Monday, February 03, 2014

Cable Writing: A Novice's Guide

Every FS Officer will eventually write their first cable.  For "reporting officers" in Political or Economic Sections, this will be a regular thing and you'll have to cut your teeth very soon after arriving at post and start earning your kibble with useful reporting.  For Consular Officers, you might not be tasked with this at all, but instead you might come up with a topic of interest on your own.  Management Officers, I imagine, write more mundane cables about personnel transfers, allocations of funds, etc... and Public Diplomacy Officers no doubt write about events at post, programs, cultural exchanges etc...   Regardless of topic, writing your first cable can be a daunting task and so I've come up with a simple step-by-step based on one person's, one-time experience. 
(With this advice and $3.25 you can surely get a cup of coffee.)
  1. Come up with topic: this can be something you notice about your host country, their workforce, a peculiarity in the visa applicants, a new trend, a worrisome trend - anything that you think might be of interest to policy-makers in Washington and/or to other officers at other posts, or future officers at your own post. 
  2. Mull over topic for days/weeks/months while trying to figure out the crucial element of "why do we care?"  The fact that strawberries are amazingly delicious in your host country is interesting for a culinary audience, but not necessarily for Washington. But the fact that the strawberry producing region is experiencing a boom season that will effect the value of US strawberry imports/exports - that could have some added value.  Keep asking yourself questions such as: What is the value of others knowing this information: Will it change behavior? Help shape policy? Report on a new trend? Alert others to possible visa fraud schemes? Inform others about economic motivations in your region?  Uncover political or economic changes in your local population? 
  3. Muster the courage/confidence to present your idea to your immediate supervisor. Hold breath for response. Imagine polite chuckling as you explain your idea, or a half-read email going directly to the Deleted Messages bin.
  4. Really? She/he agreed that it sounds worthwhile? Wait for the response from your supervisor's supervisor, and the person ahead of that person, and maybe even another person before starting.
  5. Got the green light? Woo hoo!  Now find a clever way to conduct your research on the topic. Will you conduct surveys? Will you comb databases for statistics? Will it be meetings with certain groups, government agencies, businesses, applicants? Where will you go to get to meet these people? Is your grasp of their language strong enough to handle these meetings and be understood/comprehend what you're hearing? Do they speak English? How will you get the time away from your regular work to conduct this research? What is your time frame? Is this an emergent issue that needs to be reported on this week, or something less pressing that could span months?
  6. Actually get started.  Make the best use of your time by being well-prepared for all meetings with background information so you can ask specific questions.  Be prepared for the answers to take your cable topic off into another direction and go with it.  Conducting a survey? Be ready for people to wonder exactly why this foreigner is asking these pesky questions.  Don't even try to explain by saying, "See, I'm writing this cable..." to the regular man-on-the-street; it is too complicated and just sounds like you're spying on them. Consider calling yourself a student writing a paper. 
  7. Once research is gathered, start double-checking facts.  If they tell you that there one one thousand strawberry farms in the country, where can you verify this?  If they tell you that their strawberries are the best because they have special bees that pollinate the plants - how credible is the source? Can you verify the information elsewhere? 
  8. Face the blank screen/page and start writing. Urgh. 
  9. What's your title or subject line? This needs to be catchy, not too long, not contain characters that the cable system can't handle* give context to the cable's topic, and be attention grabbing without being bait-and-switch misleading about the subject matter. 
  10. You'll need a summary paragraph to start it off. This is, fortunately, just titled "Summary" and has four to six sentences that directly sum up what each of your supporting paragraphs say.  Many readers won't get beyond this part, so tell the whole story in the Summary.  Many VIPs read cables en route to somewhere else which is about as much attention-span you may have to deliver your message. 
  11. Did you use a survey? You'll need a methodology paragraph just after the summary to let folks know how/when/who/what the survey covered. "Post conducted a survey of 53 strawberry farmers in Fruitlandia over a two-month period..." 
  12. Now on to the meat of the cable and selecting the headings for each paragraph. The headings should also tell the entire story if they are the only things that are read after the summary.  Your heading can't be:  "More research" but rather, "Research shows Fruitlandia's high sugar levels equal delicious strawberries." 
  13. Time to amalgamate everything you've said and state the main "why do we care" take-away: the two-sentence summary. Two sentences? Yes. Choose your words as you choose a fresh peach.  Remember that there is no such thing as a synonym and each word has the power to convey a subtle nuance (i.e. the difference between "watch," "look" and "observe"). 
  14. Now send your cable, already perfect no doubt, to your first clearer, or editor. 
  15. When they return it with entire paragraphs reworked and sentences slashed - take it in the best light, make the changes and send it on to clearer number two.
  16. Clearer number two: Love the part about the special bees - well done!
  17. Send to clearer number three. Make the title snappier! No, really - much snappier! Not there yet, really get my attention, c'mon!  Make changes and continue until satisfied.
  18. Clearer number four: Can you check with Other Section to get their input? 
  19. Other Section: We need more depth and detail. I think it needs two more paragraphs on this recent development we just learned about on your topic. Please come get the volumes of local newspapers and one government briefing paper we just received and blend it with a smooth segue that adds, and doesn't detract, from your original topic.  Make changes and continue. 
  20. Clearer number six:  Can you check your facts on that new paragraph you added? Perhaps you should conduct another survey?  Try not to cry. 
  21. Final clearer:  Wow - WAY too long. What's all this unnecessary stuff about bees? (Sound of red pen scribbling on paper.)  Change title, distill two added paragraphs from Step 19 into one crisp sentence. Slash favorite zinger line you came up with when you awoke in the middle of the night three months ago that you felt embodied the entire topic.  Maybe we should have the Embassy, other section or agency clear on this? Make changes and continue to releaser. 
  22. Actually RELEASE the cable (i.e. publish it via the cable system). See your name finally come out in print as "Drafted by..." and do a small dance for joy on the inside. Repeat this dance at home, but this time for real and with favorite song playing in background.
  23. Wait for response from Secretary. Okay, he's busy with Middle East Peace and all. Wait for response from Deputy Secretary.  Yeah, you're right; he must be busy in the Secretary's absence. Wait for response from Washington DC in general. Okay, how about the Ambassador?  Your co-workers? Anyone? Be satisfied and proud when at least one co-worker says, "Hey, good job on your cable!"
  24. Enjoy your moment to shine and consider doing it again, so easily forgetting previous steps 2-21.
That's it!

*The Green Committee at one of Mexico's Consulates wrote a cleverly-titled cable about their recent achievements and planned to title it, "It's not easy being green." Cute, right? But the problem was that the apostrophe wasn't an allowable character for titles in the cable-writing software program.  So it was released as "It is not easy being green," which they thought just sounded dorky.  Yeah, unfortunately it did.