Developing Hemingway’s Shock-Proof, Built-In Bullshit Detector

Most applicants to colleges have to write a personal essay about who they are, making the case for why they should be admitted, and a  Washington Post story, “Writing That Says, “Read Me,” had some good advice on the writing: Find a telling anecdote, showcase your authentic self, don’t bore the reader.

Reading the Post piece, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for those poor souls in college admissions offices who have to read essay after essay, trying to decide which 10 or 20 percent of the applicants deserve a yes.

As a magazine editor, I probably read several thousand applications from young journalists wanting to join one of the intern classes at the Washingtonian and the intern applications, a letter and resume, had some of the characteristics of the college application: Who I am, why you should pick me.

What you needed in both situations is what they call in journalism a shock-proof, built-in bullshit detector, a phrase most often credited to Ernest Hemingway.

My strategy was to skip most of the predictable language of the applicant’s letters and focus on the resume. I tended to ignore what the applicant did in college classes and extracurriculars, figuring those wouldn’t reveal much of what kind of journalist this person might be. Instead I focused on summer jobs—were you a lifeguard at your country club pool or did you do some real work that put you in touch with real people.

What I looked for in the young journalists was a background that might have helped develop Hemingway’s bullshit detector. My bias probably came from having worked my way through college as a bartender and realizing that I learned a lot more about people from behind the bar than sitting in any college class.

I tended bar at places that catered to Wisconsin factory workers—the kind of people, mostly men, who probably voted for Donald Trump—and at more upscale places that drew the educated liberals who dominated campus life in Madison. The b.s. level was not close.

Speak Your Mind