Tips & Suggestions For Security Writers

I recently published an article about writing and publishing a book, which contains lots of tips and suggestions that also apply to article writing.
But having managed a successful security blog, reaching several hundreds of thousands of readers all around the world, here are a few insights that are more specific to blogging.

Blog Platform

It really doesn’t matter which platform you use, they all give you what you need (social media sharing, SEO, plugins, etc.). I’ve been using WordPress, which works just fine, and upgraded to their paid services (which aren’t all that expensive) in order to do even more with it. If you don’t want to manage your own blog platform, you can just put your content on Medium, which works perfectly fine too.

Image/Photo

You can find some great—and free—stock photo sites, like Pexels (the one I use most often), Pixbary and many others. In this day and age, don’t even think about posting an article that doesn’t have an image in it—one that’s visible in a thumbnail social media post.

The image should be related to the subject of the article and should be attractive. If you can’t find an image that can combine both factors, you should favor attractiveness over direct relevance. This isn’t a question of favoring eye-candy over substance. The image is almost never the substance anyway, it’s a conduit for getting more people to read your article. It’s the article itself that should hold the substance and the value. An eye-candy image will just attract more people to where the real value is.

Catchy Title

There’s usually a tug of war between accurately describing the article and giving it a catchy, attractive title that’ll cause more people want to read it. It’ll be perfect if you can get both in one title (and it sometimes happens), but if things don’t line up exactly, just like with the image issue, I always lean towards catchiness and attractiveness. You don’t want to mislead your readers but it’s OK to slightly exaggerate if it gets more people to read the article, where the real substance and value are.

For example, I could have named a previous article “Correcting Misconceptions, and Educating People on Executive Protection”, but I decided instead to go with “Protecting The CEO”. I could have gone with “On The Various Differences Between Strategies to Deal With Hostile Surveillance”, but I went instead with “Surveillance, Surveillance Detection and Counter-Surveillance”. You can argue whether these catchier titles might have been a bit misleading, but what is unarguable is that they got more people to read the article—where the actual value is.

And no, the title doesn’t always have to be short.

Keep The Introduction Short

Unless you’re writing an academic piece, you don’t need to stick to any formal essay structure. Articles don’t usually need entire introductory paragraphs that give a sweeping overview of the industry as you gradually narrate your way towards the subject of the article. Put a little more trust in your reader’s intelligence and just get to the subject.

I rarely even bother reading other people’s introduction paragraphs anymore. Scroll back up and you’ll see that this article’s intro is two sentences long. I often don’t even bother with one at all.

Marketing and Social Media

Make sure to read the Where to Market Your Book section in my previous article because most of it also applies to articles.

Give Value

Maybe the most fundamental of all writing tips is that you need to provide something of value to your readers. It almost goes without saying except for the fact that I still see so much writing (especially in the security industry) that keeps missing this point. Pretty much all the other points in this article, in one way or another circle back to this one. That’s why throughout this article you’re going to keep seeing me refer to that word: value

Just because something is important doesn’t mean that writing an article about it will give value. Tying your shoes properly is important, so is working hard to achieve your goals. Importance is a necessary but not sufficient quality. For real value, you have to give the reader something they didn’t already know or haven’t thought about in the way you’re presenting.

Feel-Good Security Fluff

Speaking of ways that security writers fail to give their readers value, our industry is full of this kind of stuff:

Security solutions must be reached by developing comprehensive risk management strategies that integrate dynamic threat mitigation tactics to ensure that assets are adequately protected and safety and security are maintained. For this reason, critical infrastructure and high-valued organizations and individuals must ensure that budgets, policies, procedures and daily operations are in line with their security goals, and are managed and supervised on an ongoing basis.

Now, doesn’t that just feel great—how everything clicks together and sounds so professional? The problem is that stuff like this gives you no specifics, no new insights on how to actually pull any of this off—it’s just fluff. It’s mental masturbation. It might make you feel good to write it but it doesn’t give the reader any real value.
Get specific, get to the how, make it practical!

Don’t Be a Complainer

Yes, I realize it’s a bit ironic to tell you not to be a complainer after I just finished complaining. I’m not saying you should never complain; I’m saying that if the complaint doesn’t add value (there’s that word again), then it’s not worth much to others.

Oh, you think standards are too low in the security industry? Fascinating! No one’s ever mentioned that before…
Wait, are you trying to tell me there are untrained and inexperienced operators running around out there, giving the security industry a bad name? Hold the press, we have breaking news…
What’s that, you think it’s crazy that there are no industry-wide regulated standards for everyone? Unbelievable!!! Why isn’t anyone else talking about this…?

Look, it’s not that what you’re saying is necessarily wrong, it’s that a) complaining and calling for lofty ideals of professionalism, best practices and better regulations isn’t giving your reader any practical know-how, and b) it’s been complained about so many times by so many others, what value do you think you’re adding by repeating it?

Yes, you’ll probably get a lot of like-minded people commenting with stuff like “Truth!”, “Preach!” or “Right on, brother!” But that’s just a form of collective mental masturbation. There’s nothing new or useful about it.

Once again, try to get more specific. Value comes either from new facts and ideas or at least from different—and practical—ways of looking at things. It’s OK to point out mistakes and misconceptions. I do it myself. Check out this article, or this good one from AS Solution. But notice how specific these articles get, and how useful they are in giving people a necessary perspective they’re clearly lacking. Specific constructive criticism is useful; general complaints, not so much.

Who Dares, Wins

Generally speaking, it’ll be a good thing if more people step out of their comfortable echo-chambers and risk saying something new or controversial that not everyone will agree with.

Yes, you might very well ruffle some feathers, and get yours ruffled in return. But that’s what it takes sometimes in order to venture outside the ‘Right-On-Brother’ safe-space and make some real statements. There’s nothing wrong with dissenting ideas and debate. These can create fresh insights and real progress.

You might change someone’s mind about stuff, and yes (surprise, surprise), you might also get your mind changed by someone else. I’ve changed my mind many times after encountering people who disagreed with my writings. You have a little online exchange, you get someone’s perspective on your perspective, you learn something new and change your mind. That’s progress!

Since I can’t possibly say it better than Christopher Hitches did, here’s a great little passage about it:

“Every article and review and book that I have ever published has constituted an appeal to the person or persons to whom I should have talked before I dared to write it. I never launch any little essay without the hope—and the fear, because the encounter may also be embarrassing—that I shall draw a letter that begins, ‘Dear Mr. Hitchens, it seems that you are unaware that…’ It is in this sense that authorship is collaborative with the reader. And there’s no help for it: you only find out what you ought to have known by pretending to know at least some of it already.
It doesn’t matter how obscure or arcane or esoteric your place of publication may be, some sweet law ensures that the person who should be scrutinizing your work eventually does do so.”

Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously

Yes, our work is important, and no, I’m not saying you should make a clown out of yourself. I’m saying that when it comes to writing, you’re not doing yourself—or your readers—any favors by putting out heavy material that’s dripping with self-important warnings and injunctions.
In short, try to lighten up a little!

Tell Stories

Many of the compliments I get for my writings are that I let my readers in on real stories and experiences I’ve had in the field. Of course, you should always be careful about any identifying features when it comes to your clients, but you can always find a way to still tell the story.

Us humans have an innate love of stories and I can guarantee that you’ll get more readers and better feedback if you share more of yours. People also tend to learn better when the subject is illustrated with an actual example from the field.

Also, don’t forget to share your own personal story too (to the level you’re comfortable with). The chapter in my book that I get the greatest number of compliments on is my mini autobiographical one. So, my recommendation is that you try to be more open about yourself with your readers. Which leads me to the next point.

Be Open, Honest and Humble

Many people in the security industry unfortunately feel that a good way to promote themselves is to claim to know everything and to be able to do everything in the most proficient way. From my experience, however, admitting what you don’t know or what you’re not the best at only raises your credibility. People tend to really appreciate honesty because guess what, no one knows everything or is awesome at everything.

Here, let me demonstrate this: I openly admit that I’m no expert in Technical Surveillance Counter-Measures (TSCM), international travel security, vehicular surveillance detection and executive protection. I might have varying degrees of experience in these fields, and I even have some occasional stuff to say about them, but that doesn’t automatically make me an expert in them.

I’ve also written an entire book on surveillance detection and covert special operations, and in it I admitted—in print—that I am far from the best or most experienced in this field. I’ve also written two earlier “Tips & Suggestions” articles where I admitted that I myself have made all the mistakes I warn against. And this also applies to the article you’re reading at the moment. I wrote an entire article about my own mistakes and embarrassing failures, and even gave photographic evidence of my bad performance during my surveillance detection training in Israel.

I know it might feel a bit weird, or even scary to admit weakness and show vulnerability, but I receive nothing but praise for doing so, and it’s only raised my credibility in people’s eyes.
Everyone, absolutely everyone, makes mistakes. To admit and talk about yours doesn’t make you a lesser person; on the contrary, it makes you an honest, open and confident one.

Don’t Overdo The Humble Thing

As in everything in life, there’s always a balance to be struck.

Yes, you want to be honest and humble but you can’t literally start every sentences with “I’m not the biggest expert on the subject and this is just my own personal opinion based on my limited experience, but…”
It’s usually enough to mention your limitations once or twice, and then just trust that your readers are intelligent enough not to need that type of continuous spoon-feeding.

Clichés and Catchphrases

These always drives me crazy.
No, not just because I have a pet-peeve about them but because they don’t add any value and are often even misleading.

The strength of clichés and catchphrases is that they’re very catchy and easy to adopt. People often don’t stop to think about them and about the fact that a large percentage of them are either factually incorrect or don’t make any sense.

The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun!
Well, except for all the bad guys with guns that ended up being stopped by good people without guns, or better yet, prevented from ever showing up with a gun in the first place. If you’re going to make strongly stated factual claims about the “only” way something can be stopped, you’d better bring some equally strong evidence to support it.

It’s better to have and not need than to need and not have.
It may sound good but it’s a meaningless statement. You can literally apply it to anything in order to add pseudo justification for it. It’s just a circular argument for reinforcing your confirmation bias. Most people use it for justifying armed rather than unarmed security. But it makes just as much sense when applied to hand grenades, tanks, attack helicopters, nuclear ICBMs, billion-dollar budgets, quadruple redundancy plans or anything else. This isn’t a logical way to decide on an adequate course of action.

There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs.
Automatic eye-roll every time I hear or read this ridiculous parable. Even if you wanted to accept this kindergarten way of thinking about people, you’d still have to contend with the fact that there are obviously more than three types of people in the world. For one thing, real sheepdogs don’t work for sheep, they work for shepherds. Shepherds don’t work for sheep either, they use their sheepdogs to protect their sheep long enough for them to be fleeced and eventually slaughtered for other people’s consumption. Wolves are neither good nor evil. They’re just trying to survive, feed their pups and do what they’ve naturally evolved to do (which is more than can be said about domesticated sheep). This is nothing more than a false and misleading analogy. And good luck holding on to any of your clients if you believe they’re nothing more than mindless, defenseless sheep.

Always trust your instincts!
Except, of course, when they’re not good enough or, by contrast, when they make you too jumpy and fill your head with false-positive detections. “Trust your instincts” is usually nothing more than a cop-out line from people who can’t explain how to develop proper awareness and detection skills.

Reminiscing Over The Good-Old-Days

This one (with humility and respect) goes out to the more seasoned members of our profession.

Most of us love hearing about how things were done in past decades, and I’m a big fan of old war stories myself—that’s all great. But entire articles that are dedicated to explaining how things used to be done with no cellphones, apps, Google or any other gadget doesn’t really give people much value. Yes, things are different now than how they were in the past. They were also different during those days from how they were a few decades earlier. That’s just the way of the world.

I’m a huge history buff, and I love learning about how things worked in the past. But unless you give us some historical details, some practical lessons on such things as self-reliance, low-tech maneuverings (in case our gadgets brake down) or insights into where our current knowledge came from, there’s very limited value in yet another ‘Young people these days don’t know how easy they have it’-article.

Should Articles Be Short?

No, not necessarily.

It’s obviously easier for readers to get through a shorter article but if you have what to say—and if what you say gives value to your reader—then you don’t have to force the article to be short. By far, my most popular article to date is Tips & Suggestions For Covert Operators, a monstrously long article of over 4,200 words.

There are obviously many more tips and suggestions I can give (and might do so in the future). And before I get criticized for it, no, I’m obviously not suggesting that everyone needs to write like me.
What are some of your insights about writing? And what do you think about mine? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.
And thank you for reading.

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