Can There Really Be Business Writing Without Bullshit?

September 8, 2016 11:18 am

Everybody thinks their business writing is great.

Everybody’s wrong. It’s just a question of how much.

The world of business writing is awash with:

  • Emails with mysterious subject lines like “Here it is”;
  • Blog posts that begin with a faulty premise, then veer off into a bramble of unrelated topics;
  • Advertising and PR with messages written in passive voice and littered with weasel words and jargon.

You could write a book about it. Instead, read Josh Bernoff’s “Writing Without Bullshit”.

Business Writing Without Bullshit

Where does all this business writing bullshit come from?

The first half of the book points out the symptoms, and helps explain where the disease comes from. I cringed when I spotted a few bullshit habits in my own writing.

As an experienced writer, the second half of the book was a nice surprise— even more useful and illuminating than the first. Josh provides planning tools and approaches to help fight creeping bullshit. No matter how well you write today, you can do it better. I interviewed Josh so he can explain how.

Tom: What made you want to write this book? Did you read a piece of bullshit that suddenly sent you over the edge?

Josh: I think it was the 10,000 press releases (not an exaggeration) and millions of emails I received in my last job. I began to realize that we are all so immersed in this meaningless tangle of crap that we don’t even notice it any more. I decided I need to wake people up and make them aware — and show them how to fix it, since it is eminently fixable.

Tom: What has been the reaction so far?

Josh: It’s early yet — the book officially publishes on September 13. But all the people I sent pre-release copies to were thrilled with it. Two said “I’ve gotten copies of this for my whole department.” That’s good, because if everybody recognizes the problem, they can fix it together.

Tom: CEOs and other top execs often have performance coaches. Why don’t they have business writing coaches?

Josh: Ego. They think they’re great at communicating. Here’s a tip: if you’re going to send an email to over 50 people, have somebody read it and give you feedback on it. Everyone thinks they are as good at this as Tim Cook. They’re not (and he’s probably getting help, too.)

Just like gymnastics, basketball, or giving a speech, communicating plainly looks easy and effortless, but it’s not natural for most people.

Tom: Of all business writing,  advertising and PR are the most bullshit-laden. Maybe it’s an occupational hazard. I think it came into full flower in the 1980s with BMW ads and later with the rise of social media. Would you agree?

Josh: Interesting question. I can’t put a date on it. But I can point to a few trends.

First off, we need to create more and more of this stuff than ever before, with fewer and fewer staff. So every piece gets less attention, and therefore is likely to be of lower quality.

Secondly, we’re so immersed in it that we don’t notice the ever-escalating spiral of overwritten, superlative bullshit. If you’re around it enough, it smells normal.

Finally, there used to be thing called editing. In 1980, everything that you read was written by a professional writer and vetted by an editor, or at least a secretary, who would stop you from sounding like an idiot. Now, much of what we read never sees an editor, and a lot of it is a first draft. And as you point out, that’s typical of social media posts.

Tom: Most people would point to the legal department when you talk about weasel words in business writing. Is that fair, or a cop-out?

Josh: Definitely a cop out. Whether it’s legal or somebody else who is reviewing your copy, you need the right attitude about reviews. It is the reviewer’s responsibility to show you a problem (for example, you just created an implied warranty, and legal tells you not to do that). But it is YOUR responsibility as a writer to fix the problem. If you take a legal expert’s suggestion on how to write something, it’s going to sound like legalese. They’re there to save you from screwing up, not to tell you what to write.

Tom: Are people too lazy to edit their own business writing, or do they just lack the tools to do it well?

Josh: Yes. Both.

First of all, self-editing might double the time you spend on writing something. But my “Iron Imperative” is to treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own. So you really should spend that time.

Of course, that’s pointless if you don’t know what to look for. A good editor will show you what your bad habits are and how to fix them. Then when you self-edit, you can be on alert for those problems. That’s when self-editing pays off.

Tom: If you were King and could re-do how all business writing is taught, what would you recommend?

Josh: Instead of king, I am going to assume I am supreme lord of teaching of writing, worldwide. So here are my edicts:

    1. Always write shorter. Reward assignments that say more in less space (most writing teachers do the opposite). Every assignment has a MAXIMUM length, rather than MINIMUM (e.g. “No more than 1000 words”).
    2. Everything you write gets edited at least twice. Writing teachers today don’t have time to require rewrites, for the most part. When I taught writing to my homeschooled students, I gave them lots of feedback and made them rewrite everything. That’s when learning takes place. It’s ten times as effective as a lecture, and it’s automatically personalized to the reader’s needs.
    3. Sensitivity training for weasel words, passive voice, and jargon. I once edited a writer who write in passive voice a lot. I highlighted each instance and wrote “slap yourself every time you use passive voice.” He lost that habit in a hurry. The same goes for weasel words (those are meaningless qualifiers, like “deeply” and “very”) and jargon. Academic writing is full of this crap, and students pick it up. We need to reward clear, plain, direct and brief writing, rather than these bad habits. They’re toxic.

Boost your career by saying what you mean

Josh also has a blog with worthwhile tips to help you stand out from your bullshit-spewing colleagues.

The real benefit of business writing without bullshit is that writing clearly forces you to think clearly.  This is a rare and valuable skill.

And that’s no bullshit.

1 Comment

  • Garrison Cox

    Ahem. A good editor would have caught the dangling modifier in your seventh graph: “As an experienced writer, the second half of the book was a nice surprise …” You surely meant “As an experienced writer, I found the second half of the book a nice surprise …”

    Q.E.D.

    Submitted with tongue near cheek. I am an enormous fan of Josh’s, and everyone who writes in business should snag a copy of this book.

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