learning with professionals - Higgins Counterterrorism Research ...


learning with professionals - Higgins Counterterrorism Research ...

Precision. Precision is a cornerstone of the intelligence profession. The term itself is

synonymous with exactness. Mark Twain said: “The difference between the right word

and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Say precisely what you mean. Go for the lightning. Don’t use the all-too-familiar “weasel

words” that disguise your intent.

If you’re writing about the FIZZLE fighter, and no one in the Intelligence Community

has any idea of the aircraft’s combat radius, don’t write: “The FIZZLE is believed to have

a substantial combat radius.” What in the wide world of wonder does that mean? (Yet

you’ve seen intelligence writing like that, haven’t you?) Instead, make a positive and precise

statement for your reader: “The combat radius of the FIZZLE is unknown.” Is it such

a sin to admit an intelligence gap? Not at all. The most serious intelligence gap we have is

the space between analysts’ ears when they try to cover up a dearth of knowledge by

“writing around it.” By admitting the unknown, you may get someone’s attention and initiate

some seriously needed collection action.

Students have unwittingly provided scores of examples of imprecise writing. Four are

shown below.

One student wrote of the importance of geographic intelligence to a commander in the

field, saying that “it must keep the commander abreast of weather and climatic conditions

which can change drastically within a few minutes.” (We’ve all seen wide swings in

weather, but climate takes more than a few minutes to change.)

“The Soviets rely on their command structure for strict control of their aircraft and

SAMs. This is implemented by communications activity.” (What is implemented? “Command,”

“control,” or “aircraft and SAMs”? By what kind of communications activity?

Introducing a sentence with the word “this” is an invitation to imprecision. Watch out,

too, for other vague openings like “there is” or “it is.”)

“Political power is one of eight components of strategic intelligence used to quantify

aspects of foreign governments.” (Have you ever tried to quantify an aspect? What is this

writer trying to say?)

“Barron contends that the Soviets realize the value of even uncontrolable [sic] terrorist

groups and is offering clandestine aid.” (Besides the uncontrolable speling, this student

implies that author John Barron is offering aid to terrorists!)

Mechanical correctness. The final touch a good writer adds to ensure readability is a

check for mechanical correctness. Proofreading and editing involve more than “dotting i’s

and crossing t’s.” Proofread for correctness and edit for style. Go back over your paper

from top to bottom for misspellings, errors in punctuation, agreement of subject and verb,

and other common errors. If you have trouble detecting spelling errors in your own writing,

welcome to the club! Most people tend too overlook there own misteaks. (Yes, I did

that on purpose.) If you belong to that Misstep Majority, try proofing your paper by reading

backwards. By scanning words out of context, your mind will catch more mistakes. It

really does work. A good alternative, of course, is to have someone else proofread your


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