What is it about?
Writing Without Bullshit is a book about improving one's writing in the business context. Its mantra is: treat the reader's time as more valuable than your own.
I found Writing Without Bullshit an informative book and I liked the many helpful tips. The writing style is a bit unusual, but pleasant, as the author practices what he preaches. Because I'm not a professional writer, some parts were only of marginal interest to me.
Change Your Perspective
Bullshit is a burden on all of us, keeping us from getting useful work done. Technology has made it breathtakingly easy for anybody to create content and distribute it to thousands of people. Unfortunately, nobody told those creators what it takes to create good content, so we're stuck wading through a deluge of drivel.
Clarity can be dangerous because people who read what you wrote might disagree with it.
Treat the reader's time as more valuable than your own.
Bullshit is communication that wastes the reader's time by failing to communicate clearly and accurately. While that includes outright lies, lies are not the biggest problem in business communication. The biggest problem is lack of clarity. Jargon, overuse of qualifying words like "very" and "deeply", confusing passive sentences, poorly organized thinking, and just general rambling on: that's bullshit.
Seize Your Opportunity
Anything you write – an email, a web page, a tweet – must compete with everything else that your audience reads. Since they're almost certainly reading it on a screen – and probably a tiny smartphone 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 wrote as bullshit.
Most of what you read comes directly from the fingertips of the person who wrote it to your eyeballs, with no editorial process. I don't just mean editing for grammar – no one is editing for content, either. [...] With no editors, clarity and accuracy are hit or miss, and bullshit is inevitable.
Change What You Write
Move Beyond Fear
If you plant daisies around a pile of poo, it still stinks. Why not just point out the poo so we know not to step in it?
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.
Why are you still wasting people's time with writing that is too long? Insecurity. You're afraid to get right to the point; you need to warm up. You say the same thing several different ways since you're not sure which is best. It takes you a while to figure out what you're saying. You add words to hedge.
Your ideal should be tight writing. Eliminate everything you don't need. The tighter you write, the more persuasive you will be.
No one writes tight prose on the first draft. You need time and effort to get the words out of your head and onto the page. Admit your imperfection. Write, and allow time to self-edit.
Lists written out in prose (e.g., "Firstly", "Secondly", or "On the one hand", "Alternatively") take up extra space. Where possible, convert to a bulleted list.
A simple diagram is often easier to comprehend than a lump of prose. It allows you to make a statement and support it without having to go into extraneous detail. But keep the graphic simple; don't just replace tangled prose with impenetrable pictures.
Look for long sentences and break them into shorter ones. This makes prose easier to digest.
Front-Load Your Writing
Get to the point. The reader's attention is limited. You must drive home your point in the first few words. Interest your reader, and you can explain further. Fail that interest, and you won't get the chance.
"Controlling the sequence in which you present your ideas is the single most important act necessary to clear writing. The clearest sequence is always to give the summarizing idea before you give the individual ideas being summarized."
You learned to start with a warm-up, then reason deductively, starting from first principles and reaching a conclusion. Business readers have no time for warm-ups and lack the patience for extended reasoning unless they know the payoff up front. So start with bold statements and conclusions. Then follow with the reasoning that got you there. That way, readers who don't read the whole document will still benefit from reading your conclusion.
The objective of an email, whether to a colleague or a prospect, is to communicate an idea. If the recipient gets intrigued enough to open it – and if the content matches the promise in the subject line – then you've succeeded. Otherwise, you've failed. Your subject line is crucial. Focus on accuracy and brevity. Ask yourself, If all they read is the subject line, will I still have communicated something useful?
Purge Passive Voice
First off, what is 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. For example, in the sentence "Attention must be paid to the state of our nation", who is supposed to pay attention? That's the missing actor.
Grammatically, passive voice sentences include some form of the verb "to be" [...] plus a past participle. Often, it's easier to just use the zombies test: if you can add "by zombies" after the verb and it still makes grammatical sense, it's passive voice. ("Attention must be paid by zombies...")
Every passive voice sentence sets up 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.
Fixing the passive will force you to think about who is acting in the sentences you write. This is a discipline that you should adopt because it improves meaning as well as readability.
While many passives are just lazy writing, fear is also a causative factor. You either don't want to say who's responsible for something or don't want readers to blame you.
Look for "is", "are", "can", "could", "have", "has", and "ought" in your writing, and ask if the sentences that include them are passive. This helps sharpen your "passive detector". Do it enough, and you'll learn to catch yourself as you're writing.
Jargon is extremely useful. It makes writers seem like sophisticated insiders. Unfortunately, it makes life much harder for readers.
Jargon [...] clearly communicates that you think you are more important than the reader.
The problem is that when you write in jargon, you effectively divide the world into two groups. One is the insider group – the people who, along with you, know what these special words mean. The other, much larger, group is the world outside your bubble. That other group likely includes most of your customers and many of your employees. The more jargon you use, the more you are alienating large groups of people who should be reading and understanding what you write.
[...] people write jargon to look and sound smarter.
Readers appreciate it if you prioritize clarity over sounding impressive.
[...] here are three rules of thumb for when you can use jargon:
- You can use terms that everyone in your audience knows. Just recognize that you're excluding people who don't know those terms.
- Where a term has a specific, legally required definition, define it and use it. For example, the word "disclaimer" has a specific legal meaning that makes it mandatory in some situations.
- If there's a term you want to use throughout a document, define it up front. [...] But keep these "magic words" to a minimum. If you're only going to use an acronym once, why bother defining the acronym and using it? Just substitute a simpler term.
Eliminate 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 words: "most", "many", "few", "rarely", "millions", "cheap", "countless".
Here's how weasel words get into your writing: You want to make a statement, but then you realize that you're not sure it's completely true. So you throw in a weasel word or three and feel comfortable you've covered your ass.
When you want to write a general statement, write it as boldly as you can. Eliminate adverbs, wimpy adjectives, and vague quantities like "millions" and "many". 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.
To stand out, your business writing needs to make a direct connection between the writer and the reader. "You", "I", and "we" make that connection. A simple change of pronouns forces you to think clearly about what you're saying.
You can't write "you" unless you have a clear idea of your audience. If you don't know who you're writing for and what you want them to do, why bother writing at all? So prepare yourself to be direct by identifying the "who" you're writing for – your boss, the whole sales department, or all your customers.
Before you can improve a piece of writing with these pronouns, write down who the audience is (who is "you") and whom you're speaking for (who is "we"). Then blaze ahead, transforming bland statements about what's happening or what need to happen. Rewrite, telling what "I" or "we" think "you" should do. Or write commands telling the reader what to do.
Use Numbers Wisely
Words lie. Numbers don't. Numbers are precise, reliable, and persuasive. Except when they aren't.
[...] follow these rules to add context:
- Always compare numbers to something familiar.
- Give us historical context. How has the number you're citing changed? If you're reporting that your company now has 250,000 customers, how many did it have at this time last year?
- Don't publish growth rates without a base. [...] "Our revenues have grown 200% in the last year." That means nothing; if you brought in $100 last year, then the $300 you've generated this year isn't very impressive. Unless you cite both the growth and the base, your numbers lack the context to be credible.
[...] when it comes to numbers, you should be aware of where they're coming from and how that affects what they say. All research has biases, and all data collection has flows. Go ahead and quote it, just don't convince yourself that everything that confirms your theory is right while everything that contradicts it is a fluke.
To cite numbers properly, report the source and the date, and make sure you know the sample size if it's a study. And since your readers are online, include a link to the source so your readers can check it.
Checking your numbers before citing them is a pain in the ass. Do it anyway. Your integrity is on the line here. Check your data, because writing without bullshit depends on data that's not bullshit.
What you write always has a beginning, middle, and end. Break things up into chunks, then use headings to make those chunks easy to see. Within the chunks, use lists to create even more structure.
Any time you compare or describe three or more things, use a bulleted list. If it's in sequence, use a numbered list. Train yourself to put sentences, phrases, or words at the head of each list item in bold, as signposts.
Look for words like "firstly" and "on the other hand" as clues that you've got prose that would be better written as a list.
If you're trying to get across a complex idea and the words won't flow – or if there are just too many words – draw a picture.
[...] regardless of how you use graphics, remember three key things:
- Graphics and text are parallel ways of representing meaning. The text and the graphics in a document should work together. With a diagram, you can show things that would be hard to explain in text, but the text should still carry meaning as well.
- Keep it simple. A complex diagram thwarts the reader just as effectively as a complex description.
- Graphics escape their containers and roam the web freely. No matter what you do, people will clip and share your graphics. This is great; it improves your reach. But make sure that you identify yourself, your web address, and your sources (if any) in the graphic, because it's going to burst forth from your document and go tearing across your company, or the open web, whether you like it or not.
Change How You Write
Be Paranoid Early
[...] unless you've got a disciplined writing process, you're not going to have enough time to get the structure, the tone, the theme, the language, and the title all right by the deadline. And there is always a deadline.
It takes a professional to be paranoid at the start of the writing process. Being paranoid early means not just worrying about what might go wrong but also acting to prevent it. While late paranoia generates anxiety, early paranoia is productive. Here's what to worry about and act on:
- Do you have a clear audience and objectives?
- Do you have enough content?
- Have you taken the most creative approach?
- What is your structure? Your objective is to create a "fat outline" – a description of what's going to be in the final piece and in what order.
Writing takes concentration. By completing your research and planning ahead of time, you put yourself in a position to write well.
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 [...].
I use the acronym ROAM to help you keep track of the change you want to make in your readers. ROAM reflects the four elements of that change: Readers, Objective, Action, and iMpression.
Before writing anything, visualize your readers. When you write "you", whom are you thinking of? Different audiences require different tone and different content. [...] If you don't know your readers, how can you write anything?
Your objective is the change you wish to create in the mind of the readers. Do you want them to feel favorably about a political party? to learn the steps to change an oil filter? to support your project? to feel joy? What will they know after reading that they did not know before? Each element of your writing should guide the reader toward the objective. Cut anything that doesn't serve the objective. If you don't know your objective, how will you know what to include and what to leave out?
Once your readers are done reading, what will they do next? Objective and action are related, but not identical. The objective describes the change that you want to create in the reader, while the action is what the reader actually does [...].
If you don't know the action you seek, how will you know if you succeeded? And if you don't expect your reader to do anything in particular after reading what you've written, why write it at all? Writing that does not create action is a waste.
Everything you write reflects on you, its author. Objectives and actions may be fleeting, but impressions last. The impression is the metamessage. The readers' impression determines the future of your mutual relationship. Do you want readers to think of you as smart? trustworthy? witty? If you don't know the impression you hope to create, how will you know what style to write in?
Once you've completed the ROAM analysis, you can write a single "target sentence" summarizing it. The sentence looks like this: After reading this piece, [readers] will realize [objective], so they will [desired action] and think of me/us as [desired impression].
Starting with a ROAM analysis keeps your writing activities focused on what matters and channels your writing and editing toward a worthwhile goal.
If you're working on a project that's going to take more than a week, you probably have the same problem. You can't write anything yet because you don't have the raw material. But don't fall victim to the impulse to procrastinate. Here's how to make progress when you can't write: Write a title and opening, build a research plan, and create a fat outline.
The purpose of an outline is to help you and the people you're working with – your boss, your clients, your editor – understand what you're going to write. And, it should also force you, the writer, to think clearly about content.
A fat outline is more like a treatment for a movie – it includes pieces of the actual content. It flips between writing that will potentially be in the final piece, descriptions of potential content, and promises of future content.
When writing a fat outline, ignore grammar and other traditional writing (and outlining) rules because you're just showing how you'll organize the content. If you show it to editors or collaborators, they can critique the organization but they shouldn't edit the words.
Creativity is what makes good writing stand out. It's what makes the reader sit up and take notice, because they're reading something unexpected.
Here are some counterintuitive tips on unleashing your creativity:
- Embrace your frustration. If you're having a problem, other people are, too. Their problem may be your next opportunity.
- Turn your world upside down. If you've always sold products, what would happen if your company sold services instead? What customers have you never been able to reach – and what not-yet-tried strategy would reach them if that was the only way to save your company? If all your customers could leave tomorrow, how would you win them back? Imagine a world completely different from the one you live in. What new ideas would enable you to succeed in that world?
- Get a new perspective. Talk to your sister. Talk to your architect. [...] If you're 55, talk to somebody who's 25 (and vice versa). Imagine, just for a moment, that the person you're listening to has some deep insight that you are missing.
- Stop working for a minute. You're a lot less likely to see that new idea when you're going all out at 300 miles per hour. Take a day off. Take an hour off.
Perversely, the most important element of idea development is a set of deadlines. Unless there is pressure to produce something by a given date, you're unlikely to conceive something and finish it.
You cannot write well if you cannot concentrate for more than 20 seconds at a time.
Get yourself at least 90 minutes when you won't be interrupted. If your workday is full of meetings, this might be at night or on the weekend. If that's not workable for you, block off time during your day when you won't be interrupted (with a 15-minute buffer before and after).
You need a writing place where coworkers won't interrupt you in person or on the phone.
Collaborate Without Tears
[...] if you're writing with reviewers and collaborators, there are a lot of people who are there to offer advice, content, or help. If you don't take advantage of them, you're missing out. But if you let them take over, it's not your writing anymore.
Editors stand in for the reader. They tell you what they think the reader needs, or won't understand, in what you've written. If they've got any talent, they also suggest how to fix things.
If you struggle to deal with edits, keep this key principle in mind: Editors and reviewers exist to reveal what you cannot see, not to tell you what to do.
Change What You Produce
While the container – the email, the blog post, the press release, or the report – matters far less than the writing within it, it does matter. Each container comes with a load of expectations about how to consume what's within it.
Regardless of the container, you should be brief and bold. You should front-load your content, avoid qualifiers, and develop ideas with a systematic process. But you can't be effective unless you account for the connotations of the container you're writing in.
The first instinct you need to change is that email is the solution to all problems. Get up and talk to people. Call them on the phone. If it's an issue that would benefit from dialogue, email is not the best way to solve it.
If you do decide to send an email, recognize that there are two types of emails: those that are important to you and the recipient, and those that are not. Important emails include emails you send to groups of customers or employees, as well as those that you send to one person to generate action. Important emails are important enough to plan and execute thoughtfully [...]. What about the unimportant emails? You can save yourself a lot of time on those. Just don't send them. You'll be better off and so will the people whose inboxes you won't be clogging up.
So what's the ROAM analysis of an email?
- Readers: a precise group of people.Figure out who you need to act on the email. Include them, and only them, on the list of recipients. Don't cover your ass by writing to more people.
- Objective: get an answer or spread information. Are you asking or telling? If you're asking, be clear about what you need. If you're telling, be clear about what you're sharing and why. If you don't know why you're sending the email, don't send it.
- Action: what you hope will happen next. If you're asking for information, then the action you want is a helpful response. Include a deadline. If you're sharing information, what do you want the recipient to do about it? If you can't answer that, don't send the email.
- iMpression: sound effective. Asking for precise information for a specific purpose shows that you're doing your job. Telling people what you need them to do and why, clearly and briefly, also makes a positive impression. Rambling on aimlessly doesn't.
Put separate topics in separate emails, even if you're targeting the same list of recipients. Otherwise, you'll mess up people who forward the email or classify it as an item on their to-do lists.
It's fine to read email on your smartphone. It's even fine to respond to email on your smartphone. Just don't create anything important there. Writing email that doesn't waste the reader's time requires thought and planning. It takes editing, too. Your smartphone doesn't support thought, planning, and editing very well. Compose important emails on a computer.
Master Social Media
[...] it's more important to please people than machines. People will share a well-written, useful post regardless of SEO. And even if a search engine brings someone to your page, they'll just bounce off if the content is wordy, rambling, and useless.
Once you've established yourself as useful, you can throw in something overtly promotional once in a while, but if you promote yourself too frequently, you'll lose the following you built up.
You won't succeed on social networks unless you post at least a few times a week. You can share content from others or links to media – you don't need to create your own great stuff daily. But if you only poke your head up every month or two, you'll lack visibility and credibility when you do appear.
Craft Actionable Reports
Epilogue: Change the Bullshit Culture