Writing Without Bullsh*t: An Interview with Josh Bernoff

The state of business writing is generally dismal today. If I had a nickel for every poorly written article or blog post I've seen, I'd have quite a few nickels. Passive voice, horrible jargon, and run-on sentences make much if not most text confusing at best and downright inscrutable at worst.
09/05/2016 07:36 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The state of business writing is generally dismal today. If I had a nickel for every poorly written article or blog post I've seen, I'd have quite a few nickels. Passive voice, horrible jargon, and run-on sentences make much if not most text confusing at best and downright inscrutable at worst.

And I'm hardly the only one who feels this way. After the publication of Message Not Received last March, I got to know Josh Bernoff. He's also determined to improve the way that we write. A few months ago, Josh interviewed me about my own book business communications. I also had the chance to see him speak recently at a conference in Las Vegas.

Today I sit down with him to talk about his forthcoming book Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean. (He sent me an advance copy of it and I blew through it.)

PS: You and I agree that writing today generally sucks. Has this always been the case or has it gotten worse?

JB: It has gotten worse. We are reading and writing 46 hours per week, based on a survey of business writers that I completed this spring. Our inboxes and phone screens are full of content. There is plenty of content flooding in to fill this demand -- our bosses, our subordinates, bloggers, social media posts, and news organizations that don't edit nearly as diligently as they used to. Combine that with short attention spans and you're besieged with a lot of indifferent, poorly crafted content. So yeah, it sorta sucks.

PS: What do you hope the book will accomplish?

JB: All that awful content is an opportunity. People can write to stand out, rather than to fit in. That means being clear and direct, avoiding jargon, and most of all, getting right to the point, quickly. If you write like this, people will notice you. So my hope is that people reading the book will learn how they can effectively communicate this way. And if enough of them read it, the world of content might actually get a little better.

PS: In the book and on your blog, you especially criticize the use of what you call weasel words. What are they and why do you rail against them?

JB: Weasel words refer to vague adjectives, adverbs, and other words that attempt to qualify or intensify a statement -- but actually just make it seem like bullshit. For example, after Verizon agreed to purchase Yahoo, its CEO, Marissa Mayer, wrote an email to her staff that was full of sentences like this (weasel words highlighted): "Joining forces with AOL and Verizon will help us achieve tremendous scale on mobile. Imagine the distribution challenges we will solve, the scale we will achieve, the products we will build, and the advertisers we will reach now with Mavens - it's incredibly compelling." By going over the top with "tremendous" and "incredibly," she loses all credibility. You can't write without words like "very" and "mostly," but writers who want to be believable ought to purge as many of them as possible.

PS: In your book you discuss the concept of flow. I couldn't agree with you more. For those unfamiliar with it, though, can you explain it? Why is it essential for effective writing?

JB: Flow is a concept discovered by the brilliant psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It refers to a state in which you're working steadily against resistance, but with the skill to solve problems and make rapid progress. Workers in a flow state are far more productive. For writers, flow creates fluid writing that hangs together -- and it feels great. To get to flow, writers have to do all the research ahead of time (so they won't have to interrupt themselves or have holes in what they create), and they need to set aside uninterrupted time to write. If you write in 5-minute chunks, your writing will be choppy. If you write in 45-minute chunks, with short breaks between, you're writing will be fluid (and you'll feel like a winner).

PS: Press releases are often rife with jargon and poorly written. Why are they so consistently terrible?

JB: There are so many reasons. First of all, it's tradition -- you want your release to fit the template, so you copy the other jargon-filled releases. Second, they're written and approved by committees, so every crams their pet ideas into there. And you want to sound impressive, so you fill them with adjectives and industry buzzwords. Well, guess what. It doesn't work. Nobody can figure out what you're saying, and they don't believe you. I estimate that I received 10,000 press releases in my time as an analyst. Maybe 200 had any relevance to me, and even those were 80% fluff. Press releases are a billion-dollar industry that creates 99% waste.