Book Summaries

Book Summary: Writing Without Bullshit

Posted by Chris

TLDR: Level up your career by improving this one skill. Learn the iron imperative – treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.  Achieve this by writing shorter and frontloading your work.  Build the habit of editing what you write.

Why become a better writer?

Learn to sell. Learn to build. If you can do both, you will be unstoppable.

Naval Ravikant

We engineers, presumably, can already build.  To learn how to sell, we just need to write more effectively.  By sell, I just mean communicating your ideas and explaining the impact of your work.  Writing Without Bullshit is a shortcut guide to being an effective communicator.  

As we begin working remotely more, being an effective communicator makes you stand out. I’ve worked remotely my entire career.  Remote work, at a company that does it well, really means asynchronous work.  This means a lot of writing.

To stand out among your peers and to communicate your ideas effectively, you need to write without the bullshit.  When you get into the habit, it takes a little more upfront thinking on your part but you end up writing less and delivering more value to your intended audience.

The single rule to write well

The central theme of this book is what the author, Josh Bernoff, calls the iron imperative:

Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.

Josh Bernoff, Writing Without Bullshit

With this core idea in mind, the rest of the book (and this post) describe strategies and specific techniques to achieve this goal.  In my opinion, the specific techniques fall under two broad categories of effective writing strategies.  Write shorter and frontload your writing.

Write Shorter
  • Edit everything.  After you write something, look for what you can remove that doesn’t add meaning.
  • The point of your writing is to save the reader time, not show off how much you know.
  • Use bullets or tables.
  • Eliminate redundancy.
  • Use fewer words, use shorter sentences.
Frontload your Writing
  • Give the main idea first, then back it up.
  • Write the one thing you want someone to know after reading this, first.
  • Get to the point as quickly as possible (aka first sentence), your reader’s attention is limited.

This is the message to take away from this book:  Treat your reader’s time as more valuable than your own.  Do this by writing shorter and frontloading your writing.

The remaining techniques are more specific ideas on how to write shorter and frontload your writing.

Specific techniques to write effectively

Break your old writing habits by implementing these specific techniques.  This is how you can treat your reader’s time as more important than your own.

Specific ways to Write Shorter
  • Eliminate the passive voice.  Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is not the actor performing the action (think “action done by subject” as passive).  Rewrite the sentence so the subject is “doing” the verb.  For example, instead of “a good time was had by all” say “everyone had a good time”.
  • Eliminate jargon.  Jargon can alienate your readers.  Rewrite in simple words that anyone can understand.  Think of your “average” reader rather than your smartest.
  • Eliminate “weasel” words.  Any qualifying word, that ends in “-ly”, adjectives, adverbs, nouns, that indicated quantity or intensity with no precision.  Say things with authority.  Weasel word examples: very, generally, significantly, etc.
  • Be direct.  Write directly to your audience, using “you”.
  • Use numbers wisely.  If you cite a number, provide something to compare it to so your reader can understand the significance.  Don’t just throw out a number, provide the context (source of data, sample size, date, etc.).
Specific ways to Frontload your Writing
  • Think first.  Before writing, visualize your intended reader.  What is the change you wish to create in your reader?  Put this idea first.
  • Plan purposefully.  Write your title first, then write your first paragraph, then an outline with the first sentence of each point.  As you write continually improve these “firsts”.
  • Reveal structure.  Make your content easily skimmable.  Use headings, lists, quotes, images.  Headings should be guideposts for skimming.
  • Think who needs to act on this.  When using e-mail or Slack, if you don’t know what you want then don’t message.  Be clear about who you are and what you need or want to suggest.
Edit your work
  • Edit effectively.  What is the point of this piece?  Bring that idea to the front.  What is essential here?  Avoid writing too long, avoid redundancies.  Eliminate passive voice, weasel words, and jargon.
  • Embrace feedback.  The goal of editing is to reveal the truth in what you wrote.  Have the attitude of “what can I learn” from someone’s feedback.  Be clear about what level of edit you want – ideas, structure, content, or words?

What’s next?

  • Buy the Book (Amazon Smile Associate link)
  • Print out these cheat sheets for reference
  • TLDR: Remember the iron imperative – treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own. Achieve this by writing shorter and frontloading your work. Implement this by taking the time to edit your work.