On Genre Expectations in (Military) Writing

I have a few writing projects in the chute right now. One I thought I was done with came back to me sometime last week from the editor of the Marine Corps’ professional journal.

“The Editor would like to include your article in an Irregular Warfare writing contest,” the administrative assistant said in her email.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this at first. Does this mean, ‘we thought it was so great we wanted to put it in a competition,’ or ‘we thought it was not a fit for publication and have funneled it into one of several writing competition currently running.’ I still don’t know which it is, but I do know that Team Chief (my co-writer) and I are way below the minimum word count for this contest. And since there’s a cash prize involved (!) it’s time to revisit the original manuscript.

Writing a case study for a professional journal is different from writing a book review, which is different from writing a news article, which is different from writing this blog post. All of the aforementioned are non-fiction, by the way. The main reason each is different is genre expectations. Back in grade school we learned what’s inside the big genre buckets. In the fiction bucket you’d find novels, poetry, short stories, etc., and in the non-fiction bucket you’d find persuasive essays, memoirs, etc. Because writing has become so prolific, each item inside those buckets break down further to a more and more specific type of writing, a more specific genre. And because it’s likely we’ve been exposed to this specific genre before, we have expectations when we sit down to read something.

A writer is wise to consider the expectations of his genre. But what to do when the genre is hard to read? What to do when the expectation is clunky, self-important writing? You find this a lot in academic writing. You also find this in military writing. In fact, I have taken text from two military articles, and one technology review article and put them through the Hemingway Editor. I will write separately on the Hemingway Editor. While it’s not a perfect application, the algorithm is fine-tuned to highlight passive-voice, adverbs, and very hard to read sentences. I was not surprised to find that in both military articles the application highlighted more than half the text as very hard to read with a “poor” readability score, while the technology review came in with a readability score of “okay.”

In the U.S. military at least, we have become accustomed to writing in a way that is difficult to read. We use long sentences with multiple clauses. We love adverbs. It’s good to keep this in mind so that during this re-write Team Chief and I don’t let words like “significant” pepper our manuscript. While it’s good to keep to the norms of your genre, it’s good when language doesn’t get in the way of people absorbing the ideas you’re trying to communicate.