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Questions & Answers Regarding Writing Without Bullshit

Written by Josh Bernoff | on June 30, 2016 at 9:00 AM

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I got some great questions after last week's webinar, “The Value of Bullshit-Free Writing,” for Higher Logic. We couldn't get to them all, so I've answered them here. Where you see several questions in a row, they come from different people. I've edited some questions for length, clarity, and grammar.

Isn't this everything we should have learned from "Elements of Style" by Strunk & White? How is this different?

Strunk & White was for general writers -- Writing Without Bullshit is for business writers. It's a modern book designed for a read-on-screen world where you're crafting emails, blog posts, and web pages. That demands a pointed, front-loaded style that goes beyond the suggestions in Strunk & White, as good as they were. (Did you realize that Strunk wrote his original version of The Elements of Style almost 100 years ago?)

How do blog post titles differ from the subject line in an email? Do you have specific recommendations for writing emails (as opposed to blogs)?

Blogs and emails have a lot in common. Blog titles and email subject lines both should be clear and get directly to the point. But emails ought to be shorter (about 250 words max) while blog posts can be effective at 800 or 1,000 words. Modern email writers should adopt some of the blogger's tools, including using graphics, bullets, and subheads for skimmability.

I think Southerners need a little more preamble than others. What's the right amount of "niceties" at the beginning of an email?

Just as you wouldn't walk up to a person and say "I know what your problem is," you sometimes need an introduction to what you're saying. Just try to keep it as short as possible. People reading on screen -- including Southerners -- are reading in a cluttered environment and don't have the patience for long warmups.

What's a good way to add empathy (for content in Customer Service) while still keeping that "meaning ratio" at 70-80%? And is it possible to peruse the jargon and still keep the fluffy, happy, member-friendly messaging that’s expected?

"Please," "thank you," and "sorry" are not weasel words. It's always appropriate to apologize for problems that your company caused and be respectful in asking customers to do something differently. That said, we all know bullshit when we see it. Extended apologies and happy-talk are embarrassing and not believable. Once you've proven you value the customer with a single sentence, that customer wants to know what they should do and what you're going to do about the problem.

One more thing. In customer service, exclamation points and smiley-faces are always a mistake. If your words are equivalent to those, please change them to something meaningful.

How do you know what words are meaningful and which are not? As the writer, how can we recognize non-meaningful words?

If you think a sentence might be cut, cut it. If you've lost nothing in meaning, you've cut meaningless words. Similarly, take a long sentence and ask how you could say it more briefly and directly. And always look for passive voice, jargon, and weasel words, which are the easiest things to spot and cut.

Questions regarding management:

  • Our legislative advocacy experts do a majority of that writing... in pages and pages and paragraphs and paragraphs. Our communications people try to shorten it up, but they will be overridden by our ED who is also an advocacy expert. But members aren’t reading what we are saying/sending because it’s too long and too boring. How do you get your colleagues and leadership to understand this?
  • As a community manager, how can I combat my company's BS standards without alienating them?
  • How do you battle corporate who tell you to write a certain way? How do you encourage managers to buy into this?How do you combat editors/administrators who want to see more jargon and longer writing?

The answer to all of these questions is the same. Get your bosses to agree to an A/B test -- where one blog post or email uses the principles of Writing Without Bullshit, and the other is the same as it always was. The new one will be shorter, have less jargon, and a better title. See if it performs better. Then use that evidence to persuade your bosses. (Show them this blog post if necessary to get them to run the test.)

Are weasel words ever useful?

Sure. You wouldn't get very far in writing without saying "very." But you need to sensitize yourself to the overuse of vague qualifiers. Cut 80% of them and you'll be better off.

How valuable is it to be polite in your writing? Is there a place for graciousness in this new world?

It always pays to be polite and gracious. Just do it as briefly as possible. You'd be surprised how one word -- "please" -- or one sentence of appreciation or gratitude can do the job, and then you can get on with whatever you need to say.

How would you adjust a traditional press release approach to be more effective and impactful?

Write it directly in the voice of the executive. Eliminate the bullshit quotes, the jargon, and the flood of superlatives. Here's an extreme example of how one large company did it badly. And here's one that did it very well.

Questions regarding specific industries:

  • For a newsletter relating to government affairs and current events, what is the line to walk between using jargon for simplicity of language (e.g. acronyms), and making it easy and simple to understand?
  • Do you have any special tips for health care writing? Translating scientific topics for a lay audience?
  • We often ask our members, who are doctors, to write blog posts geared toward patients. How do you encourage people who specialize in a scientific area to write in "lay-person" terms as opposed to getting stuck in the weeds of the scientific jargon?

As I mentioned during the webinar, get a picture of your typical audience member and write clearly to that person.

If you are working with people who are technical, identify the terms they absolutely need to use when they communicate, and define those terms when you use them. Then see if you can translate the rest of their writing into simple, jargon-free terminology, and show them the result. Some of them will get the message from that. Others -- well, you'll just have to be grateful you're working with smart people and rewrite what they've written in lay terms. (It's good job security if you get good at that.)

How can these strategies for writing brevity be used to improve your writing for social media?

Social media is the epicenter of impatience. It's no coincidence that Twitter has a 140-character limit. Once you learn to write briefly in social media, the rest of your writing will get better because of the habits you learn.

How do these suggestions apply to step-by-step instructions?

Step-by-step instructions should be as brief and written using lay language -- perhaps even more than any other writing.


Thanks for all your questions. If you have more, send them to Ask Dr. Wobs.

Topics: Communications, Marketing, Social Media

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