You should read Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean before you send another email or write your next blog post. This book focuses on business writing, but you can apply its recommendations to less formal writing, too. The book repeatedly stresses the Iron Imperative: Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.
In this post, I discuss the most important lessons I learned from Writing Without Bullshit. The first revelation I had while reading the book is that I’m a bullshit machine. I’m now trying to use the book’s recommendations to improve my writing. So if you’ve read any of my previous posts, I hope you’ll see less bullshit from now on.
Origins of Bullshit
In 1980, almost everything we read was on paper. Professional writers wrote most text and editors reviewed that text before we read it. Today, email, text messages, blogs and social media sites enable anyone to write without an editor. That’s an environment where bullshit flourishes. And because most of the text we read now is on screens—often very small screens—wading through bullshit is both annoying and time-consuming.
Honing Your Bullshit Detector
The book describes the following common sources of bullshit:
- Passive voice – e.g., “Things can be written in the passive voice…” But then the reader has to wonder: Who the hell is doing it? If you can add “by zombies” and the sentence still makes sense, it’s bullshit.
- Jargon – e.g., “Our cross domain teams have defined a responsive management structure to address today’s hypercompetitive business climate.” You might think you look smarter by using jargon, but you’re really just being a bullshitter. Write in plain language.
- Weasel words – e.g., “Ultimate, mostly, very, extremely, state-of-the-art, etc.” Take the superlatives out. Replace them with real numbers when possible and appropriate.
- Too long – Get to the point early in the text. Remember: Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.
- Bad use of numbers – e.g., “We’ve increased sales 100% every year for the past two years.” That could mean you went from $1,000 to $2,000 to $4,000 in sales. Cite meaningful numbers or don’t say it.
- Cowardice – Don’t be a wimp. Be bold. Tell you message clearly. Make your recommendation.
- No value for the reader – If the reader is not going to benefit by what you’ve written, then you’ve violated the Iron Imperative.
After the book describes how bullshit happens, it presents a framework that will help you eliminate that crap.
A Framework for Bullshit-Free Writing
Before you write, you should ask yourself four questions:
- Readers – Who is the audience?
- Objective – How will you change the reader?
- Action – What do you want the reader to do?
- IMpression – What will the reader think of you?
The book calls answering the preceding questions a “ROAM analysis.” If you can’t come up with good answers with a ROAM analysis of what you want to write, then you shouldn’t write it. If you combine ROAM with the tips for identifying and eliminating bullshit (e.g. passive voice), then you’ll be on your way to bullshit-free writing.
The Author is a Veteran Bullshit Fighter
The book’s author, Josh Bernoff, worked at Forrester Research, a market research company, for about 20 years. I’ve sent press releases to market researchers and written white papers that I wanted them to read. I’ve also given at least a dozen in-depth product briefing to analysts. That’s how I know that people like Josh see more bullshit than cattle ranchers. Josh’s background gives him the qualifications to write an authoritative book on bullshit and how to get rid of it. Josh covers additional topics in the book, such as embracing edits, working in teams, social media and more.
I highly recommend that you read Writing Without Bullshit.