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Improving My Writing with a BS Detector

Improving My Writing with a BS Detector
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk syndicate
Copyright 2008

As a self-appointed fighter against corporate gobbledygook (I'm a BS Detector), I have railed against all jargon, corporate speak, and, well, BS that I hear from corporate America and the government. My usual method of BS detecting is to read something, point a finger skyward, and shout, “This is complete and utter BS!"

I take my inspiration from Ernest Hemingway, who once said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, (crap) detector." Only he didn't say crap. But I figured if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me.

And my BS detector is usually on high alert. Unfortunately, this didn’t always sit well with other people. When I was working for state health department as a writer, I edited someone else’s work for a brochure. This woman, whom I had never met, liked big words and bigger sentences. She was one of those people who was offended by editing, taking it as a personal insult against her intelligence.

An hour after I handed back the edited piece, the woman walked from a whole different section of the building, stomped to my desk, and thrust the paper in my face.

“What is this?” she demanded.

“It’s a piece of paper,” I said. This wasn't going to end well.

“I know that. What are all these red marks on it?”

“They’re edit marks.”

“I know that. Why did you edit my writing?”

“Because I was asked to. I just tightened it up a bit and made it more readable.” Uh oh.

“More readable?! I’ll have you know I’ve been a nurse for 12 years. This is my area of expertise.”

“Well, I’ve been a writer for 14 years. Words are MY area of expertise.”

She thought for a moment and realized she wasn’t going to win, so she stomped off again.

Now I have a new weapon in my BS arsenal. The folks at FightTheBull.com, and authors of the book Why Business People Speak Like Idiots, have developed a piece of software called Bullfighter that scans your writing for BS.

The software measures three things: Bull Composite Index (BCI) , which is your total score on a scale of 1 -10; Bull Index (BI), the number of jargon and corporate speak terms you use on a scale of 1-100; and the Flesch reading level (FRL), the “grade reading level” on a scale of 1-100. For all three scores, higher numbers are better. I installed it, and tested some writing samples.

First, I checked to see if FightTheBull.com practiced what they preached. I loaded their Frequently Asked Questions and hit the button.

“Bull Composite Index: 8.8, Bull Index: 97, FRL: 67. Diagnosis: Mostly clear, with some unnecessarily long words and sentences. You get to the point, although with an occasional detour. Most educated readers will navigate the text with no difficulty. Longer words and sentences appear occasionally.”

Not too bad. I hoped they would do better on the FRL rating, but since they’re writing to writers, the audience is educated.

Next, I tried what I thought would be a bastion of BS: President George W. Bush’s speech to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a British economic think tank.

“BCI: 8, BI: 98; FRL: 54." The diagnosis was the same as the last one.

Not bad. Give your speechwriters a raise. They were just slightly worse than the people who wrote a book on business speaking idiots.

Then I tried the master of simple writing, Ernest Hemingway. I chose a few paragraphs from his short story, “Big Two Hearted River."

"BCI: 9.6; BI: 100; FRL: 85. Diagnosis: Clear. You get to the point. Short sentences describe key thoughts concisely. Readers of all levels can focus on the message rather than finding their way through difficult text. The good Dr. Flesch would be proud of you."

Nicely done, Papa Hemingway! A 100 BI. That’s great! And the diagnosis and FRL score are outstanding. Not even the guy who made the Running of the Bulls famous had any BS on him.

Then I wondered: how does my own writing stack up? I plugged in Chapter 2 of a book I’m working on, closed my eyes in worry, and pressed the button.

"BCI: 9.5, BI: 100, FRL: 83." Woo-hoo!! I scored almost as well as Hemingway!

I'm not saying my writing is on par with Ernest Hemingway's, just that we're kindred spirits in the fight against written BS of any kind. Armed with the sword of BS slaying, we're formidable foes against garbled grammar.

Except for that last sentence.

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