Sunday, December 5, 2010

Diplomatic immunity for bad writing? One ambassador says no.

According to The New York Times yesterday, at least one United States ambassador considers good writing an important skill for junior diplomats (and, one hopes, for other diplomats as well):
      Richard E. Hoagland, the ambassador to Kazakhstan, thinks good cable-writing is so essential that he has written a guide for junior diplomats, “Ambassador’s Cable Drafting Tips.” Many of the tips would be familiar to any cub reporter trying to get an editor to bite on a story.
      “The trick is to catch readers’ attention,” he advises. “The first three to five words are all they will see in their electronic queue.”
      His specific recommendations? Avoid flabby writing, citing as a typically egregious example any memo that starts: “ ‘The ambassador used the opportunity of the meeting to raise the issue of’...”
      And work on storytelling: “Despite what some in Washington will tell you, there is nothing at all wrong with colorful writing, as long as it communicates something.” But he adds a caveat: “Cute writing is never acceptable — cute is for toddlers, not for professional diplomats.”
      Mr. Hoagland, who accompanied Mrs. Clinton to meetings this week, declined to discuss the substance of the leaked cables. But he was happy to discuss style. As a general rule, he said he instructs staff members to think like journalists. “Not everything we churn out is great writing,” he said, “but we try to keep up the standards.”
So, if you're a lawyer or law student looking to become a Foreign Service Officer, polishing your writing skills might give you an edge in the highly competitive selection process.


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