Lessons in Writing from a Master: Col John E. Greenwood, USMC (Ret.)

by Dr ROBERT T. FOLEY

I recently learned that my old friend and mentor, Col. John E. Greenwood, USMC (Ret.) has passed away. I first met Col Greenwood while editing the Marine Corps Gazette. After a distinguished career 30-year career in the Marine Corps, including numerous combat tours in Korea and Vietnam, Col Greenwood edited the Gazette for a further 20 years. Under his stewardship, the Gazette reclaimed its place as a forum for the exchange of professional knowledge on all matters relating to the US Marine Corps specifically and modern warfare more generally. Long before there was a Military Writers Guild, Col Greenwood played a key role in encouraging younger authors, from both inside and outside the Marine Corps, to publish their ideas. He gave unstintingly of his time and his experience to help authors develop their ideas and their writing skills, and this helped create the Gazette as an important medium for reform in the Marine Corps and the wider Department of Defense. Looking back through past issues of the Marine Corps Gazette, one can see articles by much younger and less experienced writers including then-1stLt Bruce I. Gudmundsson, then-Capt Thomas X. Hammes, then-Maj Gary Anderson, then-Maj Frank G. Hoffmann, and many others. He encouraged the publication of great debates that shaped how the US Marine Corps thought about, trained for, and organized itself for war. Indeed, the debates about maneuver warfare and fourth generation warfare had impact far beyond the US Marine Corps.

While working as an associate editor for the Marine Corps Gazette in the early 1990s, I learned an enormous amount from Col Greenwood. I thought there could be no better way to honor his memory than to share some of the lessons on writing, and by extension thinking, he taught me:

1) Don’t be afraid of writing. Looking at a blank piece of paper or blank computer screen can be hugely intimidating for young (and even old) authors. Knowing where and how to start, worrying about how ideas will be received, or worrying about criticism all conspire against writing. Col Greenwood taught me to simply dive in and write. Writing can always be changed and improved. Indeed, a piece of writing never has to leave the comfort of one’s own computer.

2) Feedback is essential. No matter how good you are at communicating your ideas, your writing can always be sharpened and your argument improved. At first, I dreaded my work coming back from Col Greenwood covered in green pen with his remarks and suggestions. As I learned to be more relaxed about writing and to fear writing less, I saw that his suggestions and comments were designed to improve the communication of my ideas, but also to challenge some of the assumptions upon which my thinking were based. This feedback allowed me to articulate better arguments clearly, and I believe it is an essential element of effective writing.

3) You don’t know what you know until you write it down. We often have ideas in our head that are only fully formed by the writing process. The very act of sitting down and writing forces us to articulate our thoughts and our thought processes. Writing demonstrates the gaps in our knowledge or the leaps in our logic. I used to see this at work every month at the Gazette. Col Greenwood would often take a week to write his monthly editorial. Sometimes, these would start out arguing one thing, but argue something completely different in the completed editorial. The act of writing, and the feedback he got from others, helped shape Col Greenwood’s ideas.

4) Writing is a skill. Most people find writing difficult; I certainly did and still do. However, there is nothing magical about writing; the more one practices the better one gets (or at least the easier the process seems). Col Greenwood encouraged me to write every day. The process of putting words on paper daily reinforced the points above, particularly the first point about not fearing writing.

5) Learn from others. A great way of improving one’s own writing and arguing is to examine how others write and how others form their arguments. As an editor at the Gazette, I sometimes had to break down other people’s writing to its most basic level in order to help build it back up again. This editing process helped me think about how others built and articulated their arguments. While it is not always necessary to carry this process to this extreme, reading widely and reflecting how another author has formed his or her argument helps develop one’s own writing and arguing skills.

I believe that I am a better writer, and hence a better thinker, as a result of the lessons Col Greenwood taught me while I was at the Marine Corps Gazette. For the past 15 years or so, I have tried to pass on Col Greenwood’s lessons in writing to my students as well. At the very least, he gave me the confidence to pursue academic research and to expose this research to criticism through publication. For this I will be forever grateful.

Semper fidelis, Col Greenwood.

Image: Col John E. Greenwood, USMC (Ret.) at his desk at the Marine Corps Gazette offices. Photo courtesy of the Marine Corps Gazette/Marine Corps Association.

4 comments

  1. Excellent post – especially like (3). Writing forces you to fill in the spaces in what you know, thus extending it and making it a more balanced statement of the truth.

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  2. Heartily concur with the spirit and substance of this wonderful piece. I was published 75 times in the Gazette during COL Greenwood’s tenure. Am tempted to call it a regime, as he ran a taut and disciplined ship. Each of my pieces was improved upon, and the few he convinced me to bury probably saved what meager career I had. The senior leadership of today’s Marine Corps recognizes what a contribution John Greenwood made to our Corps, and paid their respects in person to his family at the service this week. He will NOT be forgotten.

    Semper Fi, Frank

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