Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Writing (and Thinking) Without Bullshit

Before I recommend Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean by Josh Bernoff, I should disclose that Josh mentions one of my blog posts in the book. While I'm pleased it is a positive mention, I will further disclose that I am the writer with a bad habit in a tale Josh recounts. I can think of no better way to start my review than to share this story, because it demonstrates why I can wholeheartedly recommend this book: Josh Bernoff made me a better writer and thinker, and now he can do the same for you.

To land my first job as a research analyst, I went through a grueling process that involved writing a complete research report. I landed the job, and my first assignment was to turn that pre-hire writing sample into a published document. "No sweat," I thought, "I wrote a killer report that earned me the job offer, so this should be a slam dunk." Then I received my edited document back from Josh, and I have never seen so many edits in my life. I'll let Josh take it from here: 
"I once edited a very smart analyst who didn't realize how bad his passive habit was. After marking up the first two cases of passive voice in his draft, I added this comment, 'I'm going to ask you to slap yourself each time you write a passive voice sentence.' For the rest of the document, I just marked each passive sentence and added the comment 'Slap.' In a five-page document, he needed to slap himself about 30 times. Since then he's become highly sensitive to the unconscious use of the passive voice in his writing."
Each time I read "slap," it stung, and I spent a day convinced I was going to fail at my new job. Twenty-four hours later, I took a look at Josh's feedback with fresh eyes, and I saw something different. Josh wasn't criticizing my ideas; he was strengthening them. The edits he made weren't just grammatical; Josh was helping me to communicate the messages I intended.

I am far from the world's best writer, but I can look back over the years and see the sharp line that separates the quality of my writing pre- and post-Josh.  Wouldn't it be great if you could have that same mentoring experience? You can, for just $11.99 (Kindle price). 

The conceit of the book is that it is about how to write, and it certainly will help you to communicate better via email, social media, and other "containers," but the book is really about how to sharpen your thinking. Or, perhaps, it is more accurate to say that this work is about the many ways your writing tells people how you think, for better or worse. 

Your bad writing habits may have implications beyond poor grammar or even ineffectively communicated ideas. Josh notes that every bad writing habit you've learned is "tied up with your own psychology at work." Every single thing you write tells people if you are logical, value others more than yourself, are interested in the truth, are industrious and are brave enough to be candid. 

Josh quotes a friend who succinctly sums up the unspoken power of your writing: "If you can't write clearly, you can't think clearly." Every email, post or comment is a mini-resume in ways you may not appreciate, and Josh's book can help you recognize the problems, adopt better habits and improve your career. 

Writing without bullshit brings many benefits, but it also carries risks. Josh makes this clear from the start, with a disclaimer that reads: 
"If you follow the advice you are about to read, it will have a powerful impact on your career... While I hope these words will help you, you alone are responsible for the consequences, positive or negative, of writing without bullshit."  
If this sounds threatening, that's because it can be. As Josh notes, "Clarity can be dangerous because people who read what you wrote might disagree with it." But the risk is worth it.

Josh is not interested in teaching you about sentence structure or when to use a colon versus semi-colon. Instead, he wants you to be cognizant of when you are afraid, because "fear generates bad writing habits." When you're afraid to deliver bad news or make a tough call, you equivocate, use weasel words and bury the lede. In short, your fear shows, and your readers see it. Or, as Josh eloquently puts it, "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?"

Writing Without Bullshit shares many positive examples that illustrate his advice, but part of the fun of the book is that Josh doesn't hesitate to offer bad examples, as well. For example, Josh shares a painful article written by a technology CEO, and he notes "not only does this passage say nothing, it marks the CEO as a man who can't marshal facts to defend his perspective. It's worse than no statement at all." If that sounds brutal, ask yourself if someone may be thinking that about your writing.

Some of the advice Josh offers is quite simple, such as visualizing your audience. Not only does that help you to avoid jargon that your audience may not understand, but it also helps you to write directly to them using the word "you." Josh notes, "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 it all?"

Another practical tip is how to frame your writing project at the beginning. If you cannot fill in the bracketed sections, you are not ready to start: "After reading this piece, [readers] will realize [objective], so they will [desired action] and think of me/us as [desired impression]."

Josh not only wants you to change what you write, but he also recommends better habits to improve how you write. For example, good writers are prepared, or as Josh calls it, "being paranoid early," He notes, "Any piker can be paranoid when up against a deadline, where any little thing could destroy weeks of work. It takes a professional to be a paranoid at the start of the writing process."

Josh had a tremendous impact on my writing and my career. I treasure and use his advice every time I sit at my keyboard. I'm just a tad disappointed his coaching is now available to everyone in a compact 251-page book, but my disappointment can be your gain. 

If you write and care about the way clients, peers and bosses perceive you (and who doesn't?), you will find Writing Without Bullshit a worthwhile investment. 

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