war on the rocks

Entry 36: The Secret to Writing Events in Advance

February 1, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 36th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?


Today Wellington earned its “Windy Welly” nickname. Windiest day I’ve experienced here yet. The horrid commute I would’ve faced because of the weather made me opt to work from home instead, and it proved incredibly productive.

Still spent too much time on Twitter, but it’s starting to feel like public engagement is part of a scholar’s professional or societal obligation, even if it’s not part of the reward system. Notwithstanding, I managed 787 words. I wonder how productive I’d be without twitter.

I only did one media interview as part of the news the last 48 hours (out of three requests), and resisted the temptation to write op-eds about any of it. The State of the Union was an easy target for a staged op-ed, even though Trump didn’t offer anything new.

People sometimes ask how I write op-eds in less than a day, especially while doing the book. My “bloody nose” piece in Politico Magazine might’ve been the most-read thing I’ve ever written and I wrote it from beginning to end in about five hours a few weeks ago. I talked about some aspects of quick-turn writing once before, but have had several additional inquires about how I do it so thought I’d mention one trick here (War on the Rocks also has a really useful writing guide).

When I worked in the Pentagon, one of my jobs was to staff the secretary of defense and other senior defense officials with substantive policy advice, but also with a wide range of other, more menial but still necessary tasks. One of those tasks was writing “cables” — summary memos of what went down in a meeting with other officials, usually from foreign governments. When you put on a big meeting, like a bilateral summit, you have to coordinate logistics, plan meetings, negotiate an agenda and deliverables from the meeting, brief your bosses on how things will go, and offer substantive policy advice in the form of talking points, background papers and sometimes a written speech.

Doing all of that doesn’t buy you out of the requirement to publish a cable summary of the summit meeting, which usually has to be turned around in 24 hours or less. But how do you publish a record of what happened while also sitting in the meetings, orchestrating what happens next, and having sidebar discussions or impromptu brainstorming sessions to react to a counterpart’s remarks? There’s literally only one way to write a quick-turn cable under these conditions — you have to write it before the meeting actually happens.

Everybody does it, and if you don’t you’re not as good at your job as you could be. You produce the cable summary based on what you expect to happen, and then simply adjust specific sentences to accommodate what actually happened (or not, if you’re Henry Kissinger).

This practice of writing staged cables and then making adjustments based on what actually transpires is what I often do for op-eds. That’s the secret, along with having developed a habit of writing all the time.

Look at the calendar of events for things you might write about — the release of the National Security Strategy or the next Strategic and Economic Dialogue with China. A lot of what happens in world politics is on a well-advertised schedule. And some things aren’t scheduled but are still extremely predictable, like a North Korean missile or nuke test.

Knowing these things are coming, you can craft a staged op-ed ahead of time based on how you think it’ll play out. Then when the event actually happens, you don’t really have to write a quick-turn op-ed, you have to do a quick-turn edit of an op-ed you’ve had plenty of time to massage.

Everybody does this. How do I know? Because in the past year, editors at several prominent publications have approached me to write an op-ed in response to an upcoming event well before it happens. And I’m not even an A-list pundit (B-minus list, maybe?).

This isn’t the only way to write quickly of course; it’s just one trick. My piece on the national security strategy did involve staging like this, but my “bloody nose” op-ed was a spontaneous reaction to something surprisingly being discussed in real time. So there isn’t any substitute for writing a lot of coherent prose quickly.

But if you ever see a policy pundit producing three op-eds in 24 hours (there are some who do), rest assured its because at least one or two of them were staged. Rather than being demoralized by the productivity of others, I figured out various tricks of the trade so I could operate at that level too. The staged op-ed is one of them.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review.

Image: Pixnio