Writing Without Bullshit
eBook - ePub

Writing Without Bullshit

Josh Bernoff

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  1. 320 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

Writing Without Bullshit

Josh Bernoff

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About This Book

Joining the ranks of classics like The Elements of Style and On Writing Well, Writing Without Bullshit helps professionals get to the point to get ahead.

It's time for Writing Without Bullshit.

Writing Without Bullshit is the first comprehensive guide to writing for today's world: a noisy environment where everyone reads what you write on a screen. The average news story now gets only 36 seconds of attention. Unless you change how you write, your emails, reports, and Web copy don't stand a chance.

In this practical and witty book, you'll learn to front-load your writing with pithy titles, subject lines, and opening sentences. You'll acquire the courage and skill to purge weak and meaningless jargon, wimpy passive voice, and cowardly weasel words. And you'll get used to writing directly to the reader to make every word count.

At the center of it all is the Iron Imperative: treat the reader's time as more valuable than your own. Embrace that, and your customers, your boss, and your colleagues will recognize the power and boldness of your thinking.

Transcend the fear that makes your writing weak. Plan and execute writing projects with confidence. Manage edits and reviews flawlessly. And master every modern format from emails and social media to reports and press releases.

Stop writing to fit in. Start writing to stand out. Boost your career by writing without bullshit.

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Information

Year
2016
ISBN
9780062477170
Part One
Change Your Perspective
1
Transcend Bullshit
The tide of bullshit is rising.
Your email inbox is full of irrelevant, poorly written crap. Your boss talks in jargon and clichés. The websites you read are impenetrable and incomprehensible.
Bullshit is a burden on all of us, keeping us from getting useful work done.
Technology has made it breathtakingly easy for anybody to create content and distribute it to thousands of people. Unfortunately, nobody told those creators what it takes to create good content, so we’re stuck wading through a deluge of drivel.
You know this is a problem. I’m here to tell you that it’s also an opportunity.
Imagine for a moment that you could write boldly, clearly, and powerfully every time you sat down at the keyboard. When your email showed up in your colleagues’ inboxes, it would pop. Reports you wrote would get people to sit up and take notice. Customers would respond to your marketing copy. You’d earn a reputation as a straight talker.
Why aren’t you doing this yet? I know why. I’ve worked with thousands of people just like you, people who work in offices and need to communicate in their jobs. Here’s what’s stopping them—and you—from clearing away the bullshit and writing clearly.
First, you got the wrong training. In high school and college, you learned to write verbose prose to fool teachers into believing you knew what you were talking about. Those teachers implicitly taught you that bullshitting was effective.
Then, when you started working, you found yourself immersed in more babble. From the moment you sat down and read the employee manual, you were sunk. You took your cues from the people around you, people who didn’t tend to tell the plain truth when they wrote things.
Finally, you learned that avoiding risk was paramount. Clarity can be dangerous because people who read what you wrote might disagree with it.
If you’re okay with being a mindless component in the vast bullshit machine that is the business world, please put this book down and walk away. You can keep writing equivocal garbage, and you’ll fit in just fine.
But if you’d prefer to stand out, I can show you how. It’s not that hard. In fact, it’s mostly a matter of connecting with your own natural ways of communicating.
I’ll show you what’s motivating you to write the way you do and what’s stopping you from writing more clearly. Every single bad habit you’ve learned is tied up with your own psychology at work. As I teach you to express yourself more powerfully, I’ll clear away the motivational roadblocks that are stopping you. Once you understand that psychology, you’ll be on your way to making a far more powerful impression.
I will give you the courage to say what you mean.
Then I’ll give you the skills, teach you the tricks, and show you how to organize your day so you get the chance to show that courage in everything you write.
If you have good ideas and express them well in writing, you’ll get credit for those ideas and their clarity. You’ll also get credit for your candor and integrity. Not only is that good for your career, but it feels good, too.
The Iron Imperative
Let’s agree on one principle. This principle powers everything else in this book. I call it the Iron Imperative:
Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.
That couldn’t be simpler. And yet everything that’s wrong with the way businesspeople write today stems from ignoring this principle.
A marketer creates a website to describe her company. She’s on a deadline and has to get input from multiple people. Eventually she gives up and cobbles together some prose that has everybody’s fingerprints on it. Is her top priority the reader’s time? No, it’s getting the text into the site by the deadline.
A coworker emails you and a dozen others about a problem in your department. He puts down the elements in the order that they occur to him. The subject line is “I was just thinking.” He’s been very efficient with his own time. Is he respecting your time, too? Nope.
An analyst assembles a report to justify the actions that a city should take. He knows there will be lots of objections, and he doesn’t want to sound stupid, so he includes as many justifications as possible and couches everything in passive language that hides who’s responsible for any actions he recommends. He has covered his ass in a very sophisticated way. Has he considered the reader’s time? Not a chance.
These people aren’t inherently selfish. They’re just busy. When you’re busy, you worry more about yourself and your deadlines. You create text to fill spaces and do jobs. It turns out that it’s not so easy to just write clear, bold prose every time. So you do the best you can.
Unfortunately, each small step toward expediency erodes your own sense of integrity. You are no longer saying what you mean. That takes a moral toll on you even as it wastes your readers’ time.
This waste is even worse than it appears because we’re all reading nearly all the time now. We’re continually consuming massive amounts of this indifferent prose, and we’re doing so on glass screens that don’t make reading easy. We’re surrounded by distractions.
That’s why the world seems to be so full of bullshit—because we’re drowning in text that was slapped together without a focus on meaning and directness.
The Iron Imperative sounds like a good idea. But even if you accept it, how can you actually put it into practice?
Measuring Meaning
When you read something that is meaningful, you learn something. You could learn what Elon Musk thinks about artificial intelligence, how much rain is going to fall in the next 24 hours, or what database strategy makes sense for your company. Meaning makes you smarter.
When I talk about bullshit, I have something very specific in mind. It’s prose that makes you go, “Huh?” Bullshit is communication that wastes the reader’s time by failing to communicate clearly and accurately. While that includes outright lies, lies are not the biggest problem in business communication. The biggest problem is lack of clarity. Jargon, overuse of qualifying words like “very” and “deeply,” confusing passive sentences, poorly organized thinking, and just general rambling on: that’s bullshit. Those are constructions that hide meaning rather than reveal it.
Because of this definition, I can actually measure bullshit. To do this, I take any passage of text and identify the words that have no real meaning. Let’s take a look at an example.
Inovalon is a healthcare technology company based in Maryland. On its website, under “Who We Are,” is this description:
Inovalon is a leading technology company that combines advanced cloud-based data analytics and data-driven intervention platforms to achieve meaningful insight and impact in clinical and quality outcomes, utilization, and financial performance across the healthcare landscape. Inovalon’s unique achievement of value is delivered through the effective progression of Turning Data into Insight, and Insight into Action®. Large proprietary datasets, advanced integration technologies, sophisticated predictive analytics, data-driven intervention platforms, and deep subject matter expertise deliver a seamless, end-to-end capability that brings the benefits of big data and large-scale analytics to the point of care.
To everyone outside Inovalon (and, I suspect, many inside the company), this is pretty hard to parse. But just how bad is it? Let’s highlight the words that don’t have meaning for most readers. I’ll use bold to highlight the qualifying words that don’t have a precise meaning, such as “very” and “leading.” I’ll also highlight words and phrases that are basically just decoration to make the description sound more impressive, such as “utilization” and “across the healthcare landscape.” As for the jargon that’s bound to confuse most readers, I’ll use bold italic to highlight that.
Now the passage looks like this:
Inovalon is a leading technology company that combines advanced cloud-based data analytics and data-driven intervention platforms to achieve meaningful insight and impact in clinical and quality outcomes, utilization, and financial performance across the healthcare landscape. Inovalon’s unique achievement of value is delivered through the effective progression of Turning Data into Insight, and Insight into Action®. Large proprietary datasets, advanced integration technologies, sophisticated predictive analytics, data-driven intervention platforms, and deep subject matter expertise deliver a seamless, end-to-end capability that brings the benefits of big data and large-scale analytics to the point of care.
While you can quibble about the specific words I’ve chosen to highlight, we can agree that there is just too much jargon and meaningless verbiage in this passage. How much? We measure that with the meaning ratio:
image
There are 92 words in this passage. I’ve marked 38 as not meaningful, which means only 54 are meaningful. The meaning ratio of this passage is 59%.
That’s dreadful.
Nearly half of these words are getting in the way rather than helping.
An ideal passage, of course, would have a meaning ratio of 100%. A passage with a meaning ratio of 80% is readable. But once you get below 70%, you’re in bullshit territory. This passage reads as bullshit because nearly half of it is not communicating anything useful.
I’m going to poke fun at lots of awful language in this book. But I’m actually out to solve the problem, not just laugh at it. So imagine for a moment that Inovalon has hired you to make its mission statement better. You might come up with something like this:
Inovalon has more insight into health data than anyone else. We analyze that data and apply the knowledge to help you improve care options, reduce costs, and improve compliance. We help hospitals, doctors, insurance payers, and patients. We identify gaps in care, quality, and data integrity, and apply our unique capabilities to resolving them.
We’ve reduced 92 words to 54. By using words like “we” and “you,” Inovalon tells its customers what the company does and how it helps those customers. Ordinary humans, even healthcare information professionals, can easily understand what “gaps in care, quality, and data integrity” are. We’ve restored the missing meaning by getting rid of the bullshit.
One Woman’s Path from Powerful, Direct Communication to Success
Can writing without bullshit boost your career? Intuitively, we’d like to be the kinds of people who say what we mean when we write. But does it make a difference?
I’ve been lucky to interact with dozens of great communicators in my career. I’m not talking about professional writers, either. I’m talking about intelligent, hardworking folks who found that candor was their ticket to success.
For example, there’s Diane Hessan. Diane got an MBA and then went to work at General Foods, where she was a product manager for Brim coffee. She took what she learned and joined a small training company called the Forum Corporation as product manager for their sales training product.
At Forum, a mentor named John Humphrey taught her how to communicate as efficiently as possible. His key principle in any discussion was simple: “Net it out in three clear points.” In other words, what does the reader or listener really need to know, and let’s not get mired in the details. Hessan learned that with impatient colleagues and skeptical customers, you have to get to the main point quickly. Taking this principle to heart, Hessan quickly grew the sales training product into a large, successful business.
She also got a reputation.
She told me about a team of people who were working late on a proposal for a client and asked to run the proposal by her. It wasn’t quite up to snuff. Before offering her opinion, she asked, “Do you want to know what I really think?” The room burst out laughing because everyone knew they didn’t have...

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