The politically incorrect editor

I get complaints about how my advice is insensitive to certain types of humans and living things.

I will not turn my advice into mush. I like it crunchy. Most of you do, too. If you don’t like it, read somebody else.

Here are my responses to the complaints people have made or may be planning to make.

Animals

They’re called weasel words because they make you sound sneaky and evasive. You know, like weasels.

It’s called bullshit because it stinks.

Weasels and bulls don’t care. And I wouldn’t give a crap if they did.

Fat outline

An outline with extra content is useful. If I call it a fat outline, you’ll visualize that and remember it.

Don’t call people fat, that’s mean. But outlines don’t mind if you say they are fat.

Zombies test

If you can add “by zombies” after the verb, it’s passive voice — and you probably ought to rewrite it.

Any undead people I’ve offended can go suck a rancid brain.

The curse of knowledge

When you know something well, it’s harder to put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t know it. This is the curse of knowledge, and it is a real problem. Stephen Pinker said so.

Any witches who take offense can stand down. Please don’t hex me.

Executive summary

Executives are short on time. They need good summaries. So does everyone else.

That doesn’t mean the executives are better than the rest of us.

Women

Women face prejudices at work. Many have dealt with a pervasive set of social attitudes that make it more difficult to express themselves boldly, and they may pay a penalty for that.

That’s a shame. But my advice is for everyone. Gender doesn’t enter into it.

They

I use the singular “they.” That’s not a political statement. It’s just clearer and better.

Be paranoid early

If you’ve got a big writing project, get anxious at the start, when you can actually do something about it.

Be paranoid early” is a great way to remember that. If that triggers you, please seek help from the appropriate mental health professionals.

Stuff your exclamation points and emojis

Every time you use an exclamation point or an emoji in email or business communication, you are telling people not to take you seriously. You look like a fool.

This has nothing to do with your rights and habits as a millennial or member of Gen Z. I don’t care what you write on your Instagram. Just don’t put it in your professional email.

Bullets

Don’t shoot people.

Save your bullets for lists.

Don’t bury the lede

Put the most important part in the title and the first paragraph. Don’t bury it.

No undertakers were harmed in the creation of this advice.

If you don’t like “lede,” you can say “lead” — but don’t bury it either way.

Write short

Shorter is better when writing. Roy Peter Clark agrees.

That’s good advice, even if you’re six-foot-seven.

Don’t be passive

Passive voice is for wimps.

If you’re a wimp, that must be difficult for you. One of the best ways to be braver is to write in active voice.

I’m sure I’m now on the shit-list of wimps anonymous. Somehow, I think they’re unlikely to come after me.

Criticism

I will tell you when you have written something that can be better, and how to fix it.

If you equate criticism of your writing with criticism of yourself as a person, you will never learn anything. You are not your words.

Prejudice is real. Spend time on real problems.

I spend time thinking about social justice. I work closely with writers of all races, genders, and ages. I do not treat them the same, because they have different problems.

I will not use slurs. I will watch my language. I will refrain from making generalizations based on people’s external characteristics. I will not perpetuate stereotypes if I can help it, and if I catch myself doing that, I will correct myself.

I also believe that while everyone has their own style, certain ways of expressing yourself are more effective, especially in business.

That doesn’t make me a bigot. It makes me an editor.

13 responses to “The politically incorrect editor

  1. I have used your book to teach business writing for multiple classes of university students who are, in my experience, quick to question what is appropriate and what is not. None of my students have questioned these so-called “insensitivities” and all have said they are better writers because of your advice.

    Don’t sweat the small stuff.

  2. So, Instead of “fat” I use the word “beefy,” as in I’m putting together beefy outline for this story. I’m not opposed to the word “fat,” he said n this context – -I would never fat-shame anyone — I just like “beefy” better.

    1. Wow. Not very good typing skills without my glasses. I meant *I’m not opposed to “fat” written in this context.*

  3. Your advice is spot on. A few items have been key to helping me improve my writing; animals, zombies, and stuffing exclamation points. A few items have been helpful as I work to improve my son’s ability to excel in his writing; fat outlines, write short, and don’t be passive. Thank you!

  4. I actually struggle with the exclamation point thing!
    Sorry. I mean I actually struggle with the exclamation point thing. Mainly when it seems like not using one in a greeting or being thankful feels insincere without it.
    And screw political correctness. Most times I see people reference being PC is using it as a way to hide behind their prejudices to insult others.

  5. Long time reader & fan, first time commenter. It’s clear that “fat outline” means a “larger outline with more content.”

    Is it mean to call someone fat? Many of us use “fat” to describe ourselves, so its effect depends on how it’s used. For nuance on this, see the work of Aubrey Gordon, @yrfatfriend on Twitter.

  6. I recently finished the wonderful book Right/Wrong by Juan Enriquez. In it, he notes that things like ethics change. Any thoughts on how to combat that while writing and after years?

  7. Like so many of your posts, Josh, I love this.

    As a teacher, I worry about sound harsh to students when I’m only being direct and trying to avoid mixed messages.

    Clear, clean, crisp and concise = those are the buzzwords I use constantly. And I refer to you as a guide in this mission of helping people write better.

  8. I never thought your writing was offensive, but this post definitely sounds defensive. It’s a little off putting despite my initial bias of wanting to agree and share a moment of ragging on the snowflakes.

    Generally, even though I often have the same feelings you and others who make similar posts to this one share, I think they are better not to share as part of your main content. It’s like the people who complain about dating site users on their dating profiles: we all share your feelings, but maybe just focus on the content we came here for?

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