Writing: A universal skill for your post-military career

Writing well can make you a leader within your civilian organization, a critical thinker and an employee worth further development

Writing: A universal skill for your post-military career


By Pfc. Jim Lint

Writing for diverse audiences is a universal skill that takes practice, practice, practice. As you transition from military service to the civilian workforce, you need to adapt your writing style to the needs of your employer and the intended audience. 

Intelligence and law enforcement writing 

Have you ever seen a James Bond movie in which he writes a report or summarizes any mission he’s completed? Of course not. Bond is not in the espionage business to convey information, but to take action.

Unlike Bond, intelligence agents and analysts must write reports with clarity and conciseness. In the intelligence field, national decision makers must quickly understand this type of writing and act on the information provided in intelligence documents.

Similarly, law enforcement officials and counterintelligence agents must be able to write their reports clearly because these documents can be used in court or to provide insight to intelligence analysts. Clarity is especially important when incidents that take place in one country must be reported and translated into the language of another country.

Management writing

If you become a manager for a civilian organization, you will have to write business performance and personnel action assessments. As most managers learn, when it comes to employee discipline or termination, a strong written history of the employee’s problems provides a human resources department with written proof of wrongdoing. Without this proof, personnel actions are somewhat limited.

If a manager does not take the time to document each employee incident in writing, incidents of wrongdoing can be dismissed as unimportant or non-existent. For dutiful managers, it is critical that documenting all employee incidents becomes second nature at all times.

On the flip side of personnel management, managers and supervisors must also think about writing award justifications. They need to acknowledge when and how employees perform beyond their job descriptions.

Managers must make time to distribute awards because they inspire all employees to pursue excellence. Managers who fail to acknowledge the positive performances of their employees might discover their high-performing employees looking elsewhere for employment.

Business writing

In management and business, staffing actions from one level to another must be through the written word. Actions must be conveyed in a manner that gets across a specific point.

Managers should develop good writing skills because communication is a key skillset for all supervisors. 

There is a school of thought that says the more information that is written down, the better the document. In other words, the weight of the document reflects how hard you worked on it.

This philosophy of many words on many pages might be fine for middle-level analysts writing assessments that need to include all aspects of the topic. However, a gigantic document with many pages is not useful for an executive-level manager who has 20 other projects to read and respond to in the same day.

Senior leaders in the civilian world need concise, well-written executive summaries. These summaries must be to the point, incorporating a well-designed synopsis that quickly transmits the main points contained in the body of the document. Well-written executive summaries save time, especially in situations with minimal turnaround time for action.

Writing for internal job openings

Suppose there is an opening in the department of your civilian organization and there are two equally qualified candidates. But one applicant has a history of writing for various publications within the industry or as a representative of his employer.

The applicant with the greater writing experience will often win the job because that applicant already has displayed a capability to write clearly and concisely. That applicant’s published work serves as proof of his or her competence.

Employers seek capable candidates who are excellent communicators by asking them about their education. A university degree suggests that a candidate already has some proficiency as a writer. In addition, college is a great place to improve your writing without prospective employers seeing your mistakes.

Potential employees should have a writing track record

In addition to a degree, civilian job candidates are often asked for writing samples or to talk about writing projects they have successfully completed. In this era of the Internet, employers often do a search to find any writing you have posted on the Web. Finding some of your work online can be a decisive factor when the employer chooses which candidate to hire. 

Whether or not we can write well and clearly express our intentions, we can often get bogged down trying to write office memos, emails and daily reports. The biggest asset an employee can possess is the ability to accurately an efficiently proofread his or her work, considering the needs of the intended audience.

Employers tend to subconsciously evaluate an employee’s worth by how that employee writes emails, report analyses, or executive summaries. Sadly, many employees are not given the tools to improve their writing for a variety of reasons:

1. An employer might expect employees to be proficient writers without actually assisting in their on-the-job writing development.

2. Some employees might never have received effective or appropriate critiques regarding their writing abilities. Without feedback, they are left to presume that their written documents are fine as submitted. Employers don’t provide that feedback because they are too busy with other issues.

3. Employees often are involved in job-related tasks, leaving little time to focus on improving their writing, proofreading and editing skills. Many employers and employees are pressured by job-related deadlines, which further minimize their time to perfect their writing abilities.

Why is writing so important?

There are people who debunk the notion that writing well is important. They think writing comes naturally and that readers will automatically understand what’s on the printed page.

That is not true. If you cannot express yourself clearly, your reader will not understand you. Writing well is a fundamentally important aspect of almost every career.

In the civilian workplace, good writing might even get you a pay increase. Your employer will want to know the “whys” and “what-fors” in your request. Your case will be stronger if you provide clearly written documentation why you deserve a raise. Writing accurately and concisely – and including specific, logical examples of why you merit a salary increase – will support your request.

To improve your writing skills after you are hired by a civilian company, consider contributing to your company’s magazine or newsletter. It’s an opportunity to practice your writing and also to demonstrate your commitment to the organization.

Finally, writing to communicate to outside stakeholders further highlights to your colleagues that you can clearly express your organization’s position in the marketplace. This practice also will gain external exposure for you and your career.

Places to hone your writing 

There are many opportunities for practicing and publishing your writing. American Military University (http://rly.pt/2py6rNd) offers more than 200 programs, including traditional English and communications degrees and certificates. However, writing skills are honed as a central component to AMU’s general studies, entrepreneurship, management, and especially the intelligence studies programs. The online learning environment facilitates continual improvement of your writing skills. 

If you regularly read specific publications in your industry, consider sending query emails or letters to the editors of those publications. Suggest a topic (or several) that you would like to write for them. If all goes well, you might even raise the possibility of becoming a regular contributor.

University alumni organizations often turn to their graduates to write for their publications. This might be an easy place to start your writing career even if you do not receive a writer’s fee.

There are also venues for self-publishing, but you are responsible for writing and correcting your own work to maintain your credibility to readers. Many self-publishing services seek controversial content, which is often designed to gain attention for the author. Some services seek content that encourages search engine optimization (SEO) and clicks from readers to show how many readers visit the site. The biggest and most respectable sites are WordPress, Blogger and Medium.

Being ready to write

It’s challenging to face the hurdles of returning to the civilian workforce. But, as in the military, it’s a task that can be done successfully with proper planning and the right support.

Writing well can make you a leader within your civilian organization, a critical thinker, an employee worth further development, and an overall asset to the company’s bottom line. Isn’t this the type of employee you’re striving to be?

Co-authored by Dr. Doris Blanton, a faculty director and full-time professor in the School of Business at American Public University.