Railing against Sturgeon’s Law

SturgeonThe great science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon was once asked why 90% of science fiction was crap. His justification was this: “Yes, 90% of science fiction is crap . . . but 90% of everything is crap.”

Sturgeon guessed way low. Any idiot with a keyboard now can and will write and publish in some form, from tweets to blog posts to emails to self-published books on Amazon. Quality does influence what spreads fastest, but it’s not the most important factor (if you disagree, explain the success of the dreadfully written Fifty Shades of Grey).

All this dreck erodes the market for, and therefore the quality of, professionally authored content. Newspapers are in dire condition and in book publishing, editing for content is virtually obsolete.

The traditional response is to wring your hands and proclaim that something must be done. But like all passive-voice proclamations, that changes nothing. You can’t stuff the Internet back into the tube, and you don’t really want to.

I knew Ted Sturgeon. When I was a Penn State college student in the 1970’s, he accepted my offer to speak on our campus. He had an agile mind and a delightfully perverse way of looking at things. That symbol hanging around his neck has a meaning: it means Ask the next question.

I have decided to ask the next question about how to deal with all the bullshit out there.

I made a good living and attained some notoriety as a Forrester Research analyst over the last 20 years. In that job I wrote, collaborated on, or edited a whole lot of content, including five books. Since our clients actually paid quite a bit for our analysis, the ideas and the writing had to be good. Here’s what I learned: everybody (including me) starts with a mix of great stuff and bullshit. A content editor must elevate the ideas and call out the bullshit. Assuming the author will listen, the result is much better quality content.

Being an analyst was fun for a couple of decades, but I have decided to devote myself to something bigger: railing against Sturgeon’s law. If you’ve read my first few posts, you might think I’m just here to pick on published media. I’m not; my goals are a lot broader. I’m here to help you.

  1. Using examples from media, corporate content, and reader submissions, I will not only point out bullshit, I will explain in detail what’s wrong with it. That’s why I bother calling out the unskeptical interviews, overgeneralized trends pieces, and meaningless financial commentary. I want to help you to be appropriately skeptical of what you read.
  2. I will develop a theory of why bullshit happens. I will interview creators of this content to identify what made them do it. I expect to get at some root causes here.
  3. Based on this research, I will create a book that can help you, and every writer out there, create brief, clear writing that’s not boring on any topic (why shouldn’t human resources manuals and contracts be interesting?). And I will help you to identify and avoid the causes of bullshit in your own writing.

I am just quixotic enough to believe that I can make a difference. If I change the way we teach writing and the way all of you write, things will become better. Maybe we can get back down to Sturgeon’s proportion of only 90% crap.

Since I am at the beginning of this quest, you have an opportunity to help me work for you. In the comments (or on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn), let me know what directions you think I should go in. Send me the bullshit you find, or have to deal with, every day. Tell me what you need most, and if it fits the mission, I’ll make it happen.

Photo from The Theodore Sturgeon Literary Trust

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  1. Your inbox will be overflowing, Josh!

    I love the mission. Are you looking for just bad writing, or real bullshit in the actual content shared? Bad advice, bullshit lists, lazy reporting, missing or misleading facts? Curious and intrigued.

    Also, happy for you that you can pursue a passion. It’s a great time of life. Enjoy it – I look forward to following along.


  2. Nicely done; a short, clear and intriguing manifesto. One suggestion: do a dissection of some of your own work early on in your new venture. I am sure there are interesting root cause insights into why even the bullshit averse sometimes let some slip through. Plus it might head off the pass the whole “glass house” narrative.

    1. Bruce, seems like all the people I’ve edited want to turn things back on me. . . . I’m certainly willing to take suggestions on critiquing specific works I’ve created in the past.

  3. Josh,

    Perhaps, beyond writing theory, you should present frameworks for creating solid ideas. Poor writing is not an end itself, but a symptom of muddled thinking. The deeper disease in our society is an inability to hone clear ideas, based on facts, links and insights. So much of our dialogue is knee-jerk emotional reaction to “this is horrible, and you won’t believe what happened next.”

    A string of good logic tends to write itself. But logic is hard. It takes rigor, editing, and an ability to call out with honesty our own BS ideas. Honing clear thoughts is the solution and the problem. Clear thinking takes time and the result is often lonely, a voice in the wilderness. Emotional Greek choruses feel better and the result is often immediate gratification from the surrounding idiots who think in bias just like us. Our brains’ reward centers seemed wired, thus, to create more BS and less clarity. BS is a meme that amplifies within networks, while clarity is a focal point that often goes nowhere.

    How do we solve this?

    Also, I’m so afraid to use the passive voice in comments to you now.

    1. Ben, your comment is my mission. I do not yet know how best to help people get to that clarity of thinking (although my earlier post about pushback is part of the solution). But I plan to find out. Hold me to this. My readers and I can succeed only if I show this new way of thinking.

      One thought: Clear writing often begins with a direct approach with pronouns — what “we” do for “you” — with a clear idea of who “we” and “you” refer to. It’s very hard to be bullshitty with a conversational tone like that.