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.
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?)
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.