Intellect and innovation for warfighting capability.

47 Pieces of a Puzzle: Reflections on DEF Aus 2016 and the Written Word

January 22nd, 2017 by Tom McDermott

The DEF Aus Forum Tweetwall 2016 … but sometimes 140 characters just isn’t enough!

The written word was the key weapon of the DEF Aus Forum 2016.  Over the course of seven months the DEF Australia Idea Pitchers and committee members wrote, proofed and published an impressive 47 original articles.

These short pieces (none of which was over 1500 words long) were central to the ability to highlight a ‘need’ and then articulate a ‘solution’.  This was true from each individual Idea Pitch, and right through to the idea of DEF Aus itself.  It was the written word and the strength of the arguments within that persuaded Army to back the concept.

The DEF writings were part of a collaborative effort.  It wasn’t just a case of saying ‘right, great idea pitch … I need a thousands words by Thursday and they’d better all be in the right order’.  Each Pitcher initially worked with their Idea Sponsor (a more senior ADF officer who was an expert in their subject matter), and then submitted a first proof to the DEF Team.  The Team then worked with the author to proof, re-draft and improve the articles.  As is the case with any good bit of written work, each version came back and forth (using online cloud-based apps like Slack, Dropbox and Google Docs) two or three times before they hit the spot.   There were a number of common themes that came out, and I thought these were worth highlighting as part of our ‘reflections’ series.

Theme 1 – It’s Easy to Write if you’re Passionate

The most common piece of feedback from our Pitchers was how easy it was to write on a subject they cared about.  When most people think about writing they have instant flashbacks to exams; tortured periods trying to eek out, with sweaty palms and a ticking clock, the answer to ‘who started the First World War’.  Our Idea Pitchers were writing on subjects they really cared about, and had discussed exhaustively with their peers.  They found that once they had broken the seal and started writing, the words just came.  They had ranted with such passion about their chosen topic that it was easy for them to put it onto paper.

If you want to write, pick a topic you care aboutPassion is the one thing that always comes through in good writing.  Is there a ‘problem’ that you can’t stop discussing, and have a solution to?  Then that’s the one you should put on paper.  Write for a reason … your argument will be better.

Theme 2 – Nobody is Perfect First Time Out

William Shakespeare didn’t spring from the womb fully formed.  As the great educator Sir Ken Robinson once said, it is interesting to think that Shakespeare was probably at some stage a student in an english literature class.  He probably hated writing about ‘who started the Italian War of 1551’.  Not a single one of the 47 DEF posts arrived ready for publication.  Every one of them required reading, editing, commenting and re-proofing.  What was important was that everyone was accepting of this from the outset.  The editing process was always constructive, and never critical.  While each author always kept the final authority (the blog was, after all, their work), they were all willing to take comment, make improvement and not dig their heels in.

A piece of written work grows over time.  In writing, like in any skill, polish comes with practice.  If you are going to write be prepared to take comment, re-write and revise.  But remember it is your work, and you have the final call!  Sound brainstorming and ‘essay-planning’ is a great way of saving the time of you and your editors.

Theme 3 – Never Walk Alone

Writing can be a lonely activity.  In the end it comes down to you, your brain and a piece of paper (or, more often these days, an iPad).  It doesn’t have to be this way.  Nearly thirty people worked together on the DEF articles.  Some people wrote as individuals, some in pairs or small groups.  Authors were connected with others with similar interests, and with writers with more experience who could help with their prose and argument construction.  Free internet connectivity tools like Slack, Prezi, Dropbox and Google Docs meant there were no geographical barriers.  At one stage from Sydney I was proofing an article, with three others, from an author in Iraq.  For DEF writing, a small contribution from many led to a great result.

It is easier to write as part of a network.  You don’t need to start your own, and you don’t have to look far to find one.  The Military Writers Guild (a US-based organisation) has a strong presence in Australia and in the ADF.  The Postern Association, born from DEF Aus, is building a network of writers and editors in 2017.  If you need help, just reach out … it all starts with an email.

Theme 4 – Be Argumentative, but never Post Truth

The heart of a good piece of writing is the ‘argument’.  Unless you are simply recording the facts of an event, you are almost always arguing one approach over another.  There is nothing wrong with putting out a bold view; the big problems are rarely solved by taking the simple, easy or consensual line.  Margaret Thatcher once labelled consensus as ‘the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects’.  So, if you have a solution to a problem, you sometimes need to make a bold argument to persuade others of your view.

One thing we loved about DEF was that the Pitchers made bold arguments, but they did it the right way.  The careful ‘mapping’ of the arguments was evident.  They used evidence, correctly cited and referenced (albeit in the more modern way of hyperlinks).  There was little generalisation, and instinctive judgements were labelled as such.  This was where the ‘network’ really came into its own; sharing experience, challenging evidence and strengthening argument.

2016 has been the year of ‘post-truth’ (also known as lies)If you want to write, don’t be part of this.  Make sure every point has evidence behind it.  Cite all your references.  Never make anything up, and never plagiarise.  Your reputation as a writer and a professional lives and dies hereUse the acronym SEAC to check your argument.  Each sentence should be formed of ‘Statement, Evidence, Analysis, Conclusion’ before bridging to the next.  If you’re missing the E or the A, you’re losing.

August Cole, the author of Ghost Fleet and master of weaponising the written word, speaks at DEF

Theme 5 – ABC … It’s as Easy as One, Two, Three

The DEF Team tried to live by three words.  Accuracy.  Brevity.  Clarity.  ABC.  We sought to keep the content simple and the arguments tight.  On the other hand we didn’t want the DEF blogs to be boring.  We spent a lot of time working on the ‘rhythm’ of writing.  This is a real skill that takes practise to master.  One can write in short, staccato sentences, but this is highly likely to turn off your reader.  Equally if sentences are too long then the reader will get lost.  We worked to find the balance between the two; to play language like an instrument that took the reader with us as we built an argument.  For us, this was the difference between something you have to force yourself to read, and a piece you can’t put down.

Try to learn to write simply, but fluidly.  You should be able to read your writing aloud without stumbling, backtracking or running out of breath!  Remember that your conclusion is in many ways the crescendo … this is where you bring it all together to deliver the unbeatable argument.  All good writers invest time in the conclusion.  Plan it, write it, and then re-write it.

Theme 6 – Be Active, not Passive

The only grammar lesson we took away!  As editors we sought to get the authors to write with an active ‘voice’, and not a ‘passive’ one.  Not sure what I mean?  Check out this sentence.  The bar was walked into by the cowboy.  Not great.  Passive voice is where the ‘object’ of the sentence (in this case the ‘bar’) is acted upon by the ‘subject’ (the ‘cowboy’) and not the other way round.  This is difficult to spot, but you wouldn’t believe the difference it makes to a piece of writing.  Active voice is linked to the ‘ABC’ rule; it helps to ensure you write cleanly and simply.  This is one of the places where having a network of editors helped … it is much easier to recognise passive voice in someone else’s writing than in your own.

If you want to write well, you need to get into the habit of adopting an ‘active’ voice.  It really does help.  In the short term you can turn to the web for help.  The blog site has a wealth of hints and tips on how to ID passive voice.  Read your work aloud … the passive voice will come out.

Conclusion – Just Start Writing …

I only joined the Australian Army in October 2015, having transferred from the UK.  I stumbled across DEF from a Twitter hashtag, and it has been a highlight of my first year in the Force.  The best part has been the writing, reading and editing of the DEF posts.  I have learned a huge amount.  Some say that the Australian Army has a reputation as being ‘anti-intellectual’.  My experience so far refutes this as a false stereotype.  The innovators, creative thinkers and writers I have come across are second to none … but it is their enthusiasm and humility that really stands out.  The spirit of collaboration for the greater good has been highly impressive.  The Australian Army faces a challenging future, and it needs to keep seizing upon and cultivating this if it is to succeed.

My experience tells me that being able to write well is as important as being able to fight well.  Everyone has ideas, and most of them are pretty good.  But if you really want to make change and see your ideas come to fruition, you have to be able to put them down on paper.  It is the well-written (and well-evidenced) argument that really makes a difference; that catches the attention of those in power and persuades them to change.  Being good takes practise, but the key in the end is to just make a start.

So, if DEF has inspired you, pick a topic you are passionate about and try and write 500 words about it.  Pass those words to a trusted friend, and ask for feedback.  Make changes.  Seek advice from the networks like the Cove (Army’s recently launched professional development network), Grounded Curiosity, DEF Australia or the new Postern Association (Army’s first ‘prodev’ association).  Everyone is there to help.  From small steps come great solutions, and now (more than ever) all the help you might want is out there.  Why not make 2017 the year you got into writing; we’re just waiting for your call.

The DEF board of senior officers and academics; proving how the written word can reach the top and make a difference

How to get in touch

If you are confused about who to contact, just email the Postern Association and we’ll point you in the right direction!

About the author

Tom McDermott is the Director of Activities for DEF Australia, and the Executive Director of the Cove.  An Australian Army officer who also served for 15 years in the British Army, he is a passionate advocate of the Profession of Arms.  He believes that rapid innovation and adaptation is the key to the future success of Western militaries.  Tom is studying a PhD in strategy at ANU.  You can follow him on Twitter via @helmandproject.


Grounded Curiosity is a platform to spark debate, focused on junior commanders. The views expressed do not reflect any official position or that of any of the author’s employers – see more here.

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5 Comments on "47 Pieces of a Puzzle: Reflections on DEF Aus 2016 and the Written Word"

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Tom, great article and positive message. The aussie army is lucky to have gained you!

Tom McDermott

Weak Shakespeare gag slightly amended! Thanks to the eagle eyed historian who pointed out that the Bard died in 1616 … more than a century before the Seven Years War. New war selected, thank goodness for helpful networks! #alwayslearning #everydayisaschoolday #proofreading

Tom McDermott

This is a fantastic initiative, the key for me is to promote this to the key enablers within the Military environment such as SSM ‘s / Tp Ldr’s. As I’m sure you will acknowledged from your experience the CoC need to embrace this by almost showing and explaining why this is value added to the whole organization.
Let me know if I can personally help promote this initiative.
For your SA, the CAL at RMAS is attempting to run a similar initiative.
Kind Regards
WO2 Mark Budd

Tom McDermott

Thanks Mark. You’re absolutely right that the current key focal point needs to be YO and NCO. This is where real grassroots evolution can be driven. Just need to sell it right i.e. you’ll be a better operator if you get this stuff right! Ack CAL and RMAS … I’m looking to speak to the Academy over the next few weeks to see if we can broaden the network. Will PM you on Twitter to see if we can align. Tom

Great pragmatic advice. My only thought is that it is worth noting that different people bring different insights in different ways. For example, some are not great writers, but they have an incredible story or insight to tell which is worth gold to a community trying to learn from each other in a dangerous business. So a reading community needs to be open to the different ‘voices’ and styles and strengths of different voices. I have a ‘literature’ degree and they often talk about the author’s unique ‘voice’. The story works, like leadership, when it is authentic & true. Aside… Read more »