Reviews — From the March 2017 issue

Good Plain English

The problem with writing manuals

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Discussed in this essay:

Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters, by Harold Evans. Little, Brown. 416 pages. $27.

Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean, by Josh Bernoff. Harper Business. 304 pages. $23.99.

How to Write Like Tolstoy: A Journey into the Minds of Our Greatest Writers, by Richard Cohen. Random House. 352 pages. $28.

Why Write? A Master Class on the Art of Writing and Why It Matters, by Mark Edmundson. Bloomsbury. 288 pages. $26.

Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life, by Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco. 400 pages. $27.99.

How Fiction Works, by James Wood. Picador. 288 pages. $17.

I’ve run the numbers, and can confirm that the U.S. Constitution is 77 percent bullshit. Witness the famous preamble: “We the People of the United States.” Not bad. Could be shorter. What’s wrong with “We Americans”? “In Order to form a more perfect Union.” Eight words in and already we’re breeches-deep in b.s. “In order to” is what I like to call a flesh eater — a phrase that eats up space and reduces the impact of your writing. “To” would be better. As for “more perfect” — what were you thinking, guys? The Union is either perfect or it isn’t.

establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Hard to know where to start here. I’ve italicized unnecessary words (“the general,” “the Blessings of”), misspellings (“Tranquility”), incorrect capitalizations (“Justice,” “Welfare”), tautologies (“do ordain and establish”), statements of the obvious (“for the United States of America”), non-standard usages (“secure . . . to”), and general old-style windiness (“provide for the common defence” instead of “defend ourselves”). There are fifty-two words in the preamble. I’ve marked forty as either incorrect, misplaced, or vague, leaving only twelve that are apt and impactful. Assuming the style of the preamble to be representative of the whole, the meaning ratio of the U.S. Constitution is a fraction over 23 percent.

That’s simply not acceptable.

For Josh Bernoff, the author of Writing Without Bullshit, meaning is quantifiable. (My analysis of the Constitution is founded on Bernoffian techniques.) Bernoff’s style is direct verging on despotic: the intended effect seems to be a state of mild arousal on the reader’s part at the author’s unyielding scorn for verbal flatus. As rookie bullshit detectors we are invited, if not required, to subscribe to an all-encompassing Iron Imperative: “Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own” (Bernoff’s italics).

Eastern Story, mixed media on panel by Andre Petterson. Courtesy the artist and Bau-Xi Gallery, Toronto and Vancouver, British Columbia

Eastern Story, mixed media on panel by Andre Petterson. Courtesy the
artist and Bau-Xi Gallery, Toronto and Vancouver, British Columbia

Writing Without Bullshit arrives amid a glut of recent guides to stylistic hygiene, and although Bernoff is careful to restrict his remit to business communications (“My advice will not get you published in The New Yorker”), his book shares with its more literary counterparts a belief that bad writing is a function of evasiveness, of a reluctance to engage with the plain truths conveyed by plain language. It also shares a trait that may be endemic to the genre: a failure to practice what it preaches.

“The tide of bullshit is rising.” It’s hard to argue with Bernoff’s premise, that a discourse already hospitable to verbiage — “Business English” — has been rendered exponentially more so by technology. “Any idiot,” he writes, “can type and distribute content to dozens or even thousands of people, and many do, whether through email or a blog.” Editorial intervention is a relic of the pre–Information Age. Unsupervised marketing interns bloat our social-media timelines with drivel. Bernoff is a Canute in an ocean of ordure. As such the gist of his advice is unimpeachable. Get to the point. Avoid passive constructions. Eliminate jargon, qualifiers, and weasel words like “probably” and “millions.” Identify your audience and don’t be shy about addressing them in the second person. Bernoff takes a prattling job ad for Johnson and Johnson — “The successful candidate will be the key leader and customer advocate working closely with the Strategic Account and Sales Leaders across J&J” — and rewrites it thus: “You’ll work with sales to coordinate our resources.” Bullshit bagged and binned.

Where Bernoff begins to undermine his case is in precisely the pithiness his b.s. aversion tends to promote. Indirection has its benefits, one being a reduced likelihood of weirdly self-congratulatory assertions of basic humanity. “As a parent,” Bernoff tells us, “I hate child pornography as much as anyone.” Really? Me, too. (Same goes for those Nazis: I just don’t like them.) The sentence appears in a chapter on the misuse of statistics, drawing on data quoted by a child-protection organization as an example; Bernoff may feel the sensitivity of the material demands some form of authorial disavowal, but in confronting this so directly he merely increases the queasiness. Besides, the sentence is scuppered by a prefatory (and thus, by Bernoff’s lights, redundant) modifier that is subtly contradicted by the closing comparative phrase.

Elsewhere, Bernoff’s straight-shooting style is indistinguishable from the business b.s. it purports to hold at arm’s length: “You leverage the urgency to complete the interviews that you need”; “I include a slogan to help you dig in productively.” The “right tone” for emails is “business casual,” a term that in all its horrors might well apply to Bernoff’s style in toto, embracing as it does a sort of tech-sector breeziness (“cool stuff that came to you as you were writing”), novelty-necktie claims to idiosyncrasy (“It is in my nature to look for a strange, warped way to put a spin on anything people say, write, or do”), and single-sentence paragraphs denoting the author’s turkey-talking clarity of mind (“Prose sucks”). There is also the occasional wince-inducing attack of the cutes: “Good copy editors save you from your flaws. Reward them (preferably with chocolate).” The effect recalls no one so strongly as Michael Scott, the delusional middle manager from The Office. Tip by tip, acronym by iron imperative, it’s hard not to detect a whiff of one sort of bullshit being replaced by another.

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is the author of Pub Walks in Underhill Country (Penguin), a novel. His article “Abandon All Hope” appeared in the August 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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