Josh is the author of four books, including Writing Without Bullshit. He is frequently quoted in major publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He’s also given keynote speeches at major conferences on television, music, marketing, and technology all over the world.
Josh spent his whole life focusing on his two talents, math and writing. He wanted to make good money, so he put most of his emphasis on his math talents. But he was always interested in writing.
When he became an analyst at Forrester Research about 20 years ago, he was able to combine his two talents. Then, 10 years ago, he convinced the CEO of Forrester Research to allow him to write a book on social media, Groundswell.
Following the success of that book, Josh has defined himself as an author. For the last two and a half years, he has worked with indie authors and corporations on how to communicate clearly and powerfully.
Clear Writing Principles
After Josh washed out of the PhD program at MIT, he learned some critical skills that helped him become a successful and powerful communicator and writer.
- Write in the active voice. Avoid the passive voice whenever possible.
- Write as directly as possible.
- Use bulleted lists to break up the flow of your copy so that it’s easier to digest.
- State your arguments clearly.
- Break up your text with headings and subheadings.
- Be brief.
Josh’s Top Communication Principles
“You must treat the reader’s time as more important than your own. That sounds like something everyone would agree with, but every time we write an email, a memo, or a book chapter, people tend to do what’s easiest for them instead of thinking about what’s easiest for the reader.”
– Josh Bernoff
The #1 thing you can do to improve your writing is to be brief. Don’t spend a lot of time warming up. Just say what you need to say as clearly as possible. Eliminate any duplication.
Next, you want to frontload your writing with the things your readers need to know.
Often, people will warm up before they get to their point. They write emails with the idea that people will keep reading past the first two paragraphs.
That’s not how it works. When you write an email, your subject line and the first two paragraphs you write need to be about what the reader needs to know. People will often give up on reading a longer email.
3 Elements of Toxic Prose
1. The Passive Voice
When you write in the passive voice it hides what’s going on from the reader.
2. Weasel Words
These are intensifiers and qualifiers that don’t mean anything. Some popular examples that Josh sees appearing everywhere right now include: huge, incredible, and insane.
Using jargon creates writing that only you can understand and no one else can make sense of.
If you avoid these toxic prose elements, write as briefly as you can, and frontload your information so people are getting what they need to know at the beginning of your writing, you will communicate far more clearly and powerfully in a world where everyone reads on a screen all the time.
How Josh Edits for Clients
When Josh works with a client, he helps them organize their thoughts so that they can present them more clearly and usefully. Here’s how:
Do an Idea Audit
The first thing Josh does is an idea audit. He’ll ask the client to tell him their idea. He’ll usually say something like, “That’s boring,” or “that’s complicated,” or “I don’t understand.”
By pushing on the idea like this, you have to explain it more and think more deeply about it. It’s difficult to defend your idea and go deeper, but when you do, you finally get to something that’s big, new and powerful. Something that people will read and take notice of.
Once you have the idea right, you can structure the material that comes after that.
Make Sure Your Ideas Flow Logically
When Josh edits a particular passage for a client, the first thing he’ll do is look at the structure of the chapter that the passage is in.
He wants to make sure that he has a clear idea of the beginning, middle, and end of the thought he’s currently reading. Do the ideas flow logically and make sense to readers?
Cut Weasel Words and Repeated Ideas
After the flow of ideas make sense, the next step is to delete things that don’t matter. People will often take one or two paragraphs to get warmed up to their subject. You’ll often find that the first paragraph of actual content is a perfect way to start your writing.
Delete weasel words. Those words don’t matter and they don’t add to the knowledge of the reader.
Delete repeated sentences or ideas, too. Make your point clearly the first time and you don’t need to repeat it again and again.
The Benefits of Editing
The benefits of this type of editing is that it goes beyond the qualitative. You’re not just deleting words—you are making your written communication clear and easy to understand.
3 Qualities of a Good Idea
1. The idea has to be new.
You can’t write what other people have written. You’ll come off as a copycat.
2. The idea has to be big.
Josh would rather read something huge and sweeping about the future of politics in America than some small piece about the healthcare world.
3. The idea has to be right.
Of the three elements, this is the hardest to achieve, because you can’t be absolutely sure an idea is right if you’re tackling a new idea. It’s important to have evidence that supports your new idea so that people can follow your chain of logic.
It turns out that the intersection of ideas that are big, new, and right is very hard to come by.
These are the questions Josh asks himself as he’s critiquing other people’s ideas:
- Is it a big idea or small idea? If it’s a small idea, can I make it bigger?
- Is it a new idea, or is it an idea I’ve heard from countless others?
- Is the idea right? Is there evidence to support the idea?
These elements of a good idea pull in opposite directions. The easiest way to have an idea that is right and has evidence behind it, is to write about something that’s already been discussed.
It’s in the intersection of an idea that is big, new, and right where you’re creating an idea that’s interesting enough that people want to read about it.
How to Come Up with an Idea
“Great research or creativity consists of noticing the obvious before anyone else.”
The secret to coming up with a good idea is looking at what everyone else has looked at, and seeing what no one else has seen.
The interesting thing about that is you can’t do that sitting in your room, looking at the internet.
Let’s say you read something and it sparks an idea. You need to put that idea out into the world and see if anyone else has had that idea before. You need to seek out people who will disagree with you, so you can test your idea, and find evidence to deal with their objections.
In the internet age, you have many channels where you can put your ideas out into the world for other people to scrutinize.
“One of the great misconceptions people have is if you have a great idea, you should hide it so no one will steal it. No. The best thing you can do is get it out there, so you can test and modify it so it resonates with the largest number of people possible.”
– Josh Bernoff
Why Share Your Ideas?
There are two major pitfalls to hiding your ideas for too long.
- When you finally publish your idea in the marketplace, you’ll find that many people disagree with you and that your idea is fundamentally flawed.
- Often, people think they need to hide their idea way too long, and someone else publishes the idea before them.
For every idea, there comes a moment where people are ready to hear it. If you’re coming to a conclusion, chances are someone else is coming to the same conclusion at around the same time. You need to get your idea out there in a timely fashion, so people know it’s your idea.
How to Deal with Fear
Back in 1995, Josh was given an assignment by his manager at Forrester Research to write a report about how content creators were going to make money on the internet.
After interviewing a number of thought leaders about the internet, Josh came to the conclusion that content was going to be supported by advertising or subscriptions.
His editor challenged him to pick one of those two revenue models and write a report on it.
Josh wasn’t quite sure which model was going to win out, but he chose one and wrote the report.
“If you say something you’re worried about timidly and with a lot of qualifications, or if you state it boldly and clearly, the penalty for being wrong is exactly the same. So you might as well state it boldly and clearly, because if you’re wrong, you’re going to be wrong.”
– Josh Bernoff
The way to put fear aside is to ask yourself, “What do I believe?” Write what you believe to be true clearly and powerfully, and don’t let the fear of being wrong prevent you from using your voice.
One of the interesting things that happened when Josh wrote his article in 1995 was that a lot of people disagreed with him. His first instinct was to apologize to them. Their response wasn’t what he expected.
They told him they appreciated his argument and how he challenged their thinking. They told him they’d be watching to see if he ended up being right or not.
“In the society we have now, people don’t do enough of actually looking at the arguments of people who disagree with them and saying, ‘Ah well, I’m going to have to keep an eye on that, even if I don’t actually agree with what the person said.’”
– Josh Bernoff
State Your Conclusion First
This is the easiest way to improve the power and clarity of your writing, and it flies in the face of what we have been taught in school.
In grade school, middle school, and high school, we are taught to develop arguments first, and state conclusions at the end of our essays. When you’re writing a blog post, or an article for the internet, the best thing to do is state your conclusions, and then follow it up with evidence.
Josh writes a blog post every day. He always puts the point of his blog post in the first three sentences.
Go Beyond Your Conclusion
People almost always think they’re done with an argument when they’ve reached their conclusion. When deciding how to present your ideas, take your conclusion a step further. If your conclusion is true, what else does that imply? If your conclusion is true, and the next implication is true, what else does that imply?
Keep going until the last link in your logic chain is absurd. Once you’ve reached the absurd idea in your logic chain, go one step back. That’s where you should end your blog post, article, or chapter.
By going beyond your conclusion, you’ll cause people to sit up and take notice of your writing and ideas.
How to Organize a Written Argument
- Start with your conclusion.
- Define the assumptions that led you to come to your conclusion.
- Give evidence that your conclusion is correct.
When you write an argument this way, everything follows sequentially. Every paragraph has evidence that supports the conclusion you stated at the top. When your audience is done with your piece, they’ll know where you stand and some of them will be persuaded of your argument.
Learning Math Can Help You Become a Better Writer
There are two types of math problems.
First, there’s the standard math problem where the object is to find an answer and use problem-solving skills.
The second type of problem in mathematics is called a proof. A proof is a type of math problem where you prove something about how math interprets the world.
When you do a proof in mathematics, you have to lay out your assumptions in a logical sequence, and the conclusions that you draw from your assumptions have to follow in a logical sequence as well.
Learning the skill of doing mathematical proofs can help you write clearer arguments that are easy to follow and understand.
Remember that Books Are about People and Their Stories
“Books, even business books, are made up of people and stories.”
– Josh Bernoff
Books are about people and their stories. You can have all the evidence and statistics you need to back up your point, but if you don’t put a human face on the topic, it won’t engage your reader.
Books are best when they focus on people and how they solved specific problems. This structure allows your reader to identify with the person you’re writing about who has the same problem. The reader thinks, “If they solved this problem, so can I.”
The Most Important Thing Writers Need to Learn
“I think frontloading and getting to the point quickly are really the things that people need to learn. And it’s new because I think the level of impatience now of readers is much higher, because they’re trained with reading things on the computer screen.”
– Josh Bernoff
Links and Resources Mentioned in This Interview
https://withoutbullshit.com/ – Josh’s blog. He publishes a 1,000-word blog post every day.
Words on Screen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World by Naomi Baron
Groundswell, Expanded and Revised Edition: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies by Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li