Book review: Writing Without Bullshit
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In an age that is obsessed with the art of communication, another how-to book on the subject is always worth a read. As Josh Bernoff says in the opening chapters of his new book Writing Without Bullshit—Boost Your Career By Saying What You Mean, writing isn’t just for writers any more. Everyone writes email. Every small business needs a Web page. People write product descriptions, reports and position papers. Despite this, we write badly, and send office emails and reports that are verbose and full of jargon, says US-based Bernoff, who used to work as an analyst at market research company Forrester Research.
People spend all day in front of their screens, subjected to a blast of content. So get to the point, Bernoff says. Don’t begin an email by saying, “I was just thinking”. Avoid qualifier words like “very”, “generally” and “probably” because they make you sound “wimpy and uncertain”. Edit your copy. Aim for a word count, even if you are writing an email. Use the active voice. Don’t write: “Healthcare is being transformed to deliver care and service.” Instead, write, “We are experiencing a healthcare transformation” and so on.
The book examines actual website copy and company internal communications, illustrating the meaninglessness of phrases like “a leading technology company and its unique achievement of value through delivering meaningful insight and impact in …”. The most fascinating example is in the chapter “Write Short”. It features a 1,100-word Nokia email, written on the occasion of Microsoft’s takeover of the mobile phone maker in 2014. Stephen Elop, former chief executive of Nokia, writes a rambling mail that attempts to explain changes at the firm, trying to cloak the announcement of layoffs in a sea of verbiage. The email is a classic example of confusing communication.
Bernoff promises especially good results for women who follow his approach. He quotes Deborah Tannen, who describes, in her book Talking From 9 To 5, how women are typically supposed to defer and men are supposed to speak up. This leads to women being more apologetic or softening what they say in a situation where a man may challenge things. The same constraints don’t hold true in writing, Bernoff believes. In writing, a woman may speak more directly and reduce the disadvantage of societal pressure.
The book offers practical suggestions on the craft of writing everywhere, even social media. A lot of the advice (like “Craft Actionable Reports”) is common sense, but Bernoff packages it punchily, using catchy headings, bullet points and chapter summaries. And the occasional acronym, like ROAM, which stands for the four questions every writer must ask himself before he sits down to write—R: Readers: Who is the Audience?; O: Objective: How will you change the reader?; A: Action: What do you want the reader to do?; M: Impression: What will the reader think of you?.
The book may not get you the immediate career success the sub-title promises, but it will train and remind you to be a clearer communicator.