No Bull: Everyone Can be a Better Writer


Here are two resources to get you started.

By Jill O’Mahony Stewart, MS, MA

By February, those New Year’s resolutions are mostly in the rear-view mirror. At Weight Watchers, we have a saying, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” But you don’t slim down without modifying your eating habits and increasing your activity.

When it comes to writing better, the same applies.

If you do the same old thing, you get the same old outcome.

Because I spend a lot of time thinking about how young professionals and students can become better writers, it seems obvious to me: read a book [or two] about how to write better, if you are serious about improving your writing and editing. Excellent writing skills have never been in greater demand.

I profiled two of my favorites recently for the websites of DePaul University’s PRSSA chapter and Career Transitions Center of Chicago (CTC). Reading about writing is admittedly a bit meta, but I’m convinced you will see immediate applications and examples of ways to write better if you pick up these volumes.

Danny Rubin’s 2015 “Wait, How Do I Write This Email?” is the modern day “Elements of Style” but more in-step with today’s writers. The title – focusing on emails – is realistic for the writing most of us do these days.

Even workers without clear-cut communications responsibilities are required to write nearly every day. Who talks on the phone anymore? Email has replaced both phone calls and face-to-face encounters, including casual business-related conversations. Text messaging has also become a regular way to stay connected for business.

So, we all need to write well: effectively, efficiently, and clearly. Rubin has plenty of how-to examples for tightening up prose, using correct grammar, and generally crafting more purposeful business messages. He details how to be both brief and interesting, and he also provides templates for many common writing assignments, including cover letters.

For CTC’s cover letter writing workshops, I use his “add a layer” exercise to show job seekers how to make simple statements more specific, and thus more interesting and memorable. Add a layer is a great counterbalance to brevity. We all need to tell our stories quickly, keeping our key message or ask in mind. Including enough details and getting to the point with add a layer is particularly useful for cover letters, but it works for other writing as well.

Danny’s book is a valuable addition to any aspiring comms professional’s library. As its subtitle promises, “Game-changing templates for networking and the job search,” places it squarely in the center of professional development and life-long learning.

In “Writing Without Bullshit,” author Josh Bernoff stays right on brand by providing a guide to his 2018 book so readers can make the most of it. That’s how he thinks and how he writes – with an eye toward efficiency and effectiveness.

Granted, the profane title can be a bit daunting; it took me a while to come to grips with it. If you are squeamish, you’ll need to get past it and come to appreciate Bernoff’s Iron Imperative: “Respect the reader’s time more than your own.”

Despite my initial hesitation, I’ve adopted it as a text. It is my go-to resource for teaching good business writing: what it is and how to get better at it. It’s a quick read, easy to navigate, and very practical. Read it and your writing will improve immediately.

In Bernoff’s own words, “I designed ‘Writing Without Bullshit’ so you can get a lot out of it. Whether you write emails, reports, web sites, blog posts, press releases, brochures, or anything else, it will help your career and your confidence.” And then he follows his own advice with a numbered list of reasons to read the book. WWBS is helpful because:

  1. It’s serious, but it’s fun.
  2. It’s easy to dip in and out of.
  3. I understand why you write the way you do.
  4. I address the whole writing process.
  5. It’s modern.
  6. It’s for business writers.
  7. There is a high insight density.

You’ll need to read his full blog post and infographic for more details. But, as one of my favorite better-business-writing books, here are the specifics I love:

  • He addresses the value of research and planning as part of the writing process:
    • Think first.
    • Plan purposefully.
    • If you have writer’s block, you aren’t ready to write. Do more research.
  • He is direct and succinct, with chapter titles that get to the point:
    • Eliminate weasel words.
    • Embrace edits.
    • Change the BS culture.
  • He reminds us of what we already know, but may not follow consistently:
    • Write short.
    • Purge passive voice.
    • Replace jargon.

Take a deeper dive and read Bernoff’s blog. Better yet, buy and read the whole book. If writing is a big part of your job responsibilities, you won’t regret it.

Resolve to improve your writing and editing skills. Nothing changes if nothing changes. If you are serious about improving your own writing and editing skills or the skills of those on your team, add these books to your reading menu.

Jill O’Mahony Stewart is a writing teacher and coach. From 1986-2008 she managed Stewart Communications, a PR firm devoted to “issues that matter.” She is also an adjunct faculty member at DePaul University’s College of Communication and School for Continuing and Professional Studies. She loves helping students and young professionals become better writers.

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