You Have a Story? – When Are You Going to Write It?

from Rotor Review Winter 2024 #163

Several years ago at the 2019 NHA Symposium, we had our first-ever NHA Writer’s Panel. The intent – and results – of the panel were captured by Lieutenant Sam Calaway in the Summer 2019 issue of Rotor Review. LT Calaway explained why the NHA Staff and our Rotor Review Editor, LT Shelby Gillis, asked us to hold the panel. Here is part of what he said:

If there was a consistent theme and one main thing the panelists conveyed it was this: There are a number of wellknown writers who have been producing military fiction and non-fiction for decades – and that’s the problem. Most of them are former military folks who used to be well-versed in all aspects of the military, but their information has become so dated their stories are no longer as interesting – or believable – as their earlier works. But that problem creates an opportunity for all of you in flight suits or coveralls. You are living this now and can tell riveting and believable stories that will find their way into print.

LT Gillis and the NHA Staff thought that a “one-timeinoculation” was a good start, but wondered if we could do something along the lines of a constant drumbeat and share some of the tricks of the trade as well as the tactics, techniques ,and procedures to help you get your ideas out into the world and noticed. However, LT Gillis also challenged us to not just talk about writing in our off-duty time, but to talk about the importance – and impact – of writing for all of you who are sea service professionals and still in uniform.

This is the first of several installments aimed at doing both those things – talking about writing on and off duty. These are related – but somewhat different efforts (you may have received a FITREP once that read like science fiction, but most of us haven’t). So first, we’ll talk about writing with a small “w” – writing at work, and then segue to writing with a big “W” – writing for a mainstream audience. By way of clarification, for that second area, we’re not talking about tweets or Facebook posts or the like, we’ll be talking about getting something in a respected online venue or in print.

The small “w” – writing at work. Wait a minute! – you might say, we’re aviators, “someone else” needs to be doing that. Well, not really. I spent my last 14 years on active duty as either CO, XO, Commodore or Chief of Staff. All that means is that I was at the end of the food chain for tons of written work: Officer FITREPs, Enlisted Evaluations, Naval Messages, White Papers, you name it. And like it or not, this material wasn’t written by a select few (those “someone elses”) but by every officer, chief petty officer, and senior enlisted.

There is so much talent in the naval rotary wing community that junior officers – in particular – are always asking: How do I break out? What makes me pack-plus? What discriminators does my skipper use to help decide who advances in their career and who doesn’t?

As Naval Aviators and leaders, we’re likely to focus on those two attributes – flying and leading. They are important. But look at it from your skipper’s perspective. Most pilots fly their missions well. Sure, if one pilot in the squadron is voted by his or her peers as pilot of the year, and another bangs up aircraft frequently, it’s easy for the skipper to use that as a discriminator. But let’s face it, most of us are under that bellshaped-curve and there’s not much to discriminate our flying skills.

It’s a similar story with leadership. If one lieutenant gets his or her Sailors recognized with all kinds of awards and they excel on their advancement exams, while another lieutenant is on the frequent flier program with his Sailors at XOI or Captain’s Mast, then that gives the skipper a good way to rack and stack them. But most of us are somewhere in the middle of that yawning spectrum.

So what’s left to discriminate the hard-chargers from those who are less so? It’s writing! Having been on the receiving end of hundreds of officer FITREPs, thousands of enlisted evals, point papers, and etc. etc. I can tell you from first-person experience that the differences in quality are astounding.

And you might find it surprising that it’s not the English majors who are writing well, and the EE majors who aren’t. It all comes down to the thought and care and craftsmanship you put into everything you write. And this goes vastly beyond being recognized as the best lieutenant in the squadron. I’ve seen a well-written white paper convince grumpy commodores or unit commanders to do something they originally said they didn’t want to do.

Writing has the power to enable you to influence the course of events in your unit – and beyond. And it even has an impact when you’re a skipper. I’ve sat on selection boards and you only have to read a few FITREPs to see which skippers put a great deal of thought, care and craftsmanship into reporting on their officers and which don’t. Sadly, those in the latter category put their officers at a disadvantage, because board members can’t figure out what the skipper is trying to communicate.

This doesn’t have to be a big rock up a steep hill. There is ample “gouge” out there, beginning with the Naval Writing Guide and a host of other books. Ask around your squadron, someone likely has a copy of most of them. Practice, and don’t be ashamed to ask those who write well for some help.

We don’t want to make this column too long, so I’ll touch on the big “W” – writing for a mainstream audience –briefly here, and then talk in more depth in future articles. In the interim, NHA is now communicating with all of us electronically at least monthly, so we can keep the dialogue going more than just once a quarter.

As someone who stayed alive for thirty years on active duty by following a NATOPS Checklist, what I’ll share with you over the next few issues of Rotor Review is a bit of a methodical, step-by-step approach to getting your ideas out into the world and noticed. We’ll start with what we’re doing today, “Why Write?,” then move on to “First – and Essential –Steps,” and then discuss “Non-Fiction – The Hungry Market.”

After that we’ll discuss fiction and talk about why and how you might want to write, “The Great American Novel.” We’ll also discuss “Establishing an Online Presence” and then talk about “Social Media – Challenges and Opportunities.” All the while, we’ll have ample opportunities to communicate between quarterly issues of Rotor Review.

Why write for a mainstream audience? Perhaps the best way to capture that is to quote my friend Norman Polmar, who is fond of saying, “History is what the historians and writers say it is.” Norman has published over forty books on naval history and most consider him the authoritative source on the subject. Someone has to write down what happens…and that becomes ground truth.

Here’s another way to look at it, and, I trust it will help you understand that writing stories isn’t some odd thing that only a few people do. In Book People, John Sutherland put it this way, “Storytelling is as human as breathing. Literature, since it emerged 4,000 years ago, has shaped the lives of most humans on planet Earth. We are what we read.”

The NHA Staff has been generous in providing us with an opportunity to share some of what we know about writing, so I’ll wrap this up shortly. One of the best answers to the question, “Why Write?” comes from my friend and co-author, Dick Couch. Here’s how he put it in an article in our alumni magazine some years ago:

For me, I gotta write, and it’s the adventure of it that’s hooked me. As the writer, I can do it all. I get to be the National Security Advisor who recommends the action to the President who must commit the forces. I’m the senior officer who sends his men into action and who feels the pain if they don’t make it back. I’m the enemy and the defender; logistician and staff planner. But most of all, I’m a young man again, that fresh lieutenant who must lead his men into battle.

Some men want to die with their boots on. When I cash in my chips, I want to be slumped over the keyboard. And they can plant me with my word processor. I may wake up and want to write about it.

Finally, we all recognize we live in a highly technical world. Our aircraft are complex and we need to understand them. But that often makes us turn to data as the king of the hill. It isn’t. Here’s how Michael Lewis put it in, The Undoing Project, “No one ever made a decision based on a number. They need a story.”

That, in a nutshell, is why we are starting this column again. So many of you have stories to tell, and we want to help you tell them!

We need your stories. We’ll continue the journey in the next issue of Rotor Review. In the meantime, let’s keep the dialogue going and keep writing!