Editor’s note: Welcome to another installment of our weekly War Books series! The premise is simple and straightforward. We invite a participant to recommend five books and tell us what sets each one apart. War Books is a resource for MWI readers who want to learn more about important subjects related to modern war and are looking for books to add to their reading lists.
This week’s installment is inspired by the recently launched Harding Project, which aims to reinvigorate the Army’s professional journals and inspire a culture of writing within the service. MWI editorial director John Amble shares five reading recommendations that will help make you a better writer and enhance the contributions you can make through writing to the Army profession.
A month ago, three of the US Army’s most senior leaders issued a clarion call to the service’s men and women in uniform. General Randy George, the Army’s chief of staff, General Gary Brito, commanding general of Training and Doctrine Command, and Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Weimer described the need to strengthen the Army profession. Key to doing so, they argued, is “building expertise through written discourse.”
Their message is clear: the Army needs leaders at all levels to share their ideas. “We know those ideas are out there,” they wrote. “We see them every time we talk with soldiers, whether at home station, at the combat training centers, or on deployment.” It is a professional service—even a professional obligation—then, to write. Have an idea about the specific capabilities that will be required on the future battlefield? Put pen to paper. Have thoughts about the future of your branch? Share them. Want to engage with doctrinal concepts and explore how they should be implemented by your unit? Start typing.
Of course, writing for publication is a new experience for many, one that can be intimidating. But it doesn’t have to be. Professional writing is a journey. The first steps don’t need to be perfect—they just need to be in the right direction. The following books and other resources will help you make sure that they are.
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser
If I could only include one book on this list, Zinsser’s volume would be it. Its advice is simple and straightforward, and it identifies key principles that will improve your writing, no matter the subject. I’ve had my copy for fifteen years, it’s full of underlined sections and notes in the margins, and it is the book I most frequently take off my shelves—by a mile. If you read it and follow its guidance, your writing will become crisper, smoother, and ultimately more impactful.
Working, by Robert Caro
Caro is best known for his biographies of Robert Moses (1,344 pages) and Lyndon Johnson (four volumes, with a fifth yet to be released). The length of his works is matched by his remarkable economy of words—over thousands of pages, a reader is hard-pressed to find anything superfluous. In his writing there is craftsmanship, honed by practice and a commitment to the work. There are shortcuts available to writers, but the best writing doesn’t take them. This book will inspire you to produce your best.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
This is another classic in the how-to-write genre. King is, of course, best known as a fiction writer, but there’s no reason you can’t learn lessons on nonfiction writing from a novelist. In fact, you should look for lessons there. Like fiction, nonfiction writing should also tell a story. It should create a narrative thread that carries the analysis or argument through to its conclusion. And it should be engaging and accessible, even if the subject matter is dense or technical. The book is split into five parts, and while I recommend it in its entirety, two in particular stand out. The second part will motivate you write. The third will give you a practical set of tools with which to do so.
“Starting Professional Writing: A Harding Project How-To,” by Zachary Griffiths
I mentioned above the call for professional writing issued by the Army’s senior leaders. That’s why the Harding Project was recently launched. It aims to strengthen the culture of professional writing in the Army and revitalize the service’s journals as spaces for military professionals to engage in dialogue, exchange ideas, and work collaboratively to strengthen the Army and its preparedness for the challenges it will face in the future. This concise article is packed with tips that will help you contribute to the Army profession by writing.
Anything You Like!
It sounds like a platitude, but the more you read the better you’ll write. Some of that improvement will happen unconsciously as you process the way others use words to tell stories and share ideas. But there’s also an important deliberate effort to this. If you enjoy an author’s work, ask yourself why. Is the writing well organized? Does the author do something to grab your attention and hold it? Is there a lyrical quality to the sentence structure that makes it easy and enjoyable to read? Identify those things that you appreciate and emulate them.
John Amble is the editorial director of the Modern War Institute at West Point.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. Jeremiah Meaney, US Army