Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean
By Josh Bernoff
HarperCollins, 281 pages, $28.50
The tide of bullshit is rising, says former Forrester analyst and freelance writer Josh Bernoff. And it's vital you transcend that tide.
"Your email inbox is full of irrelevant, poorly written crap. Your boss talks in jargon and clichés. The web sites you read are impenetrable and incomprehensible," he writes in Writing Without Bullshit.
"Bullshit is a burden on all of us, keeping us from getting useful work done.
The solution may require you to swallow hard. He calls it the iron imperative: "Treat the reader's time as more valuable than your own."
Too often, in a rush, we do the opposite. We toss out information off the top of our head in no particular order, perhaps trying to bring it to some coherent point at the end rather than the beginning, where at least the road map may be clearer, even if we can't be more organized and concise.
That leads to a recommendation you may be inclined to resist: Don't compose e-mail on your smartphone. Sure, you can read e-mail on your smartphone, filling the spaces in the day, and you can answer crisply when that is in order. But a smartphone is not the place to set down some complicated ideas and then edit them to fulfill the iron imperative.
Take more care in communicating through press releases. He figures of the 10,000 press releases he received during his 20 years as an analyst, only about 200 had even the tiniest amount of relevance. And even those that hit the target in some fashion were still 80-per-cent fluff. That's 20,000 meaningful words, he estimates, out of a total production of 8.5 million, leading to an infinitesimal 0.2 per cent meaning ratio. "A format that is 99.8 per cent waste is a failure," he says.
So cut what he calls "the parade of super-duper superlatives" about your product and the syrupy industry jargon poured over everything. If you need a quote from your top executive, make it meaningful instead of useless. And eliminate the obligatory boilerplate at the end that nobody reads anyway but if they did would remind them you are saying you can't be held to any of the promises you have just offered.
Construct a meaning ratio for your writing. Count all the words that really don't add to your essential message – verbiage that is jargon or meant to pad your findings or inflate its meaning. Going through one company's self-description, he excluded words like "leading," "data-driven intervention platforms," "large proprietary datasets," and "seamless, end-to-end capability." Notice how the adjectives tend to pile up, uselessly for the reader. In a 92-word passage, 39 weren't meaningful, leaving a meaning ratio of 59 per cent. He suggests once you're below 70 per cent, you're in bullshit territory.
Everything you write competes with everything else your audience receives. Most of that is read on a screen, perhaps a tiny screen. "You can measure their attention span in tens of seconds. If you keep them interested long enough to learn a bit more, you can get your point across. If you don't, they'll just perceive what you write as bullshit," he warns.
A problem is that nobody edits what we write. We're on our own. Adding to that, he feels, is we learned to write in the wrong way. In high school and university we learned that if we write long and use bigger words we'll probably draw higher marks. "So you take those skills you learned in school and become part of the corporate bullshit machine," he says.
We're also fearful at work, reluctant to be bold. We write to cover our ass. So that leads to the most important change he recommends: Write shorter. "Get to the point quickly, deliver your message, and let readers get on with the rest of their day," he insists. Don't let insecurity lead you to write long. Heed the iron imperative, taking time to pare back your messages to the essentials for the reader's sake.
Front-load your writing. Get to the point quickly, delivering the main point at the outset, in as few words as possible. Don't save your conclusion for the end. Share it immediately. Start with bold statements and conclusions and then follow with the reasoning that got you there.
Replace jargon. It can be useful when talking to insiders. But more often it makes reading harder. "Jargon spreads like a nasty mould across everything we write," he says. Like mould, it's not easy to eliminate since it can be invisible. You need to be critical of what you write, thinking of the reader's knowledge and perspective.
His book may seem like an angry screed but in fact it's a helpful improvement guide, a Strunk and White for the modern knowledge worker, updating the classic style guide for writers. He offers example of where we go wrong – with many examples from companies – and shows how to improve. If you suspect you are writing bullshit, this may be the book for you.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter
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