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How Intelligence Analysts Can Improve Critical Thinking and Writing Skills

By Charles M. Russo, faculty member, Intelligence Studies at American Military University

Intelligence analysts must be critical thinkers. They need to be able to synthesize disparate information received from multiple sources, and use that information to anticipate and prevent illicit activities including terrorism, human trafficking, and organized criminal elements.

Analysts must also be strong writers, able to share information both clearly and concisely. Ultimately, intelligence analysts are responsible for preparing comprehensive written reports, presentations, maps, or charts based on their research, collection, and analysis of intelligence data.

[Related: Is Intelligence an Art or a Science?]

In my years of being an intelligence analyst for the U.S. federal government (civilian and contractor), active-duty military and reserve, I have seen my share of analysts and their work, good and bad. Throughout my 26-year career, I cannot pretend that I was always a stellar analyst myself, however, as the years went by I learned a lot and greatly improved my critical thinking and writing skills. How was this accomplished? By proactively reading more, writing more and thinking more.

Think About How You Think

When intelligence failures happen, the failures are often blamed on the lack of imagination by the analysts, as in the 9/11 Commission Report. The importance of critical thinking has been heard again and again from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the U.S. intelligence community at large, and many of the professional schools such as the National Intelligence University, Central Intelligence Agency University, and Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy, just to name a few.

[Related: Managing the Stress of a Career in Intelligence]

The first thing analysts need to do to improve their critical thinking skills is to spend time thinking about how they think. Improving critical thinking skills requires one to be self-directed, self-monitored, self-disciplined and self-corrective. Practitioners must be mindful of commanding their thinking and improving their critical thinking skills. Humans have biases, assumptions, and preconceptions that often distort the quality of thought. If the analyst understands what critical thinking is and how to think critically, their ability to process information should naturally and ultimately lead to improved analysis.

How to Improve Your Critical Thinking

Like anything, improving how you think takes practice. Analysts should exercise their mind by reading and talking about what they’re learning. There are a plethora of books, articles and tips to improve analytical thinking skills. The majority of articles encourage active reading and playing brain games as a practical, yet fun way to improve cognitive functionality. Spending just 15 minutes a day on such activities has been shown to boost brain power.

Reading and comprehending materials meant specifically for those in the intelligence field will further advance one’s critical thinking skills. Here’s a list of resources to help analysts improve their thinking and analysis skills:

Ways to Improve Your Writing

It is critical for analysts to be effective writers. Being able to write well is something that can be taught and often improves with time and experience. Author and historian David McCullough stated: “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” This is why critical thinking skills are so important and directly contributes to strong analytic writing skills.

Analytical writing is used to synthesize and interpret information, not to describe. Analysts render what is complex and make it simple in order to show relationships between pieces of information. Since the analyst’s mission is to read, weigh, and assess fragmented information in order to determine its meaning, the analyst has to look for the “big picture.” The analyst has to be able to draw conclusions that are greater than the data they are based on.

Follow BLUF

When writing, analysts should present conclusions first, also known as the “Bottom Line Up Front” (BLUF). Leading with an assessment and proceeding with supporting information allows a reader to immediately know the message. Writing must exemplify clarity and brevity. Analysts write primarily in the expository style, which requires them to use precise words and simple language. It cannot be stressed enough that when writing an intelligence product, the analyst must focus on clarity and structure.

[Related: Could You Pass the CIA’s Writing Boot Camp?]

A successful intelligence product is one that conveys the same message to all who read it. To ensure this, the analyst must write clearly and concisely in a way that is simple, yet succinct, so the reader cannot misunderstand the message. Analysts should always be working to enhance their writing skills to improve clarity, brevity, precision, and structure.

Know Your Audience

Part of writing well is knowing your reader and what they need. As an analyst, you should be asking two questions:

  1. What is the message you are conveying?
  2. So what?

Your audience is looking for insight into situations and your judgments will help them make decisions. While you’re writing, visualize the client and pretend like you’re speaking directly to them. Play devil’s advocate and try to anticipate the questions they may ask about your work.

Edit, Edit, Edit

Few analysts get it right on the first draft. All analysts should take time to edit and further develop their work. Too many times, individuals want to write something and immediately push it further up the chain without review. Unless there’s a strict timeline, this is often unwise. Analysts must take the time to read, review, and revise their work. Proofread, check for grammar and punctuation, evaluate if your language can be more direct and simple, and continuously revise to improve clarity.

Read it Out Loud

I found it helped to read my work out loud to hear how it sounds. This can help you catch problems with sentence structure or word usage. While this may seem very basic, it is one often overlooked way to improve your writing.

Ask Others to Review

Turn to others for insight about your writing by asking for feedback and suggestions. It’s often very beneficial to have a fresh set of eyes on an intelligence product since the author tends to be so engrossed in the material. When someone provides feedback, take the time to evaluate their suggestions or corrections so you can learn from it and avoid those mistakes in the future.

Enroll in Writing or Academic Courses

Look for opportunities to write more. Those pursuing a degree regularly write papers and get feedback from professors. Many agencies within the U.S. intelligence community also offer writing courses. The National Intelligence University and Naval Post-Graduate School offers writing courses to its students. In addition, through the direction of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) offers Analytic Tradecraft Standards (ODNI Intel Community Directive 203), which provides a common foundation for developing analytic skills. Analysts should check with each agency within the U.S. intelligence community from time-to-time to see if new writing courses are being offered.

Resources to Improve Writing

One of the most authoritative books to help both the aspiring analyst and the seasoned veteran improve their writing is James S. Major’s “Communicating with Intelligence: Writing and Briefing in the Intelligence and National Security Communities.” What is significant about this book is that Major reinforces key points through practical exercises at the end of each chapter.

This book focuses on “writing with intelligence,” which covers the value of reading intelligence publications, the basic tools of writing, critical drafting and polishing processes, and techniques for reviewing analytical papers. The book also focuses on briefing techniques. It lays out the elements of a good briefing and the manner in which it should be delivered. Other aspects included in the book are a glossary for writers, a briefing checklist, a sample briefing, and a self-evaluation form. This book should be in every intelligence analysts’ repertoire of intelligence literature for how to become a better analytic writer and briefer.

Becoming a better thinker and writer takes time, experience, and practice. Analysts must be self-motivated to improve these skills so they produce stronger and more thorough intelligence products.

About the Author: Charles M. Russo is an adjunct instructor at American Military University, teaching courses Criminal Justice, Homeland Security and Intelligence Studies. He possesses a PhD in Public Safety Leadership from Capella University and a MA in Intelligence Studies from American Military University. Charles is a retired Intelligence Analyst after serving more than 26 years in the U.S. Intelligence Community, including the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He is the CEO of Intelligence Career Services, providing mentoring and assistance services to individuals looking to become active in the IC. He is also a consultant supporting intelligence, law enforcement, and emergency response training and education efforts across state and local government. He currently lives and works in Carson City, Nevada.

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