooted in risks I still face with every new writing endeavor: Fear of rejection, by both the publication and the intended audience. Fear of a tarnished reputation if the idea is received poorly. Fear of being silenced by senior leaders who may disagree with the ideas presented, perhaps even culminating in some kind of reprisal.
I hope by sharing my own encounters with these fears, I can help mitigate them and encourage potential authors to respond positively to the call to write.
• By Publishers. Anticipate rejection and accept it as a natural part of the route to publication. Rejection can and will happen. Perhaps you are still learning to write effectively. Or you have written a great article, but it is not the right fit for the publication. The publication may not have the bandwidth for your piece at the moment. The reasons are many and varied, but everyone has their writing rejected, even established authors.3 Don’t sweat it. While my publications to date are in the double digits, my rejections are in the triple digits.
Regardless of rejection, if you believe in your idea, don’t abandon it. You may be able to tailor your article and submit it elsewhere. Over time, current events could make a previously rejected piece suddenly relevant and, with some updating, in demand. I have had to pivot multiple times, and articles that were rejected eventually found homes. I had an article that was rejected by one service’s professional journal win an essay contest in another. Be willing to flex.
• By Readers. Reading the comments and feedback on professional articles, especially on social media, can be sobering. Those who comment anonymously often are unimpeded by normal etiquette and can be quite ruthless. Your rank will not protect you, and authors expecting the same courteous interactions they enjoy in the daily military setting can expect a rude awakening.
While this may be eye opening for a new writer, it is an unfortunate reality in online settings.4 The most flippant and offensive comments are not fruitful, nor are they intended to be. You are not obligated to respond, and you should not. Don’t feed the trolls.
There also will be voices who will strongly disagree with your ideas and offer numerous and detailed counterpoints. Such disagreement may come on social media, to your official email account, as phone calls to your office, or in person. Remember, your contact information is easily accessible by other military members. And if your idea cuts against the accepted wisdom within your own occupational field, it might feel like your workplace has turned into a debate club.
Don’t just expect such interactions, embrace them as part of the discourse! This is one of the key reasons you wrote—to generate discussion! Learn to separate readers who are attacking you personally from those who are critiquing your ideas. Don’t infer hostility that doesn’t exist, and remember it is difficult to read tone in an email. This is an opportunity to elaborate and collaborate.
Some interactions may even result in unexpected alliances. I have had many engagements that began as seemingly outright rejection of my ideas that turned into partnerships through which I found even greater advocacy. One article that initially had my leaders questioning my judgment, through discussion, turned into an endorsement and an opportunity to present a class on the subject to all the officers in the organization. Engagement is opportunity.
Fear for Reputation
Another concern is one’s reputation. There is no undo button once something makes it to print, and publishing online is forever—the internet never forgets. What you publish today will follow you throughout your career, and, over time, new information, technologies, and societal changes might invalidate your ideas. Why write when you might be retroactively tarnished?
Most writing isn’t timeless, nor should it be. New information naturally yields new insights and conclusions. Literature builds on what has come before, incorporating new revelations. I do much of the research for my own writing by reading as much as I can that has already been written on the subject in Proceedings and other relevant journals. Referencing this earlier work in light of new developments does not invalidate it or impugn the author, but rather honors the author for his or her previous contribution; my work would have been impossible without it. I have found my writing cited in other articles, sometimes as support, other times as a set up for critique. Both instances are fruitful! Be a part of this tradition, knowing that even your best work likely will become obsolete in time.
Fear of Suppression and Reprisal
In his call to write, Admiral Richardson noted, “Senior leaders must not confuse respectful debate with disloyalty. Sometimes the junior person in the conversation may have the best idea. Everybody likes out-of-the-box thinkers, until that person challenges their program. . . . But if we act to squelch that voice, it only takes one time to kill the entire climate of debate.”5 Such a warning would not be required if the implied dangers did not exist.
The danger of reprisal, while it may be becoming less common, still exists, and I have experienced it myself. In one instance, a senior officer who disagreed with my views invited me to his office to explain how misinformed I was. This was followed by a claim that I was attempting to represent the command’s flag officer by discussing the subject of my article in a professional military education outlet. In addition, I was told I had erred in failing to consult with my command’s public affairs office to receive its blessing to publish. This was far from a misguided attempt at mentor-ing; the same officer carbon copied my reviewing officer on the associated correspondence. While no one explicitly ordered me not to write or speak on these subjects, such allegations from a senior officer who had pull with my evaluator sent a clear message: Shut up and get back in your box.
While such encounters are rare, writers must be prepared for them. Knowledge, professionalism, and transparency with your supervisors are your best defenses. Know the relevant policies and how to represent your ideas as your own.6 Be as professional as possible when corresponding with such individuals and avoid becoming defensive or adversarial in turn. Finally, share these occurrences with your supervisor. Demonstrate your knowledge and compliance with policies, giving your supervisor the confidence to back you up if push comes to shove.
Dare to Write!
Every uniformed leader has lessons learned and bold ideas that should be shared among their fellow practitioners, and professional writing is one of the most effective ways to do this. What many of us lack are ways to help deal with the risks of writing—perceived
Ultimately, remember why you thought to write in the first place: You perceived a problem and wanted to offer a potential solution. No matter how brilliant that solution is, it will be wasted if it isn’t shared with those who can implement it. We owe our insights to our brothers and sisters in arms, to our Navy and Marine Corps, and to our nation. Dare to lead by daring to write.
1. ADM John Richardson and LT Ashley O’Keefe, USN, “Read. Write. Fight.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 142, no. 6 (June 2016).
2. CDR Benjamin Armstrong, USN, “Charting a Course for Our Professional Writing,” Modern War Institute, August 2016.
3. Sophie Mackintosh, “Rejection Is the Norm for Authors. So Why Do We Hide It?” The Guardian, 26 August 2019.
4. John Sure, “The Online Disinhibition Effect,” Cyber Psychology & Behavior 7, no. 3 (July 2004): 321–26.
5. Richardson and O’Keefe, “Read. Write. Fight.”
6. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Department of Defense Directive 5500.7-R, “Standards of Conduct” (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2011), 20.