How to Improve Your Writing in 30 Days

Just in Time for the June FSOT — Two Things to Bump Up Your Drafting Prowess and Another That Could Be Your Secret Weapon (A hint: Think Wiki and I’m not talking about Wikipedia…)

The results are not pretty. According to FSOs, the weakest skill among ELOs is writing.  ELOs handicapped with an academic style — ponderous, pompous, and slow — are met with eye-rolling and shaking heads.  In fact, FS managers prefer those with poor or no drafting skills than someone with an affected and long-winded style.  As I’ve mentioned before, there is a distinct  style to Foreign Service writing — short, straightforward, some style, a little funny and sexy.  Your subject lines and summary had better sing, if you want to get your stuff read in the region and back in Washington.  And that is the goal.  Regardless of career track, trust me, you want to get read…

Writing is the currency in the Foreign Service

I can’t emphasize how important writing is to the State Department.  It’s simple — the better you write, the better you’ll do in the Foreign Service.  If you want to be a political, economic or public diplomacy, you’d better write your ass off and get up to speed now.  Management and consular officers will also be judged by their writing.  Hell, everyone is judged by his or her writing.  

If FSOs Need to Write Well; FSO Candidates Must Also

I believe that writing is the major part of your Foreign Service Exam grade.  The FSOT examiners — State or private — will scrub your essays and personnel narratives to see how well you meet the needs of the Service. The good news is that I’ve found three ways to get you up to snuff in 30 days. First, you need to buy this book and study it.  Incorporate its lessons into your writing.  Those who know me, understand that I think journalists and writers have a leg up on everybody else in the Foreign Service.  Why?  Professional writers have to write clearly and quickly, both skills prized in the Foreign Service.

I had hoped to find an online course to help improve your writig.  But I failed.  I couldn’t find anything good.  Sure, there are plenty of courses for creative writing, screenwriting, novel writing, even poetry writing, but none on straightforward expository writing.  If you know of one, please let me know.

So I discovered the next best thing: a book.  A great book.  This book if you study its lessons will help you improve in time for the June test.

The author, Paula LaRocque, is a writing consultant, blogger and most recently a novelist. She has years of experience in training others how to write.  Her clients have ranged from reporters and editors at the Associated Press to academia, business and governments.  She has lectured and taught on writing in North America as well as overseas.  Equally important, Paula is a professional writer herself — not just a teacher — and worked as an Assistant Managing Editor and columnist for The Dallas Morning News.  She’s the real deal, and her book is an excellent resource to hone your own writing.  Yes, some of you swear by The Elements of Style, another excellent resource, but LaRocque’s book is meatier and offers better instruction.   (Full disclosure: I do make some money if you buy through the Amazon link above.  I use this to  defray the costs of the blog.  I appreciate your help)

Besides reading about writing, I think the best way for you to improve your drafting is by doing it.  With no online courses to offer, I am recommending a website that I use —  This is a free website created by one Buster Benson who wants you to write 750 words per day.  He thinks everyone should do it.   I think it gives FSO candidates an enormous opportunity to get ready for the Foreign Service Exam.  Take a look at it.  Frankly, I can’t think of a better way to boost your writing skills than by sitting down and writing yourself.  This site encourages you to write 750 words, roughly 3 pages, every day on your interests, as a journal, or just a record of your mood.  I think that you can start for the first few days writing whatever pops in your head.

Write Three Pages a Day

After writing about anything, you should start pulling stories out of the daily news and rewriting them in the form of a State Department cable.  The more you practice writing, the more your prose will improve.  It’s excellent practice not only for the FSOT, but also for your job or class.  Check it out and let me know what you think.  (Note: I  make no money from this site, and I’m not even sure that the Buster makes anything.  If I knew him, I’d ask…)

Okay, that’s my advice.  I really believe you can dramatically improve your writing with just these two aids — Paula and Buster…


Wait, I mentioned a third, compliments of the US Army, Bradley Manning and Julian Assange.  Disgusting and treasonous, the release of tens of thousands of State Department cables (which to this day officials neither confirm or deny) offers you a treasure trove of Foreign Service writing.  Remember, however, when you pass the test and join the State Department frowns on staff accessing the Wikileaks files on the Internet at work.  In fact, I have never looked at them until a week ago, when I thought of Wikileaks as an opportunity for FSOT takers.  I have never looked at them, not even when they were first released — as many State colleagues had — so I don’t know if my own cables were released.  I hope not.

Meantime, all of you who enter the Foreign Service will bear the fallout of the Wikileaks disaster.  I can tell you that Wikileaks has meant our sources dried up.  Who wants to tell anything to an U.S. diplomat when their previous comments are out there for anyone to see.  Don’t underestimate our enemies and allies — they’ve pored over the cables.  As a result, foreign officials as well as private citizens were fired,  jailed, perhaps even executed.  At least one U.S. ambassador was kicked out of his country. A catastrophe.  Your efforts overseas to recruit sources and contacts will be much harder.  You may not want to look at the leaked cables, and I can understand.  But if you’re interested in State Department writing, good and bad, they are out there.  Just Google them.















  1. Thanks for your posts and blog. I have a question about the writing style on the FSOT. I have read in a number of unofficial sites that the best style for the FSOT essay is the five-paragraph essay. Do you have any idea if this is true. If so, would a five-paragraph essay using three body paragraphs to support the thesis be the best style or would an argumentative essay style be better (thesis, reasons, counter argument, response to counter argument, conclusion). Thanks in advance for any help you can provide. This is the area that I have the hardest time with because I am not sure what they are looking for.

    • Patrick–
      The examiners want to know you, understand the arguments putting forward and that your drafting style is clear and straightforward. For the FSOT, my understanding is that the argument and subject are less important than how you write. Again, the watchwords are clarity, ease of understanding and getting your point across.

      Five-paragraph essays are certainly fine, but I wouldn’t be nervous if you went four or six paragraphs. Again, it’s how you present your thoughts.

      I hope this helps. The Foreign Service Exam overall is very tough, and the FS seems to be trying to weed people out than taking those who truly belong. That’s my opinion, of course. But don’t second guess yourself. If the five-para essay feels write for you, go for it. Likewise, they want to see your drafting — either supporting the thesis or arguing the contention — and the process of setting it out. The process is not as important.

      Best of luck and keep me posted.

      Best regards,


  2. Thanks again for your answer. This is the one section that I find difficult to prepare for. Last year, I did very well on the English and general section but I missed the writing by a point. I feel that the English and general section both have something I can work towards and practice but I have always felt in the dark with the writing section. I have never know what format they care about which has made me doubt what I was doing. Thanks again for your advice.

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