The CIA Released Their Style Guide, and It's Absolutely Fascinating

Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



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The Chicago Manual of Style. The Associated Press Stylebook.

And I guess I have to mention that college-age necessity: the MLA Handbook.

If you adhere to a certain stylebook, then you know you have certain allegiances to commas, hyphens, and abbreviations. But if your business or client is a bit less visually stimulating -- and even a “tad” secretive -- then you need to check out the recently surfaced Directorate of Intelligence’s Style Manual & Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications, which was released to the National Security Counselors after a Freedom of Information Act request.

It’s a more serious guide to writing with clarity, but it is just as interesting as BuzzFeed’s online style guide, which includes entries for bro-ing (not to be confused with a bro-down) and fav’ed. While it wasn’t penned by David Ogilvy, the guide is just as quotable:

“The world is not static. Nor is the language we employ to assess it.” The guide contains the correct spellings for words like death squad (two words) while also using wholesome examples to illustrate correct usage: “Rodgers and Hammerstein's only collaboration specifically for a film was on State Fair.” It also includes a Well-Known Abbreviations section, which highlights ABM (antiballistic missile), ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile), SAM (surface-to-air missile), SRBM (short-range ballistic missile), and SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile) -- just in case you were confused.

The document states that: “This compilation is meant to provide guidance for writers of intelligence publications as well as writers of intelligence-related administrative papers. All are assumed already to possess the three essentials of intelligence analysis: knowledge, clarity of thought, and good judgment. No writing, however skilled, can conceal deficiencies in these requisites.” It continues with some sage advice for any writer or editor:

  • Keep the language crisp and pungent; prefer the forthright to the pompous and ornate.
  • Do not stray from the subject; omit the extraneous, no matter how brilliant it may seem or even be.
  • Favor the active voice and shun streams of polysyllables and prepositional phrases.
  • Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power.
  • Be objective; write as a reporter or analyst or administrator unless you are entitled to write as a policymaker.

While your client may not be one of the most secretive and dividing organizations in the Free World (and the guide has an entry on this as well: use noncommunist world in all but historical contexts), your team might be able to learn a few things about adhering to brand standards when writing. Here are some memorable insights, examples of correct usage, and general guidelines from the 8th edition of the CIA's style manual:

Disinformation, Misinformation

Disinformation refers to the deliberate planting of false reports. Misinformation equates in meaning but does not carry the same devious connotation.

Technical Terms

For the most part, DI analysts are writing for generalists. Generalists may have deep expertise in specific areas, such as missile technology or a country's tribal politics; nonetheless, the analyst's goal is to do away with the specialist's jargon and to put everything into layman's language. If your audience consists of just a few people who thoroughly understand the subject (or who cannot be trusted to follow the reasoning without jargon to guide them), by all means sprinkle your piece with technical terms. Most of the time, however, write for the nonexpert.

Exclamation Point

Because intelligence reports are expected to be dispassionate, this punctuation mark should rarely, if ever, be used.


The use of the period is so elementary that it hardly needs to be discussed in this guide except to point out that it is not generally used in CIA for abbreviations and that a single space is used between sentences.

Question Mark

A question mark may be used as part of an appropriate title. Moscow and the Eurocommunists: Where Next? A Credible Nuclear Deterrent?


carries tricky emotional overtones. If a piece of analysis says the leaders of another country feel a certain way, the policymaking reader may conclude that the writer is identifying with those leaders -- and perhaps criticizing the policymaker. You are on safer ground with calculate or estimate, whose relationship to the policymaker's operational world is unambiguous.


is something we all do, even writers who relegate world leaders to a sort of Immortality Club with phrasing like the President has taken steps to ensure a peaceful transition if he should die. Reality can be recognized by inserting in office or before the end of his term, or even by saying simply when he dies.

Probable, Possible

Analysts, particularly military analysts, are tempted to use probable 
or possible when what probably is or what possibly is is the proper formulation: the attache saw what probably is a missile, not the attache saw a probable missile. Could the officer have seen an improbable (or impossible!) missile?

Lay, Lie

Lay means to put, place, or prepare. It always takes a direct object. Both the past tense and the past participle are laid. (The President ordered his aide to lay a wreath at the unknown soldier's tomb. The aide laid the wreath two hours later. Yesterday a wreath was laid by the defense minister.) Lie means to recline or be situated; it never takes a direct object. Confusion arises because the past tense of lie is lay (the past participle is lain). He lies (or lay, or has lain) down.

Nonconventional, Unconventional

Nonconventional refers to high-tech weaponry short of nuclear explosives. Fuel-air bombs are effective nonconventional weapons. Unconventional means not bound by convention. Shirley Chisholm was an unconventional woman.

Political Philosophies

Not all liberal European parties have the word liberal in their names. The communist countries today are China, Cuba, North Korea, Laos, and Vietnam. Communist countries and parties often call themselves "Socialist" or "socialist." In paraphrasing communist statements, put such references in quotation marks. The same applies to imperialism and imperialist (and to anti-imperialism and anti-imperialist), which are terms communists use in describing their opponents.

Holidays, Religious Feasts, and Historic and Other Significant Events

Capitalize the W in October War or Six-Day War because either term as a whole is a distinguishing coined name, but 1973 Middle East war or 1967 Arab-Israeli war is distinguishing enough without the capital W. Avoid Yom Kippur war, which is slangy. Do not uppercase the w in Korean war, which was "undeclared"; the same logic applies to Vietnam war and Falklands war, and a similar convention (if not logic) to Iran-Iraq war.


When a nickname or a descriptive expression replaces a person's first name, capitalize it. If the nickname falls between a person's first and last names, capitalize it and enclose it in quotation marks. The late revolutionary Che Guevara,
 Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu

Religious Terms

Do not capitalize such terms when they are used in a nonreligious sense. This style guide, which should be the bible for intelligence writers, attempts to be catholic in its approach to English usage.


One of Theodore M. Bernstein's best style books is Dos, Don'ts & Maybes of English Usage, but it fails to point out that most incorrect due to's can be remedied by changing them to because of’s. (Note that the 's is not italicized when attached to form the plural forms of the italicized due to and because of in this example.)

Separation of Clauses

Railroading is not a variety of outdoor sport: it is a service.

Anticipate, Expect

When you anticipate an event, you generally make some preparation for it; when you expect an event. you simply await developments before acting. They anticipated a hostile crowd, so they mobilized the National Guard. Had they expected a hostile crowd, they would not have been surprised, but the National Guard would not have been there.

Celebrity Copycatting

can lead one up the garden path because those emulated are not always pure of speech. A venerable newscaster persists in mispronouncing February (without the first r sound) and has misled a whole generation. Another Pied Piper of TV is given to saying "one of those who is"—joining many others who are deceived by the one and forget that the plural who is the subject of the verb (see one). The classic copycat phrase, at this point in time, grew out of the Watergate hearings and now is so firmly entrenched that we may never again get people to say at this time, at present, or simply now (see presently).

Escalate, Accelerate, Intensify

Escalate means to increase by successive stages. A confrontation can escalate from border skirmishes to raids to invasion to all-out war; pensions can escalate with annual cost-of-living increases. Do not use escalate when you mean simply accelerate or intensify. His political problems are escalating is poor usage.

Could, May, Might

Both may and might deal with possibility. For many, might carries an implication of greater uncertainty on the part of the writer, Again, the construction provides little enlightenment unless it offers further analysis. Country A may invade Country B if President X gets the support of Country C. Country A might invade Country B if President X can persuade the legislature to back him.

Shortened Titles

Writers of constitutions (general use) and compilers of style guides are kindred souls.

Major Storms

Capitalize hurricane and typhoon as part of a US National Weather Service name for such a storm, as in Hurricane Katrina or Typhoon Morakot. Both terms designate types of cyclones, as does tornado, but personalization has not been applied to cyclones, tornadoes, or waterspouts (tornadoes gone to sea). In view of the confusion of nomenclature, be sure of what you are talking about before you write about it.

Numbers In Nonliteral Sense

Because he is a shrewd politician he remains number two in the regime instead of number twenty.

Ambiguous Abbreviations

Still another source of confusion is the improper kts for knots (which, if abbreviated at all, should be shortened to kn). The kts is easily mistaken for kilotons (correctly abbreviated kt).

internet marketing written style guide

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