Writing Cybersecurity Articles – Setting Up Your Writing Process

Writingby Dr. Chris Veltsos, CISSP, member of (ISC)² Advisory Council of North America 

Writing can be one of those professional development win-win activities that not only brings joy to the person engaged in it, but also brings knowledge, value — and yes, in some cases even joy — to the reader. All of us remember reading a particularly well-crafted sentence and thinking to ourselves “wow, that was well written.” You might have even thought “gee, I wish I could write like that.” Well, you probably can, but unlike in the movies, it probably won’t come to you in a full sentence at the moment you summoned it. In this article, I want to encourage you to explore — especially if you tried before and gave up — developing your writing, by setting up a process that is both light and rewarding to you personally, and since this is after all an (ISC)² blog, professionally.

What Drives You?

Motivation is an important force to accomplish our goals. Of course, we need a lot more than motivation to get things done but having that quick internal reflection about what drives you to writing is an important part of your journey. Remember a time when you wrote something that you were particularly happy with? Perhaps it was writing letters to friends, writing poetry, writing an essay — whether a philosophical one or a business-focused one. You still have that spark, that ability to transmute ideas or feelings into words.

Spend a few minutes analyzing whether your motivation to write is internally driven — you want to write primarily for yourself, whether or not there will be a reader other than you — or externally driven — you need to write for work and haven’t really looked forward to it. It could also be a combination of internal and external factors. Understanding what motivates you to give writing another try now will help you push through the hurdles and the self-doubt later.

Decades ago, I heard the writing process being described much like muscles, that writing was something that needed regular exercise to develop, and that with enough practice, one could achieve a level of speed and form that would put you in the prestigious class of being “an author.” However, the idea of sweating through the writing process wasn’t at all appealing, in large part because the finished product — in this case a highly theoretical academic paper that might only be read by a handful of people — wasn’t appealing to me. Fast forward to 2019, and in the past six years, I have co-authored two books, written over one hundred blog articles for SecurityIntelligence.com, and written many more blog articles for other outlets, including three so far for the (ISC)² blog. What changed? I focused on writing pieces that I felt brought value to the reader.

Achieving Clarity on the What

There are three main questions you should ponder before you unleash your writing. Who is your reader? What will be your message — and the “tone” of your writing? And finally, what is the value you want to bring to your reader?

The reader could be someone who is at a similar level as you, someone with a similar background and work experience as you. The reader could be someone at a different level — for example a security manager or CISO writing for business executives. Or the writing could be for a broad audience, such as all staff. Having some clarity on the reader will allow you to “speak to them” in your writing — yes, I realize I just mentioned “speaking” to the “reader” but it’s an approach that I found works well for my writing style.

Having clarity on what your message will be is the surest way to have the writing “flow” out of you. So before you allow yourself to get lost in the writing process, spend ten minutes thinking about a title, an angle, and developing some of the main points of your article. Now is also a good time to decide on the tone of your writing, whether it will be “business formal” — think of something you might read that covers law and privacy — versus a more “business casual” tone — very much like this article. Or somewhere in between.

I chose to specify the notion of value to the reader separate from the notion of message, as focusing on the message has you thinking about “what you will write about”, while the former has you thinking about “what will my reader get from this” or even “how will they use this information.” Once you’ve completed a first draft, focusing on value to the reader will help you refine your article during the review process.

Set Up Your Writing Environment

The writing process can be stressful, especially if you start feeling like it’s not happening the way you wanted to. It’s easy to go from “I’m going to do this” to “I’ve been staring at a blank page for an hour… I’m just not cut out for this.” Which is why I ask you consider your writing environment, as it can have a positive or negative impact on your flow.

When & where should I write?

Understand that where we are, how we feel, and what time of the day it is, all impact our writing process. If you try to write at work, just the simple fact of sitting at the same desk where you normally perform other work-related tasks, you brain will automatically be thinking about those tasks instead of writing. So, explore finding other spots, the kitchen table, the couch, a coffee shop, a quiet space at work away from your office. Where is a spot where you find yourself having deep thoughts? Try writing there. Of course, it helps if you can also have an hour or two of peace and quiet.

What about the when of writing? In my experience there isn’t a one-time-fits-all perfect time. I’ve done writing in the evenings, mid-day, and in the mornings. Whether the writing flowed was more a product of how I felt, whether I was in the flow, and whether I had been thinking about the article for a while. If you only have time to write in the evenings, then give it a try, but if it’s not conducive, try a different time of day. Eventually you’ll develop the sense of how “in the flow” you find yourself in at different points during the day.

Exploring your particular approach to writing

Another potential roadblock to your writing has to do with the particular approach you will take when writing. Two main writing paths are:

  • Your words, their ideas — in which you’ll write something, but it will be based on someone else’s ideas, along the lines of a summary or an analysis. This particular approach can help you overcome writer’s block as the writing is based on an already existing body of work, and you can create sentence-by-sentence constructs that can later be rearranged into a well-structured and cohesive document.
  • Your words, your ideas — in which you’ll write down your own opinions and ideas. This writing will bring you more joy, since it represents your thoughts or feelings, but can be more challenging as you’re juggling the creative process — what are my thoughts, ideas, feelings — along with the writing process itself — how do I express those.

If you jump directly into the second category and find it challenging, practice developing your writing flow by spending some time working out your writing muscles in the first category (your words, their ideas). 

Take Action Today

This article would be a nice theoretical essay if it stopped at the previous paragraph. You’ve made it this far, so, why not take the next steps, small steps that can have a big impact.

Unleash and capture your ideas

Most people have hundreds or thousands of ideas in a single day. But they often disappear as quickly as they came. Unless you capture them — right there on the spot — on paper, electronically, or even via a short voice recording. Sometimes it can be as short as one sentence, a title of sort that specifies both the topic and your particular angle. Or it can come in as a burst of sentences all somewhat related. These may have to be untangled into one cohesive article, or a short series of articles.

The important point is to have a process for capturing ideas, especially good ideas, when they happen. The next step is to regularly review that list of ideas, and, if it gets too long, to prune it down to the best ideas. 

Follow the trail of leaders before you

One of the best ways to generate ideas and to explore the many forms that writing can take is to surround yourself with good writing. The good news is that there are many free sources of good writing; here are a select few:

  • The (ISC)² blog and other security and privacy related outlets
  • Outlets that cover a more general-business perspective such as com, hbr.org (Harvard Business Review), Forbes.com
  • Leading figures in our field such as Dan Geer, Douglas Hubbard, and Bruce Schneier.
  • Many blog authors have also taken to posting their writing on Medium.com. If you subscribe, you can also specify the kinds of topics you like to read about and get weekly digests focused on those topics.
  • Find and follow some of the leading authors that have been inducted in the Cybersecurity Canon, which calls itself "a list of must-read books for all cybersecurity practitioners." I recommend you start by those who made it into the “hall of fame” to help narrow down the field.

Try It, But Be Patient

Be patient with yourself when it comes to writing. Writing might not happen today, even though you really wanted it to — or worse, needed it to. Tell yourself that you’ll try again tomorrow. As you become more proficient at writing, be aware of your mental state when you sit down. Try to wait for a time when you find yourself “ready” to write.

Recipe for Success?

What about you, do you have a particular recipe for writing success that you want to share with a fellow cybersecurity professional? Comment below or consider submitting your own blog article to this outlet or others.

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