Entry 44: The Art of Improvising

February 13, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 44th 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?

I wrote about 630 words today, but also took some time to step back and size up what I’ve done so far. I didn’t pour over every word of the manuscript; just skimmed the entire thing. The big picture is pretty close to what I promised in my initial book proposal, but my execution has deviated quite a bit in places—I even have two additional chapters I hadn’t planned for.

Looking back at where and how I’ve deviated from the initial game plan reminded me of two things. One is President Eisenhower’s entirely valid but clichéd observation that planning is essential but plans are useless.

If I didn’t have a proposal with a roadmap of where I was going, I’d probably be lost. At the same time, if I had held faithful to my initial roadmap, I’d be contorting evidence to fit my narrative. It’s my frequent need to adjust my explanations for things that led me to now write three chapters on the Obama era where I had initially only planned one.

The other thing this exercise reminded me of was a recent Vox piece on why the TV series Breaking Bad was so good. It argued that Breaking Bad’s success was due to its writers carefully planning and adhering to a predictable five-act structure of the overarching narrative for the series, but improvising from episode to episode in order to progress through that structure.

I have no idea if the explanation Vox offered is really why Breaking Bad was so good, though it makes a certain amount of sense. Regardless, I appear to be doing something comparable with this book so far—holding to a narrative arc that’s persuasive and broadly what I set out to write, but that I’m also improvising based on available evidence and what makes sense. Improvisation is, to a great extent, how I’ve progressed from section to section and chapter to chapter so far.

It also strikes me that there may be a lesson here for the practice of grand strategy (very much on my mind these days). To the extent that grand strategies constitute guiding principles, they need to demonstrate continuity and clarity. But at the level of policy practice and implementation, ad hoc adjustments are essential.

Every policymaker knows that a purely reactive set of policies is dangerous and stupid, yet a great deal of any administration’s policies involves adapting to the exigencies of the moment. Strategic consistency, tactical improvisation.


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