I recently finished reading Writing Without Bullshit by Josh Bernoff, which focuses on ways to create more thoughtful, direct, and useful business content. Since it is already helping me to write better, I thought I’d share my eight key takeaways from the book to help you improve your writing too:
- Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.
“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.”
Driven by deadlines, busy schedules, and justifications, business writers often forget to slow down and consider how they can create content that is considerate of their readers’ time. It isn’t easy to write clear, bold prose when we are overwhelmingly busy. But quickly slapping together text that isn’t meaningful or direct results in content that is hard to comprehend and slows the reader down.
- Identify the purpose of your writing at the start of every project.
“Business writing exists for one purpose: to create a change in the reader. If the reader is no different after reading, then you have wasted the reader’s time and violated the Iron Imperative.”
Bernoff uses the acronym ROAM to help us focus on our readers. It breaks down as follows: R: Readers: Who is the audience? O: Objective: How will you change the reader? A: Action: What do you want the readers to do? M: iMpression: What will the reader think of you?
- Write shorter and front-load your writing.
“Use fewer words. Of all the ways to communicate boldly and powerfully in a noisy world, this is the most effective. Get to the point quickly, deliver your message, and let readers get on with the rest of their day. Remember the Iron Imperative.”
According to Bernoff, a big reason many writers write longer content than necessary is insecurity. We’re afraid to get right to the point and need to warm up first. We also tend to say the same thing in a number of different ways because we are unsure which way is best. He advises us to eliminate everything we don’t need and get to the point quickly. The reader’s attention is limited, so it’s important to drive the point home in the first few words.
- Kill passive voice.
“In a passive voice sentence, the subject of the sentence is not the actor performing the action. The sentence starts instead with the noun that the action is done to. The missing actor at the start of the sentence obscures the meaning.”
Passive voice prevents us from writing direct and powerful content. It leaves the reader guessing what unseen force is responsible for the actions they’re reading about. This uneasiness wastes the readers time, violating the Iron Imperative. Not sure how to detect passive voice? Try the zombie test. If you can add “by zombies” after the verb and it still makes grammatical sense, it’s passive voice.
- Simplify your writing by omitting jargon.
“Jargon is extremely useful. It makes writers seem like sophisticated insiders. Unfortunately, it makes life much harder for readers. Remember the Iron Imperative? Jargon accomplishes the opposite: it clearly communicates that you think you are more important than the reader.”
The only times it is appropriate to use jargon in business writing is when: 1) Everyone in the audience knows the term, 2) The term has a specific, legally required definition, 3) You define the word up front before using it throughout the rest of the document. If jargon doesn’t fit into one of these instances, Bernoff suggests we replace it to make ourselves look smarter and our readers feel smarter.
- Toss out weasel words.
“A weasel word is an adjective, adverb, or noun that indicates quantity or intensity but lacks precision. Grammatically, these words are typically called qualifiers or intensifiers Here are some common weasel worlds: ‘most,’ ‘many,’ ‘few,’ ‘rarely,’ ‘millions,’ ‘cheap,’ ‘countless,’ I call them weasel words because they’re the words that writers use to make flimsy generalizations that are not provable or defensible.”
It’s easier to use weasel words than doing the research to back up our claims, but the resulting writing is wimpy and unconvincing. Instead of tossing in generalizations when we are unsure to make ourselves feel more comfortable, we should instead write as boldly as we can, with actual numbers or specifics.
- Use numbers carefully.
“Words lie. Numbers don’t. Numbers are precise, reliable, and persuasive. Except when they aren’t.”
While numbers are preferred over weasel words, we need to be careful about how we use them. Some tips Bernoff shares for using numbers wisely include: 1) Provide context to make numbers meaningful. Unless we have something to compare it to, the number has no meaning. 2) Remember that correlation doesn’t equal causation. We shouldn’t create meaning where it doesn’t exist. Sometimes correlated numbers are just a coincidence. 3) Be precise about how we present numbers, taking into account when to use decimals. 4) Question the bias and methodology of the numbers.
- Create an inviting structure.
“Every paragraph that your reader reads, they’re potentially losing interest. The more paragraphs, the greater the chance they won’t make it to the end of what you’ve written. Unless it’s short, a piece of writing made of paragraphs looks uniform and therefore intimidating, especially on a narrow screen like a smartphone.”
The best way to overcome large masses of text that make readers’ eyes glaze over, is by breaking up our writing with headings, bullets, lists, tables, graphics, quotes, and links. This gives the readers signposts, so they can see that what’s coming is interesting.
Check out Writing Without Bullshit for a detailed guide to writing better. In the meantime, I hope these takeaways were helpful for you and that we can all work together to create more powerful business writing, free from bullshit.