Insights from “Writing Without Bulls#!+”

I’m recommending a book that could have offended me if I let it. A few weeks ago, I received a tweet from a consultant suggesting that he could help with my recently rejected book proposal. While I appreciated the offer, I was chagrined to learn that the consultant was Josh Bernoff, author of Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean.* Rather than spend all day being offended, I decided to buy his book and learn what I could without him telling me to my face that my writing was…well, that stuff. Full disclosure: I’m about 52% through WWBS. I will finish the book, but I’m far enough along to explain why I think it’s worth reading.

Learning to Avoid BS (a.k.a. Bad) Writing

Bernoff’s most important message/lesson is this: treat your reader’s time as more valuable than your own. Assuming that, you need to keep your prose brief and to the point: what are the facts, what’s the problem, what do you want?

He actually starts, however, by explaining the primary reason we use BS in our writing, which is instructive by itself: fear. We’re afraid that we’ll look stupid if we don’t use a lot of big words. We’re afraid that if we take a stand in a company memo that we’ll get smacked down. We’re afraid of being punished if we own up to a mistake. Et cetera. These sorts of fears result in overinflated, indirect, and blabby writing as we try to bury what we mean in a mound of…that stuff.

Bernoff then starts addressing the most prominent examples of BS in writing:

  • Using passive voice to avoid responsibility for specific actions/outcomes.
  • Burying your primary message in unnecessary words.
  • Using hedging or weasel words such as “many” or “some” rather than citing number-based facts.
  • Using numbers or statistics badly.
  • Using complicated subjects in messages or memos

There are others, but those will give you a hint of what he’s driving at. Bernoff then goes on to suggest remedies for these various literary sins:

  • Use active voice.
  • State your main point up front.
  • Look up the numbers to back up your assertions.
  • If you have a specific statistic related to your point, use it correctly and in context.
  • Use a subject line or title that lets the audience know what’s coming.

In addition to those pieces of advice, he suggests that the conscientious writer take the time to plan out, structure, review, and rewrite anything before it goes to its intended audience–all advice readers of this blog appreciate.

Looking at my own writing, one thing I’ve been guilty of on this blog has been occasionally slow windups before finally making my pitch. Another thing I know I do if I’m on a roll is write too much. You folks have lives, too; I get it. Bernoff suggested keeping blog entries to 750 words or less. I’m now doing what I can to follow that advice and keep things short and snappy.

Learning from Constructive Feedback

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit peeved that Bernoff tweeted me. I’m a professional tech writer, and I earn much of my pay eliminating exactly the sorts of BS he demonstrates throughout corporate America. However, I realize that I’m not nearly so disciplined on this blog, which is what likely prompted him to tweet in my direction in the first place.

Still, I admired his audacity. He had to know that once I looked up his profile, I’d see what he’d written. He took a bit of a chance sending the tweet. Fortunately, I’ve been working on restraining my emotional reactions lately, so I slowed down, took the time to read, and found myself learning from him. With any luck, I’ll be able to apply his book’s advice to the blog…and that lamented book and book proposal. Feedback is an opportunity to get offended or to slow down and listen. This time, for a change, I chose the latter.

(* Apologies for the vulgarity; it wasn’t my title. Also, that seems to be the way to get attention in this country.)  

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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1 Response to Insights from “Writing Without Bulls#!+”

  1. jbernoff says:

    Thanks for your honesty (and your appreciation of my audacity).

    I started life as a technical writer and did that for more than a decade. It is, indeed, heroic to do it well.

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