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More on the CIA School of Creative Writing

By Harriet Staff


There might as well just be an MFA program for this too, already. Hyperallergic reports that the CIA, like “any proper organization that produces large quantities of writing” “has a style manual.” According to Hyperallergic’s assessment, the style manual is a thought-provoking glimpse into the organization’s use of word-play, tone, and rhetoric to communicate clearly and effectively its perspectives.

The 2011 Style Manual & Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications runs nearly 200 pages. It covers everything you’d expect from a guide of its kind: capitalization, numbers, compound words, modifiers. In some ways, it’s a completely unexceptional document.

Yet, as you page through, little things start to emerge. For instance, consider the examples used to illustrate rules for capitalization of derivatives of proper names: “bohemian lifestyle,” “draconian measures,” and “molotov cocktail” but “Castroite sympathies,” “Islamization,” and “Morse code.” When discussing figures of 1,000 or more, the writers offer this sample sentence: “According to some sources, there were 1,076,245 US casualties in World War II.” As for whether you should translate titles of publications, well, an explanation is better, such as “People’s Daily, official organ of the Chinese Communist Party.” And consider this entry on the “Word Watchers List” (an alphabetized list of commonly confusing words, word types, and word problems):

regime: has a disparaging connotation and should not be used when referring to democratically elected governments or, generally, to governments friendly to the United States.

These details are amusingly sinister, but probably to be expected. (It is the CIA, after all.) What’s actually most interesting about the CIA Style Manual is its unwavering insistence on clarity. Fran Moore, Director of Intelligence, writes in the foreword:

Good intelligence depends in large measure on clear, concise writing. The information CIA gathers and the analysis it produces mean little if we cannot convey them effectively. The Directorate of Intelligence and the Agency as a whole have always understood that. Both have been home, from their earliest days, to people who enjoy writing and excel at it.

And she means it. Over the course of 185 pages, and especially in the “Word Watchers List,” the writers return over and over again to the importance of clear writing, imploring writers to avoid “fake analysis” (e.g. “it is not possible to predict”), “hackneyed phrases” (e.g. “hit the campaign trail”), and “verbal overkill” (e.g. “currently in progress”). […]

Learn more at Hyperallergic.

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, July 11th, 2014 by Harriet Staff.