Which of the following sentences is better?
A. The C-130 took off over the mountain.
B. The C-130, a transport plane, took off over the mountain.
The correct answer is A. Good writing is concise, pared down to its essence. But I’ve read a lot of works in the last few weeks that choose option B.
Military writing is a form of technical writing, often weighted down by acronyms and jargon. The trouble, for writers, is figuring out what to leave in and what to take out, what to explain and what to define. This runs the gamut--from memoirs with glossaries and character guides to military reports with no explanation. To my taste, the best war writing under-explains, letting the words and vernacular stand on their own.
Take my first example. You might object, “What if the reader doesn’t know a C-130 is a plane?” How could they not? It took off over some mountains. Planes take off, planes fly. It may be a helicopter, but if this detail really matters, it will present itself naturally.
The same is true for most military nouns. Humvees drive. M-4s shoot. MREs get eaten. MBITRs transmit. DFACs serve food. IEDs detonate. Even if I don’t know what a humvee is, I know that cars drive, so I know a humvee is a car (“humvee” is also safely in the common vernacular). I know guns shoot, so I know an M-4 is a gun. MREs will be opened and eaten, this means they are some sort of food.
This is a basic human language learning skill. We look at the context surrounding a word to divine the word’s meaning; we’ve been doing it since we were children. It is what Anthony Burgess depended on in the novel A Clockwork Orange when he made up a fictional slang. By the end of the book, the reader is fluent in nadsat. Military writers should depend on the same phenomenon.
Over-explaining leads to duplicate, redundant descriptions. To decide which post-9/11 war novel I’d read next, I read the first chapters of two different novels; each has an example of over-explained military jargon. From Tom Young’s The Mullah’s Storm there was “Inside the C-130 Hercules transport plane”, which is at least three words too long, and “The coded forecast read: ‘+BLSN, PRESFR.’ Heavy snow. Pressure falling rapidly”. We don’t need the acronym. From David Zimmerman’s The Sandbox, “Rankin punches a button on the FBCB2, the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below, which is a fancy name for the ugly green in-board computer bolted to the dash.” which basically explains the same thing twice. Rankin could have just punched the computer bolted to the dash. (This should be considered a nitpick; I haven't the chance to read either novel, but I really want to.)
This complaint, about over-explanation, applies to overly explained facts about cultural knowledge. In Craig Mullaney’s The Unforgiving Minute, Mullaney explains what Bollywood is (“Bombay’s ambitiously named film industry”); in Donovan Campbell’s Joker One, Campbell explains that The Notebook is “an emotional tearjerker starring an exceptionally beautiful actress”. Both of these examples slow down the prose. If you don’t know what either is you could google it.
To be clear, this is a problem we battle with on every post, especially the personal experiences. Take this excerpt from Michael C’s post earlier this month, “Checking out of Afghanistan and Into Hotel California”.
This first version is what we published:
...we had to go on an “A and L” patrol, short for Admin and Logistics. Most of the time, an “A and L” patrol meant driving the fifteen minutes to a base called A-bad (Asadabad) and picking up the mail. Sometimes it meant picking up PAX who had come in off leave.
Now compare it to our earlier version:
...we had to go on an “administrative” patrol. Or as we called them “A and L” patrols, short for Admin and Logistics. Most of the time, an “A and L” patrol meant driving the fifteen minutes to a base called A-bad (short for Asadabad) and picking up the mail. Sometimes it meant picking up PAX (Army abbreviation for personnel) who had come in off leave.
We debated a lot of these changes. There aren’t any hard and fast rules for when a parenthesis is superior to comma, or announcing that something is “short for” something else. Maybe PAX is too foreign to non-military readers. But again, what else besides a person could come in off leave? Less is more, and give the reader credit. (We even debate what facts we should explain. Last week we debated whether the average reader would know what Mossad was. Again, I argued that if someone didn’t, they could google it.)
When an author does it right, the result is magic. Matthew Eck opens The Farther Shore with a group of soldiers “calling in runs from the circling AC-130 Spectres”. Not only do we know the Spectres are planes, he describes them in a way that makes them almost seem like animals, or actual spectres. Creepy, perfect, beautiful.
(Update: Reader Matthew L, a technical writer, chimes in on the post, and he's pretty spot on in his commentary. Read it here.)