Writing without bullshit–doesn’t that sound grand?
Unfortunately, it’s often hard to come by. The world is plastered with bullshit, and it’s “a burden on all of us, keeping us from getting useful work done,” writes Josh Bernoff.
To help curb the flow, Bernoff wrote the book Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean. In it, he makes clear that he’s talking to business writers, not general writers, but a lot of the content is relevant and helpful for the general writer.
The book summarizes bullshit writing–“communication that wastes the reader’s time by failing to communicate clearly and accurately”– and explains why it exists, how so many people get into the habit and how to identify it and make a change.
Bernoff’s insight on bullshitting is based on a principle that all writers should live by, which he calls the “Iron Imperative.” And that is:
Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.
“Everything that’s wrong with the way businesspeople today write stems from ignoring this principle,” he declared.
And here are some of the other key points, Bernoff makes:
Why people write bullshit
“Teachers implicitly taught us bullshit was effective.”
“High school and college writing teachers do not prepare students for a world where readers read on screens.”
“By the time your essay-writing ability has gotten you into college, you’ve internalized a few lessons. One is that a longer paper will probably get a better grade. You read academic writing, which is full of passive voice and jargon, and learn to imitate it to sound smart…so you take those skills you learned in school and become part of the corporate bullshit machine.”
“In business, fear generates bad writing habits…You fear taking a stand, being held responsible, being wrong.”
“Insecurity…You say the same thing several different ways since you’re not sure which is best. It takes you a while to figure out what you’re saying. You add words to hedge.”
What bullshit writing looks like
“…writers don’t want to get to the point, they want to show off.”
“Passive sounds sort of sophisticated because it creates distance between the writer and the reader. Consciously or unconsciously, you’ve picked that up.”
“…people write jargon to look and sound smarter. They don’t.”
“It’s common for women, especially those just starting out in the working world, to apologize or soften what they say in situations where a man might challenge those around him. There are far fewer bold women than men at work.”
“If you write the same way as everyone else, it’s hard to get ahead. And if you think you can get ahead by being a bullshitter, you’ll have plenty of competition. There is always someone who is a better bullshitter than you.”
To stand out, your business writing needs to make a direct connection between the writer and the reader. “You,” “I,” and “we” make that connection. A simple change of pronouns forces you to think clearly about what you’re saying.”
“Without “you,” there’s no advice. And without any advice, the reader asks, why did I spend my time reading this?”
“Business writing exists for one purpose: to create a change in the reader. If the reader is no different after reading, then you have wasted the reader’s time and violated the Iron Imperative…”
Stay tuned for Writing Without Bullshit part 2 offering tips to improve your writing.
Also see: Quotes from On Writing Well