Top 11 Writing Tips Drawn from the CIA’s Style Guide


You know, the CIA didn’t just celebrate its one-month Twitterversary last week by reminding us that it has no idea where Tupac is.

No, the world’s most infamous intelligence organization also released a very long and very particular style guide originally completed in 2011 and fit to compete with ye old Strunk and White and AP Stylebook.

Why? Well, as Director of Intelligence Fran Moore writes in the foreword:

“The information CIA gathers and the analysis it produces mean little if we cannot convey them effectively.”

Accurate. Here are eleven tips that stood out to us.

1. Avoid the Department of Redundancy Department


Essentially, don’t repeat yourself. And yes, this is a tricky one because many words are basically (GASP) interchangeable!!

From the document:

“Redundancies are phrases that succumb to repetition. They expose bad habits or, worse, carelessness. The author who writes It is a ‘true fact‘ that they are offering ‘free gifts‘ is not watching his words.”

Well, then! Other redundancies to avoid completely (see what we did there?) even if they apply to your client: absolutely essential; current trendeach and every; military troops; small cottage; accidentally misfired. Yes, those last three are very CIA-specific, but you get the point.

2. Stick to the Objective (Adverbs)

Do readers really care how you feel? Almost certainly not–and you don’t need to tell them how they should feel, either. The work itself, rather than your description of the work, should evoke the desired emotions in your audience. As the agency puts it, “let nouns and verbs show their own power.”

From the doc:

“The DI is not in the business of deciding whether something is good or bad; therefore, words like ‘fortunately’ and ‘unfortunately’ should not appear in DI writing.

Discerning the subjective overtones sometimes requires a keen ear: ‘naturally,’ for example, may give the reader a sense of being talked down to. Regretfully, regrettably, mercifully, interestingly, and other subjective words are vulnerable to the same kind of abuse.

Most of the time you can find a better way to express the thought.”

Well, yeah. HINT: the same principle applies to pitches…

3. Beware the Dangling Participle

“After perusing the many summaries of the CIA’s style guide, the agency seemed more impressive to us.”

We hope that sentence was as annoying to read as it was to write.

4. Keep It Simple, Stupid

We know you want to use those conspicuous, loquacious, ostentatious words like “apprise, citizenry, contradistinction, effectuate, enunciate, eventuate, evince, and opine.”

But don’t do it. In the agency’s words, “omit the extraneous, no matter how brilliant it may seem or even be.”

And if you need a reminder, just listen to this guy:

5. Don’t Split Your Infinitives

If the thoughts don’t fit, you must not split!

“Make sure that clarity or the flow of the sentence demands the split. If you are not sure, do not split.”

The CIA previously warned us about all those adverbs…and if they stand between a noun and its verb then all bets are off.

6. “Torturous” vs. “Tortuous”

One is very bad, while the other is quite possibly (but not necessarily) just as bad…in a different and more complicated way.

“Torturous means extremely painful. Tortuous means twisting, devious, or highly complex.”

Of course, both words can apply simultaneously…as in the case of the United States’ long-running, completely unconvincing claim that it did not torture military detainees.

7. “Possible” vs. “Probable”

It’s probably impossible that something is improbable:

“Analysts, particularly military analysts, are tempted to use probable or possible when what probably is or what possibly is is the proper formulation: the attache saw what probably is a missile, not the attache saw a probable missile. Could the officer have seen an improbable (or impossible!) missile?”

Nope. Unlike intelligence agents, you don’t need to allow for the miniscule possibility that you didn’t see what you think you probably saw.

8. “Disinformation” vs. “Misinformation”

Next time you’re dealing with all those negative “paid liar” PR cliches, remember:

If the public is misinformed, then the blame might just rest on them. Who’s to say? They could have misread the material at hand.

If you spread disinformation among the same public, however, then everything Hamilton Nolan said about you is true.

9. Is It “Ironic?”

ironicDon’t mean to rain on your wedding day, but…

“Ironically involves a sharp contrast between the apparent and the expected. Do not use ironically when referring to a trivial oddity.”

Is the atheist senator a weekly church-goer? That’s ironic.

Does he wear flip-flops in the pews? That’s kind of funny in a peculiar way–but it’s definitely not ironic.

10.  Nothing Has Actually “Never Happened Before”

Yes, life is, like, one big circle, man. And surely there was a first chicken (or a first egg). But…

“Think before writing that something has never happened: are you sure that there has not been even one occurrence in all of history?”

Short answer: no! Long answer: of course not! I knew that already!

11. Avoid the Passive Voice

There are a considerable number of experts who tell us not to use the passive voice.

It is sometimes difficult to avoid doing so, especially when describing a third-party product.

It is also worthwhile, however, if only to avoid sentences like the three in this block.

Various Odds and Ends

  • CIA is singular and lacks a definite article. At least it doesn’t discriminate.
  • “Undeclared” wars, like “unratified” treaties and rules that only apply to your own company’s office, do not get the capitalization treatment. This means “Vietnam war” and “Kyoto treaty”, as opposed to “World War II” and the “Treaty of Paris.”
  • Stay away from foreign words that aren’t “sufficiently common or functional” or have an English equivalent. Souffle? Sure. Mis en scene? Only if you’re a theater major.
  • Americanize all British words…including proper nouns. And for the love of the Queen, they’re potato chips. Not “crisps.”
  • When in doubt, go with the Oxford Comma.

Don’t know about you guys, but we think we might actually start liking the CIA now.

Now that’s scary.