Writing Without Bullshit By Josh Bernoff - Canadian Government Executive
Bookshelf with Harvey SchachterCommunicationLeadership
December 2, 2016

Writing Without Bullshit By Josh Bernoff

Unfortunately, a lot of what government executives write is crap—poorly composed, jammed with jargon, and designed in parts, perhaps large parts, to obfuscate in order to avoid problems.

Government executives are writers. Maybe not like Margaret Atwood or Joseph Boyden, but they pound out words every day themselves on their keyboard, in emails, memos, and other missives. Unfortunately, a lot of what they write is crap—poorly composed, jammed with jargon, and designed in parts, perhaps large parts, to obfuscate in order to avoid problems.

Government executives are readers. Much of that verbiage is consumed in house. And it’s not easy to penetrate. This weak writing is not just a government problem but it certainly permeates government. Josh Bernoff, a former Forrester analyst and freelance writer, argues the tide of “bullshit” in verbiage is rising around us.

“Your email inbox is full of irrelevant, poorly written crap. Your boss talks in jargon and clichés. The web sites you read are impenetrable and incomprehensible,” he writes in Writing Without Bullshit.

“Bullshit is a burden on all of us, keeping us from getting useful work done.”

The solution is to be like Atwood and Boyden, focused on readers. In every email and other written communication, Bernoff asks you to obey the iron imperative: “Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.”

That means getting to the point quickly. It means shunning extra verbiage—high fallutin phrases and jargon. It means using crisp verbs rather than deadly passive phrases.

It means moving away from what you were taught in school and the early years of your job. You were praised in school for long, clever arguments and fancy words. In the workforce you were introduced to legalese and jargon right from your first employee handbook. It will take courage and thought to change. But with it, he says, comes opportunity. You will stand out from others, in a good way.

Keep in mind that everything you write competes with everything else your audience receives. Most of that is read on a screen, perhaps a tiny screen. “You can measure their attention span in tens of seconds. If you keep them interested long enough to learn a bit more, you can get your point across. If you don’t, they’ll just perceive what you write as bullshit,” he warns. And unlike Atwood and Boyden, you lack an editor. You have to be your own monitor.

Just as big a problem is fear. Bad writing is often a symptom of fear. We’re reluctant to be bold. We write to cover our ass. The first tool for dealing with that fear is to write shorter. “Get to the point quickly, deliver your message, and let readers get on with the rest of their day,” he insists. Don’t let insecurity lead you to write long. Heed the iron imperative, taking time to pare back your messages to the essentials for the reader’s sake.

Construct a meaning ratio for your writing. Count all the words that really don’t add to your essential message—jargon or words intended to pad your findings or inflate its meaning. That doesn’t just mean trimming off the fat. He says it also means jettisoning stuff you liked that isn’t helping very much. Tom Cunniff, a marketing consultant he interviewed, suggests removing the first sentence of what you wrote. Then the second sentence. Keep going until you have lost meaning.

Edit everything. Count words, aiming for fewer than 250 in emails. A survey of 547 business professionals asking what problems they encounter frequently in material they read found 65 per cent mentioning it being too long. You probably agree – for what other people write. But consider that it applies to your own gems as well.

Since the reader’s attention is limited, get to the point immediately by front-loading your writing. Delivering the main point at the outset, in as few words as possible rather than saving your conclusion for the end as you learned in school. Start with bold statements and conclusions and then follow with the reasoning that got you there.

In emails, the beginning is your subject line. Ask yourself: If they only read that, will you still have communicated something useful? In documents, your title and opening are critical. Both have to be interesting enough to entice busy people to read on. A document of more than 10 pages also needs an executive summary. And he cautions: “Put your intuition aside and don’t summarize in the summary. Think of it more as a movie trailer, which includes the bits of the movie most likely to make you want to go see it.”

Purge the passive voice. That’s when the subject of the sentence is not the actor performing the action. Instead, the sentence starts with the noun the action is done to. That sounds technical, something only for writers, but you are a writer—unfortunately, a writer who has been infused with the passive tense in your academic studies and government reports. “Attention must be paid to the state of our nation” is an example he cites and it probably sounds inoffensive. But the question is: Who must pay attention? The actor, who should be in lead position in the sentence, is missing in inaction.

“Every passive voice sentence sets up an uneasiness in readers minds. They wonder what unseen force is responsible for the actions they’re reading about, because the passive hides the ‘who’ in sentences. The more passive voice, the more uneasy people get,” he notes.

You need to recognize this is a problem, raise your awareness when you slip into the passive voice, and rewrite those sentences. Find the verb. Who is placing, considering, transforming—doing? Then rewrite the sentence with that person as the subject.

As well as hunting for the passive voice, you need to hunt for jargon – and eliminate it. This will also be difficult as you routinely wallow in jargon. And it can be helpful when talking with fellow insiders. But more often it makes reading harder. “Jargon spreads like a nasty mould across everything we write,” he says. You need to be critical of what you write, thinking of the reader’s knowledge and perspective to determine whether the jargon helps or hinders. If much of your audience doesn’t know the jargon you are employing, as will happen with writing for outside government and perhaps even outside your department or unit, junk it. If a few people won’t know but many do, you may want to define the term early on.

Prune the weasel words from your writing – those adjectives, adverbs or nouns that indicate quantity or intensity but lack precision. Here are some common ones: Most, many, few, rarely, millions, cheap, countless. He says they help you to make flimsy generalizations that are not provable or defensible. And now that you are sensitized to them, you will notice them everywhere. “Replace them with the boldest statements you can make, with actual numbers, or with specifics. Don’t tell us that many people do something. Tell us which people do it,” he says.

Together, he says passive voice, jargon, and weasel words cloud writing and are “clear signifiers of bullshit. Writers use them to avoid responsibility for what they’re writing.” They make your writing dense and hard to read. They violate the iron imperative because they make life harder for readers.

“If you want to replace muddy writing with clarity, there is no better place to start than with those three classes of lazy, fearful writing. Cut your use of these three classes of bullshit by 90 per cent and what’s left will be active, clear, and bold. Isn’t that how you’d like people to think of you,” he asks.

The book doesn’t end with those three crimes against your readers, going on to tackle other difficulties and how to overcome them. Given his provocative title, he had to write it clearly and simply (and provocatively), and does. There are lots of examples, often from the high tech sector, and he shows how to improve the crap he has found. It’s an entertaining book but also a profoundly useful one. No, you’re not Atwood or Boyden but you are a writer and can be better.

 

About this author

HARVEY SCHACHTER

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

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