Developing Hemingway’s B.S. Detector

By Jack Limpert

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

What you need 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 selection 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.

I was looking for a background that might have helped develop Hemingway’s bullshit detector. That bias probably came from having worked my way through college as a bartender and realizing that I learned 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 also at more upscale places that drew the educated liberals who dominated campus life in Madison. The b.s. talk was much greater at the upscale places.

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