Xenophon and the perfect paper

I talked about the Brasidas’ square tactic in my post about the perfect paper. I’m just finishing up Xenophon’s “Anabasis” and it looks like he used the exact same maneuver. He explains it a little bit more in depth and it confirms the efficacy of my method.

“It would be safer for us to march with the hoplites forming a hollow square, so that the baggage and the general crowd would be more secure inside. If, then, we are told now who should be in the front of the square and who organize the leading detachments, and who should be on the two flanks, and who should be responsible for the rear, we should not have to plan all this when the enemy is approaching but could immediately make use of those who have been specially detailed for the job.”

When you lay out the square in advance with clear, orderly lines, you insulate yourself from the chaos of improvisation. You mark the boundaries now so later you don’t have to. Each paragraph is given a singular purpose and its only duty is to fulfill it. No longer is the task to figure out a direction and then go that way, for you’ve done the first part in advance. If it can work for a ten thousand man march through country after country of hostile territory, it can work for a paper or an article.

And then there is a small caveat. Xenophon found that as they traveled mountain passes–difficult subject matter–the square would come apart at the corners, or it would bend and gap. The solution then was to create small groups of auxiliary soldiers who occupied the middle. Their job was to fill these gaps, to fluidly go from one side to the other as needed. This is the role of transition sentences. They fill any holes that might arise where the paragraphs come together. They prevent doubt and danger from seeping in at your most vulnerable place–in between points.

His innovation drastically improves on Brasidas’ tactic because it made him more adaptable and less rigid. This should be what we all strive for. Once you master the form and structure, quickly move away from being dependant on it. It’s why Robert’s last law was “Assume Formlessness” and it’s why the 5th step of the OODA Loop is the loop itself–so it becomes less a methodical process and more of an intuition. The paper format is a foundation and it’s up to you to adjust and build for the task at hand.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.