This is not normal: A U.S. government employee wrote a good memo. Harvard College Writing Centre director Jane Rosenzweig praises the nine-page whistleblower complaint against the Trump administration in a New York Times op-ed, listing four techniques that make the complaint clear and effective. They might just help you write like a pro, too.
It’s clearly outlined
Three of the techniques — an urgent introduction, strong, connected subheadings, and topic sentences — reflect the piece’s clear and linear structure. You could pull out the subheadings and topic sentences to create a bullet-point outline of the document’s takeaways.
This makes the document easy to read and hard to dismiss. It also helps the information spread, because news outlets can accurately summarise the complaint for a wider audience — an audience that will read a two-page article but not a nine-page government memo.
The other technique — active sentences with a subject and verb — assigns cause and effect to specific people. The whistleblower believes specific people did specific things, in violation of specific rules. He only uses the passive voice when he knows that someone did something but can’t figure out who. He points this out, making the limits of his complaint clear instead of vaguely implying blame:
According to these officials, it was also “made clear” to them that the [U.S.] President did not want to meet with Mr. Zelenskyy until he saw how Zelenskyy “chose to act” in office. I do not know how this guidance was communicated, or by whom.
This is an obvious foil to President Word Salad’s love for water-muddying phrases like “more and more people are saying.”
You can write like that too
If you want to write with a strong structure, you have two options: outline meticulously and then write inside that outline, or write first, then rearrange your writing into a clear outline.
Depending on your style and your mood, one of these will feel much less scary than the other. Sometimes it’s outlining: You don’t have to do the “real” writing yet, you’re just listing the ideas you want to write later! If you’re really on a roll, you’ll keep outlining at smaller increments, until you’ve accidentally written most of the piece.
The outline method is especially effective for persuasive and explanatory writing, like memos and essays and emails. But it can work in creative writing too, if it doesn’t stifle fun ideas and make your work boring and predictable.
Sometimes it’s less scary to write freely, putting down your thoughts in the order they come to you. You don’t have to do the “real” writing yet, you’re just saying all the interesting things first and you’ll put them in order and fill in the blanks later!
It’s harder to “accidentally” write an entire piece this way, but it leaves more room for surprises, and for discovering what you actually want to say when you’re not sure yet. When you have the urge to say something, but you don’t know what, just get it all out with no self-editing. Then put down your draft, come back after an hour or more, and edit. Repeat this cycle several times.
You’ll often write in between: writing full sentences, trying to make each make sense, and trying to organise as you write. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But if you start to hate the process of writing, try only free writing or only outlining. Yes, you’re putting off the hard part, but you’re making it less hard in the process.