We all know that writing well is critical to get ahead in your career, but has anyone ever told you that what you are writing is not working since it is filled with bullshit? Josh Bernoff has made it a mission to get people to write well, and a simple way to do this is by writing without bullshit. He felt so strongly about this that he wrote a book “Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean.”
I turn to this book often to make sure my writing is short, simple, and direct. There are a lot of books on improving your writing, but if you are in business, you want to make this your go-to book if you want to be gainfully employed and get ahead. Also, please check out excellent blog posts Josh has written over the years at his website withoutbullshit.com.
For example, I have sent the link to this blog post on using a fat outline to quite a few people since it will save you a lot of time when you are writing something, including a book. I would have saved a lot of time if I had come across this when I was writing a book. I believe I would have saved a lot of time.
In this post, I pose five questions to Josh about writing and also get his five book recommendations that have influenced his thinking. I want to thank Josh for taking time to answer these questions and providing his book recommendations.
Companies use all kinds of analytics at work to improve productivity, but do they use any analytics on how much it costs companies as a result of poorly written communication?
>> I've never seen a company analyze this. My research shows that 81% of business writers think that poorly written material wastes a lot of their time. My own estimate based on an analysis of job descriptions in the Bureau of Labor Statistics is that America wastes $396 billion in wages on poorly written material -- 6% of all wages paid in the U.S. -- but companies seem to think of that as a cost of doing business. Sad but true.
Aren’t people writing with so much bullshit because that is how they speak? Don’t you think that one needs to talk without bullshit first before they can write without bullshit?
>> I don't think so. Speaking includes nonverbal cues which makes it more efficient, even if it seems informal. Written material lacks those cues. People write dreadful, jargon-laden things that they would never say out loud. Speech has its own problems, but I think writing clearly is a bigger problem. Those who write clearly think clearly. Those who think clearly speak clearly. So the path to clear speech follows from clear writing in any case.
Are schools not doing a good job teaching students how to write without BS? If you think schools are doing a good job, then how are people developing this bad habit of writing?
>> Schools do a terrible job. In high school, a single teacher may be grading 160 essays. Obviously, they can't spend time on developing individual students' creativity, so they have everyone try to write the same way -- the famous "five-paragraph theme." But no one writes five-paragraph themes at work. As for college, people are learning writing from English majors, who are informed by stilted, passively written literary criticism. At my previous research firm, we found we had to retrain bright students from excellent schools in how to write without BS. Our educational system is failing to teach the skills that business writers need.
Should people record their writing either on audio or video and listen to it to edit it before sending it or publish it? Do you think this can help improve one’s writing?
>> Reading your writing out loud is a good way to catch errors, stilted language, and twisted reasoning. The act of reading out loud is what reveals the problem -- recording it is incidental.
Do you think Twitter is making us better writers since you have to be short, direct, and clear?
>> Have you been on Twitter lately? It's short, but it's also full of bad grammar, terrible spelling, invalid reasoning, logical shortcuts, and appeals to emotion. A great tweet is an excellent condensation of a great idea -- but great tweets are as rare as clear and powerful writing.
You are a great writer, so what do you do to improve your writing?
>> Practice, practice, practice. I write a blog post every weekday at bernoff.com. I edit other people's writing, which reveals habits that I can correct and learn to avoid. I immerse myself in writing every day. And I seek editors for the things I think are most important and learn from what they observe about my writing. I will stop improving when I stop writing -- which will be when I am dead, blind, or senile.
Five Books That Influenced You
"Everybody Writes" by Ann Handley -- a terrific business writing guide that complements my own.
"The Sense of Style" by Steven Pinker -- a classical thinker's guide to writing; I like his explanation of "The Curse of Knowledge."
"Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond -- a masterful demonstration of the use of logic in proving a grand thesis
"The Right Stuff" by Tom Wolfe -- stretches your idea of what effective nonfiction sounds like.
"Talk Triggers" by Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin -- practically a template for how to write a successful business book.
Jay Oza is a writer, speaker, executive coach. He makes people thrive on high stakes stage whether it's for a job interview, a sales presentation or an important speech. He is the author of the book Winning Speech Moments: How to Achieve Your Objective with Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere. Please download the speech checklist and the speech workbook to help you with your next high stakes speech.
Please contact him if you would like to attend his workshop or invite him to have it at your site or have him give a talk on Interviewing or High-Stakes Speaking. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 732-847-9877.