The CIA’s Style Manual & Writer’s Guide: 185 Pages of Tips for Writing Like a Spook

cia style guide

Along with top­pling demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed gov­ern­ments, fun­nel­ing mon­ey ille­gal­ly to dubi­ous polit­i­cal groups and pro­duc­ing porno­graph­ic movies about heads of state, the Cen­tral Intel­li­gence Agency has also been fiendish­ly good at manip­u­lat­ing lan­guage. After all, this is the orga­ni­za­tion that made “water­board­ing” seem much more accept­able, at least to the Wash­ing­ton elite, by rebrand­ing it as “enhanced inter­ro­ga­tion tech­niques.” Anoth­er CIA turn of phrase, “extra­or­di­nary ren­di­tion,” sounds so much bet­ter to the ear than “ille­gal kid­nap­ping and tor­ture.”

Not too long ago, the CIA’s style guide, called the Style Man­u­al and Writ­ers Guide for Intel­li­gence Pub­li­ca­tions, was post­ed online. “Good intel­li­gence depends in large mea­sure on clear, con­cise writ­ing,” writes Fran Moore, Direc­tor of Intel­li­gence in the fore­word. And con­sid­er­ing the agency’s deft­ness with the writ­ten word, it shouldn’t come as a sur­prise that it’s remark­ably good. Some high­lights:

  • The guide likes the Oxford or ser­i­al com­ma. “Most author­i­ties on Eng­lish usage rec­om­mend [the ser­i­al com­ma], and it is the rule for CIA pub­li­ca­tions.”
  • It favors using adjec­tives and adverbs spar­ing­ly. “Let nouns and verbs show their pow­er.”
  • In all cas­es, it favors Amer­i­can over British spellings, even prop­er names. Thus, “Labor Par­ty” not “Labour Par­ty.” And for that mat­ter, the guide isn’t ter­ri­bly keen on using phras­es like “apro­pos” and “faux pas.” “For­eign expres­sions should be avoid­ed because they sound hack­neyed.”
  • It wise­ly dis­cour­ages writ­ers, or any­one real­ly, from ever using the word “enthused.”
  • And they cau­tion against using excla­ma­tion points. “Because intel­li­gence reports are expect­ed to be dis­pas­sion­ate, this punc­tu­a­tion mark should rarely, if ever, be used.”

And then there are some rules that will remind you this guide is the prod­uct of a par­tic­u­lar­ly shad­owy arm of the U.S. Gov­ern­ment.

  • The guide makes a point of defin­ing “dis­in­for­ma­tion” as opposed to “mis­in­for­ma­tion.” “Dis­in­for­ma­tion refers to the delib­er­ate plant­i­ng of false reports. Mis­in­for­ma­tion equates in mean­ing but does not car­ry the same devi­ous con­no­ta­tion.” Now you know.
  • Unde­clared wars, like Viet­nam, should be spelled with an uncap­i­tal­ized “w.” Same goes for the “Kore­an war” and the “Falk­lands war.” It goes on to argue that the writer should “avoid ‘Yom Kip­pur war’ which is slangy.” Pre­sum­ably, the CIA prefers the term “The 1973 Arab-Israeli war.”
  • The con­fus­ing split between Chi­na and Tai­wan – each refus­es to rec­og­nize the oth­er — is rep­re­sent­ed con­fus­ing­ly here too. “For what was once called Nation­al­ist Chi­na or the Repub­lic of Chi­na, use only Tai­wan, both as noun and as adjec­tive. … Avoid Tai­wanese as an adjec­tive refer­ring to the island’s admin­is­tra­tion or its offi­cials (and do not use the term Tai­wanese gov­ern­ment.)”

It’s unclear whether or not the guide is being used for the CIA’s queasi­ly flip, pro­found­ly unfun­ny Twit­ter account.

If you’re look­ing for a more con­ven­tion­al style guide, remem­ber that Strunk & White’s Ele­ments of Style is also online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Spot a Com­mu­nist Using Lit­er­ary Crit­i­cism: A 1955 Man­u­al from the U.S. Mil­i­tary

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

Don­ald Duck’s Bad Nazi Dream and Four Oth­er Dis­ney Pro­pa­gan­da Car­toons from World War II

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.