In the March 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Nat Segnit calls me a hypocrite. Now that I’ve studied truth, lies, and bullshit, it’s clear to me that everybody is a hypocrite. So let’s see if he’s got a point.
In an article called “Good Plain English: The Problem with Writing Manuals,” Segnit reviews six writing books, including Soul at the White Heat by Joyce Carol Oates. Despite the lofty company, Segnit spends the first quarter of his review on Writing Without Bullshit. He opens the article with a meaning ratio analysis of the U.S. Constitution.
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.
He’s right. It’s a flabby, wordy document. And I like this:
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).
“Direct verging on despotic”? Yes, that’s the Bernoffian way. And scorn for verbal flatus? I can embrace that.
Am I a hypocrite?
It’s impossible for a book reviewer to settle for praise — he must also offer insight. So we get this:
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. . . .
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.
If you’ve read my book, you have to smile at this. Of course “I hate child pornography as much as anyone” is trite drivel — it’s part of a joke, showing that earnestness in the face of horror is no excuse for making up stats, which is the point of that passage. It’s sarcasm.
Judge for yourself whether, as Segnit complains, my “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.
Near as I can tell, Segnit’s impressions of the office world come directly from The Office. Because in the real business world that I lived in for 35 years, people do leverage urgency, communicate in business casual, use one-word sentences for emphasis, and give chocolate to their editors. (Was Segnit’s copy editor tempted to delete that critique? Will the copy editor take revenge by tormenting him in his next article? Trust me: Never screw around with the copy editor.).
Break the rules, but do it on purpose
I sympathize with Segnit. Writing is hard. Writing about writing is harder. Doing what he did — writing about people writing about writing — must be virtually impossible. A writing critic, confronted with other writing critics, has no choice but to find fault and seek contradictions.
There are a lot more flaws in my book than those that Segnit has found. It’s got passive voice in it, and jargon, and weasel words, and typos. It’s got paragraphs that should be bullets. I’m sure, if you read it, that at some point you disagreed with what I wrote and said to yourself, as Segnit did, “This is bullshit.”
But my advice is not to eliminate all bad writing habits, which is impossible. It is to become conscious of them. If you are conscious of them, you can detect them and delete most of them. That way, you get to use the ones you retain deliberately rather than mindlessly. Go ahead and use passive voice now and then and embrace the jargon you need — but keep the density down. Then your prose will read like truth, rather than bullshit.
In other words, I’m a little bit of a hypocrite. And I’m fine with that. A life lived complete without hypocrisy would be dull indeed.
The problem with writing manuals
So what is the problem with writing manuals? I’ve read Segnit’s review three times and I still can’t figure it out. Here’s how he ends his review:
In chapter 4 of his book, subtitled “Ten Shortcuts to Making Yourself Clear” — and written, I should add, before the outcome of the election was known — Harold Evans praises Obama for pitting “his eloquence against the anti-Muslim demagoguery of Donald Trump” during a visit to a mosque in Baltimore.
Look how he did it in a single phrase, the moral thought fused by a gentle alliteration: “None of us can be silent. We can’t be bystanders to bigotry.”
The three words were headlines around the world. Three words more powerful than a thousand rants.
Much good they did us.
So good writing can’t save the world from Donald Trump. That’s a shame. But I still think they can save you from wasting your colleagues’ time, and that’s worthwhile.