GEOG 571
Intelligence Analysis, Cultural Geography, and Homeland Security

3.9 Writing a Brief

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Differences Between Writing an Academic Paper and a Brief


Throughout your academic life, you’ve been told to start with a broad concept and work your way to more specificity about your research and topic. You’re expected to write eloquently, sometimes for many pages at a time. The traditional academic paper is written more like an hourglass: you introduce your topic and hypothesis, provide an overview of relevant literature, discuss your methods, then get to your results, and finally your conclusions and implications. A reader must read all the way to the bottom in order to gain your insights and conclusions.

When writing a brief, you want to forget that construct. Remove it from your brain. Do the opposite.

I know, easier said than done.

The purpose of a written brief is to be…well…brief. You need to be able to convey the most important information to your customer as quickly, concisely, and clearly as possible. The key here is knowing who your customer is, what they need to know to do their job, and putting your bottom line up front. Many refer to this style of writing as the “inverted pyramid,” where your conclusions are actually the first sentence of your paragraph (Brown, 2020) (Figure 3.1). This can be difficult for academically trained analysts to wrap their minds around. 

Graphic showing the differences between academic writitng and brief writing
Figure 3.1: Comparison between traditional academic style of writing and the inverted pyramid style.
Credit: Leanne Sulewski


Important Aspects of a Written Brief:


According to the Analysts Style Manual (Welch, 2008), there are six rules to intelligence writing:
  1. Put your bottom line, main message, or most important conclusion first
  2. Write short paragraphs
  3. Use the active voice
  4. Avoid verbose language
  5. Write short sentences
  6. Pay attention to your credibility:
    1. Spelling and grammar are important to building your credibility.
    2. Make sure your arguments are based in fact and logic.
    3. Use citations.

Examples of Written Briefs


Spoiler alert, if you haven’t watched the Avengers Infinity War and plan to, I’m so sorry. This is merely for illustration purposes only. The example briefs below are each about 120 words, your briefs will need to be more robust.

A Good Brief:

The Avengers were victorious over the evil villain Thanos and saved the universe, but not without the loss of Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) and Natasha (aka Black Widow). During the final battle, Tony Stark was able to get all of the Infinity Stones from Thanos and used them to get rid of Thanos and his army. Previously, Thanos acquired the Infinity Stones, wishing to get rid of half of the life in the universe, including many of the Avengers team, including but not limited to Star Lord, Scarlet Witch, T’Challa,and Groot. The Avengers used time magic to retrieve all of the stones from the past to help undo Thano’s previous wish, allowing them to battle Thanos and his army.

What this brief does well:

  • Bottom line is up front: tells you what you need to know
  • Gives you the most relevant details following the bottom line
  • Follow up with ancillary information.

A Bad Brief:

After acquiring the Infinity Stones, the evil villain Thanos wished to get rid of half of the life in the universe. This included many of the Avengers team, including but not limited to Star Lord, Scarlet Witch, T’Challa, and Groot. The Avengers then used time magic to retrieve all of the stones from the past to help undo Thano’s previous wish, allowing them to battle Thanos and his army. During the final battle, Tony Stark was able to get all of the Infinity Stones from Thanos and used them to get rid of Thanos and his army. Ultimately, the Avengers were victorious over the evil villain Thanos and saved the universe, but not without the loss of Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) and Natasha (aka Black Widow).

What this brief does poorly:

  • The point of the brief is at the bottom. Your customer will have to read the entire brief to know what you want them to know.
  • Reads more like a story.
     

References

Brown, Z. T. (2020, July 16). How you can write like an intelligence analyst. Zachery Tyson Brown.

Welch, B. (2008). The Analyst’s Style Manual. Mercyhurst College Institute for Intelligence Studies Press.