Aspiring War on the Rocks writers should read this in full before submitting an article.
War on the Rocks is fortunate to have an informed and experienced readership with high standards. Our readers include everyone from grunts to admirals, from wonks to cabinet secretaries, from spooks to civil servants, from graduate students to tenured professors. Many outlets publish brilliant arguments about strategy, security, and foreign policy. What makes War on the Rocks different? We seek to consistently publish the most authoritative, experienced, and authentic voices on defense, foreign policy, and national security out there.
The purpose of this writer’s guide, which borrows several elements from one published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is to set you up for success if you choose to submit something to War on the Rocks.
We aim to only publish submissions by authors who have personal experience with the subjects they are writing about. For us, the most easily recognizable types of experience are military, career government service (not internships), and/or an academic publication (peer-reviewed) record. These are not the only types of experience we are looking for in our writers, but we view them as the most reliable indicators that the writer deserves to be read by people who visit our site.
Other valuable experiences that would qualify someone to write for War on the Rocks include considerable time spent abroad on the ground either working on or studying an issue of interest to our readers, especially in a war zone. This can include work with an NGO or as a journalist. Please note, however, that we do not publish journalistic reporting. Our publication is dedicated to analysis and commentary.
In addition to these general guidelines, two of our channels are more restricted. Our Charlie Mike channel focuses exclusively on military and veteran experiences. At this channel, we only publish submissions from current or former military personnel. Authors submitting to our occasional (W)Archives series,which includes historical pieces focused on primary source documents, must have a record of peer-reviewed publications or experience conducting archival research. Our Art of War channel, which explores issues at the intersection of strategy and the creative arts, and our Molotov Cocktail channel, where we explore the world of adult beverages (usually as they relate to war and history), are the most flexible in terms of experience required.
War on the Rocks aims to provide content in a form that is engaging to the expert, useful for the policymaker, and accessible to the educated public. Below are some important tips for writing an article we will publish and our readers will read and share:
Read War on the Rocks. This is the best way to understand the kind of articles we will accept. Check out the topics our writers address. See how they structure their arguments, keep the reader’s attention, and cite their work.
Pitching and Submitting. Start by sending a short (200 words max) pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org with “PITCH” in the subject line. The pitch should include your main argument and why your experience makes you well-suited to address the topic in question. Feel free to attach your CV or bio. Brag about yourself! Please also feel free to tell us your publication record, but we make our assessments based on what you’ve done, not where you’ve written. Wait to hear back from us before you go on to submit a full article. Because we are so small and receive many pitches and submissions, a few get lost in the process. That is our fault and we apologize in advance if that happens to you. If it has been three days and you have not heard anything about your pitch, please do ping us to check in on its status. If we accept your pitch and ask for a full submission, it can take anywhere from one day to over a week to review and edit your article. If you don’t hear back from us in a timely fashion, it always only means we have not had a chance to review it yet — nothing else. We try to pair articles with subject matter expert reviewers. This can take time, but it is worth it. Trust us. If you are not willing to wait, you should probably not submit to War on the Rocks. No topic is as urgent as you think it is. Please also note that if we ask you for a submission, that does not mean your article has been accepted. War on the Rocks has a thorough review process. We might review it, work on it, and decided to pass on it for a variety of reasons. But if we do pass on a full submission, we can recommend other publications that might be a better fit.
No double submissions. Don’t do it. Do not send us an article that has been submitted elsewhere unless you have formally withdrawn it. And if you submit to War on the Rocks and later change your mind, tell us before you submit it elsewhere. Formally withdrawing a piece requires you to contact the publication to inform them of your decision before you take it to another outlet, not just assume that they lost interest and you can take it elsewhere. Time is our most important resource. We are a small shop and put a lot of time into editing submissions. If we use that resource only to discover you have decided to publish your article in another outlet, you will no longer be welcome to publish with us.
The lede. Open your article with a provocative question, engaging anecdote, shocking fact, or humorous observation. Catch the reader’s attention from the first word.
Tell us what you are going to tell us, tell us, then tell us what you told us. In other words, state your argument clearly and up-front in your first or second paragraph. This thesis statement should be one or two sentences and it should follow the lede. Do not leave us wondering halfway through your article what your core argument is. Then give us the meat of your argument in the body section. Use a lot of evidence. If yours is a longer article on a complex set of issues, consider using section breaks with titles. This makes the article easier on the reader. And finally, give us a strong conclusion that sums up your argument and offers a clear way forward. Don’t just describe, prescribe.
No jargon. We want your articles to be widely read and understood, so please don’t use language that is only comprehensible to military personnel, civilians working in the Pentagon, or people who have taken a methodology class. This includes the use of acronyms and initialisms, only a few of which are acceptable: NATO, ISIL (not ISIS), and FY20XX. We do not want to see other acronyms and initialisms (for the correct usage of U.S., E.U., U.N, etc, see below). If they are in your draft, destroy them on sight. It is better to spell them out or use other terms, including common nouns. If you do not follow this guidance, your review process will take longer.
Use clear and engaging language. Intersperse long sentences with short sentences. Avoid passive voice. (Passive voice should not be used. See what we did there?). If you are writing about something theoretical, use real-world or even fictional vignettes to illustrate your point. Every article can be exciting. Nothing has to be dry.
Do not assume knowledge on behalf of the reader. While many of our readers have military experience, many do not. Remember that most of our readers do not share your particular expertise. Please take care to explain concepts and contexts that are basic for your area of specialty — without dumbing them down.
Feel free to insert yourself into the article. Most outlets frown on first person pronouns, but not War on the Rocks. Since we put a premium on personal experience, we want you to feel comfortable putting yourself into the article. If your analysis is based on your experiences on deployment, in government, or performing field research, writing this early in the article is a great way to establish credibility with the reader and signal that you are someone to be listened to.
Cite your work. Any factual statements (speeches, statistics, events, etc.) and arguments of other thinkers should be cited with an embedded hyperlink wherever possible. It usually is. For a book, a link to its Amazon or Google Books page will do. When citation via hyperlink is not possible because the source is not available online (for example, an interview you conducted or an email exchange), you should try hard to refer to the source in your text. Do not use footnotes or endnotes. Do not insert the URLs into comment bubbles or in parentheses in the text. If you read War on the Rocks, you can see what embedded hyperlinks look like (and you can see an example in this very sentence). This form of citation is important because it allows us to more easily fact-check your submission and forces you to make sure you have all your facts right. It also allows readers to see the foundations of your argument for themselves. Facts that are common knowledge for you and your peers may not be common knowledge for our readers. Do not expect us to do your sourcing for you, even if you are a current or retired senior official or military officer. Please place the hyperlink over the words or phrase that you might use to search for the source on Google. For example, if you are citing Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s letter on the Littoral Combat Ship to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus in this very sentence, you would put the hyperlink over “letter on the Littoral Combat Ship” or “Carter’s letter to Mabus” rather than “letter.” This YouTube video explains how to insert hyperlinks. Please make an effort to link to other War on the Rocks articles in order to ground your arguments in debates that have played out in our forum.
Length. For our commentary articles and book reviews, we accept submissions between 800 and 2,500 words. We sometimes solicit pieces longer than 2,500 words, but we do not accept unsolicited submissions that fall outside the 800 to 2,500-word window. Pieces for our (W)Archives series can be shorter: 300 words and up. Pieces for our Hasty Ambush channel should be between 100 and 700 words.
What makes a great book review? The best book reviews are those that are not easily identified as a book review until the reader is halfway through. Instead of writing a book report or a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book, use the book’s core contentions as fodder for your own original argument. Perhaps the best book review we have ever published is Matthew Kirschenbaum’s “Digging into the Archaeology of the Future,” which reviews Thomas Rid’s Rise of the Machines. Use it as a model and example.
A note on rebuttals. You just read an article that you totally disagree with. You want to write a rebuttal. That’s great! We love debates. But a good and engaging rebuttal is hard to write. It should do two things well. The first is obvious: It should rebut the article in question. The second is less obvious: It should stand alone. Why? Because many people who read your rebuttal will not have read the article you are taking on. That means your rebuttal should have a real lede (see above) rather than, “In a recent War on the Rocks article, so-and-so wrote X.” And you should minimize the number of sentences or passages that go something like this: “So-and-so says X, but I say Y.” For an example of a solid rebuttal, read “Recalculating Route,” an article on GPS resilience and vulnerability by Brandon Davenport and Rich Ganke.
What makes a good (W)Archives piece? Either link to the historical source in your article or provide a digital copy for us to host. For instance, you might link to the D-Day cable from Eisenhower to Marshall available at the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library. As with other pieces, it is always helpful to have a hook at the beginning and a narrative arc to the overall piece. Anniversaries, enduring issues or realities, and historical analogies are often good hooks, but there are many other creative ways to do this. You should introduce the primary source early in your piece and then refer to it throughout as necessary for telling your story or making your point. Please make sure you include a “so what” for the reader. The first time you refer to your primary source, you should give credit to the institution that holds it (an archive, library, museum, online repository, etc.).
Bio. Please add your two- to three-sentence biography at the bottom of the submission. This is the place to brag about yourself to our readers. Tell us what you have done and what you have written. You can hyperlink this as well, if you wish to point readers to the Amazon page for your book, your personal website, or your Twitter handle.
Review process. We will often send articles to be reviewed by subject matter experts. If we accept your article, you should expect questions and criticism aimed at improving it. This is meant to help you, so do not take it personally.
Making edits. If we choose to publish your article, you will receive a draft with edits and comments made using the track changes function in Microsoft Word. Please make your revisions in Microsoft Word and send it back as a file attachment rather than via Google Docs or another cloud-based solution. You are welcome first to “accept” our edits using the track changes function before you go to work on it, but leave the track changes function on when you make your revisions in response to the comments. This is important. Do not delete our comments. Do not make your revisions with track changes off and send us back a “clean” copy. Not complying with these instructions will almost certainly delay the editorial process.
Plagiarism. If you plagiarize, your article will be rejected and you will never again be welcome to publish with us. Plagiarism is defined in King’s College London’s Academic Honesty and Integrity statement as “taking of another person’s thoughts, words, results, judgements, ideas, images etc., and presenting them as your own.” Plagiarism does not only mean using someone’s exact words as your own. It also includes the re-purposing of concepts and findings without attribution.
Is it really “we”? We understand that many of the people who submit articles to War on the Rocks closely identify with the United States, its departments of government, and — often — its military. We do too. Still, please do not write that “we” should do something when you mean the U.S. government or any of its departments or agencies. Be clear who your recommendations are for and who exactly you want to take action. If you mean the U.S. Army, write that. If you mean the Department of Defense, write that. This is not to say you should always avoid personal pronouns. If you are telling your story, of course you should use “we” or “I.” As we discuss above, unlike many other outlets, we encourage the use of personal pronouns in the right way, especially when you are highlighting your experience on an issue.
Do not assume that all of our readers are American. While the bulk of our readership is in the United States, we have a robust global readership as well.
Avoid unnecessary capitalization. It is the U.S. government, not the U.S. Government. It is soldier, not Soldier. And, while we love the U.S. Marine Corps, when referring to individuals in the Marine Corps, it is marines, not Marines. We usually defer to AP style on these issues, but in this case have sided with the most recent U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual. Because we understand this is an issue that arouses some passions and as a concession to our beloved Marine Corps, there is a special exception to this rule: We do allow the capitalization of “Marine” when the article is published on our Charlie Mike channel, which focuses on the military and veteran experience.
Other notes on style. Please spell out “United States” when used as a noun. “U.S.” is an adjective (for example, the “U.S. government.”) The same rule goes for the European Union vs. E.U. and the United Nations vs U.N., etc.
Pen names, organizational considerations, and secrecy. We only allow writers to use pen names in the rare cases when their careers or personal safety would be at serious risk as a result of publishing an article on a specific topic. If you think you qualify for this protection, tell us when you submit the article. Do not wait until the eve of publication to ask us. We are not journalists and will not reveal or participate in the leak of any information that is classified. And if you have a clearance, you know that even sending us that information over an unsecured system is illegal. We are obligated to report this to the authorities. Do not cite Wikileaks or any other leaked classified documents directly. Only link to open news reports or analyses of these documents. If you are allowed to publish and you work for the government or are in the military, you may want to add a disclaimer to your bio that your views do not represent those of whatever organization you work for.
Format. Submissions should be emailed as single-spaced Word attachments (not Google Docs) to email@example.com with “SUBMISSION” in the subject line. Please do not send in the submission until we have given you a thumbs up on the pitch (see above). Again, if you do not hear back within three days, please feel free to shoot us another note. We get many emails and are not always as good as we should be at keeping track of submissions.