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Yvain comments on Rhetoric for the Good - Less Wrong

49 Post author: lukeprog 26 October 2011 06:52PM

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Comment author: Yvain 25 October 2011 11:03:04PM *  46 points [-]

What are your favorite pieces of writing advice?

There's that quote about how "the most important thing is sincerity, and if you can fake that, you've got it made." So there are two equal and opposite commandments for popular writing. First, you've got to sound like you're chatting with your reader, like you're giving them an unfiltered stream-of-consciousness access to your ideas as you think them. Second, on no account should you actually do that.

Eliezer is one of the masters at this; his essays are littered with phrases like "y'know" and "pretty much", but they're way too tight to be hastily published first drafts (or maybe I'm wrong and Eliezer is one of the few people in the world who can do this; chances are you're not). You've got to put a lot of work into making something look that spontaneous. I'm a fan of words like "sorta" and "kinda" myself, but I have literally gone through paragraphs and replaced all of the "to some degrees" with "sortas" to get the tone how I wanted it.

I like inserting myself and my thought processes into things I write. It's a no-no in serious writing, but in informal writing it can emphasize the informality and become endearing, a sort of "we can take off the masks now, because we're all friends here". This only works if your personal asides are actually endearing to people, or at least not actively boring and off-putting, but if you get it right it lets you keep more spontaneity, since talking in first person is a natural impulse. As in everything, "first learn the rules and the reasons for them, then break them as much as you want".

The real meat of writing comes from an intuitive flow of words and ideas that surprises even yourself. Editing can only enhance and purify writing so far; it needs to have some natural potential to begin with. My own process here is to mentally rehearse an idea very many times without even thinking about writing. Once I'm an expert at explaining it to myself or an imaginary partner, then I transcribe the explanation I settle upon (some people say they don't think in words; I predict writing will not come naturally to these people). Then I edit the heck out of it.

The best way to improve the natural flow of ideas, and your writing in general, is to read really good writers so much that you unconsciously pick up their turns of phrase and don't even realize when you're using them. The best time to do that is when you're eight years old; the second best time is now.

Your role models here should be those vampires who hunt down the talented, suck out their souls, and absorb their powers. Which writers' souls you feast upon depends on your own natural style and your goals. I've gained most from reading Eliezer, Mencius Moldbug, Aleister Crowley, and G.K. Chesterton (links go to writing samples from each I consider particularly good); I'm currently making my way through Chesterton's collected works pretty much with the sole aim of imprinting his writing style into my brain.

Stepping from the sublime to the ridiculous, I took a lot from reading Dave Barry when I was a child. He has a very observational sense of humor, the sort where instead of going out looking for jokes, he just writes about a topic and it ends up funny. It's not hard to copy if you're familiar enough with it. And if you can be funny, people will read you whether you have any other redeeming qualities or not.

Getting imprinted with good writers like this will serve you for your entire life. It will serve you whether you're on your fiftieth draft of a thesis paper, or you're rushing a Less Wrong comment in the three minutes before you have to go to work. It will even serve you in regular old non-written conversation, because wit and clarity are independent of medium.

And it will also inform and limit your use of all the other rules above. Luke's fourth point - telling stories about characters taking actions - is a good one, but he very reasonably didn't start this post off with a story about some student working on a term paper. There have been a few LW posts that kind of seemed kludgy and artificial in adding characters and stories, and others that did it really well. Probably some very smart person could figure out why it succeeds somewhere and fails somewhere else, but it's easier to just cultivate the virtue that is nameless.

Some people say to write down everything and only edit later. I take the opposite tack. I used to believe that I rarely edited at all because I usually publish something as soon as it's done. Then a friend watching me write said that she was getting seasick from my tendency to go back and forth deleting and rewriting the same sentence fragment or paragraph before moving on. Most likely the best writers combine both editing methods.

Comment author: CronoDAS 26 October 2011 12:19:30AM 12 points [-]

Some people say to write down everything and only edit later. I take the opposite tack. I used to believe that I rarely edited at all because I usually publish something as soon as it's done. Then a friend watching me write said that she was getting seasick from my tendency to go back and forth deleting and rewriting the same sentence fragment or paragraph before moving on. Most likely the best writers combine both editing methods.

In the past, only the "edit later" method was even possible, because word processors didn't exist yet. There's really no longer any such thing as a "first draft" because we now tend to revise continuously instead of discretely.

Comment author: [deleted] 26 October 2011 08:02:03PM 5 points [-]

Using a pencil and an eraser, unruled paper, and leaving lots of space between a line and the next (and, in extreme cases, a pair of scissors and some Scotch tape) you can do "incremental editing" (or a good approximation thereof) even without a computer.

Comment author: [deleted] 27 October 2011 11:22:26AM 3 points [-]

(Even without scissors, you can draw a square around a paragraph you want to move and an arrow pointing to its new place, and stuff like that.)

Comment author: dlthomas 26 October 2011 08:14:55PM 3 points [-]

Also, I've heard about people doing first drafts on note cards, which seems to allow for much easier editing of small passages as you go.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 26 October 2011 05:53:31AM 1 point [-]

That's a great point.

Comment author: CharlesR 26 October 2011 03:35:08PM 1 point [-]

You can train yourself not to edit. It just takes practice.

Comment author: dlthomas 26 October 2011 04:26:01PM *  3 points [-]

Or a text editor that won't allow it:

stty erase ''; cat >>myessay

If you still want backspace, you can omit the first bit of that. If you still want to be able to edit within the current line:

rlwrap cat >>myessay

Edited to add:

Not that I necessarily think this is a good idea, but it might be an interesting thing to experiment with.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 October 2011 07:40:55AM 0 points [-]

rlwrap is especially useful if you have a tendency to say almost exactly the same thing over and over again. Just press the up arrow, and a copy of what you wrote before appears, allowing you to say almost exactly the same thing over and over again.

Actually, never mind, that's silly.

Comment author: KatieHartman 27 October 2011 04:20:56PM *  3 points [-]

First, you've got to sound like you're chatting with your reader, like you're giving them an unfiltered stream-of-consciousness access to your ideas as you think them. Second, on no account should you actually do that.

Eliezer is one of the masters at this; his essays are littered with phrases like "y'know" and "pretty much", but they're way too tight to be hastily published first drafts (or maybe I'm wrong and Eliezer is one of the few people in the world who can do this; chances are you're not). You've got to put a lot of work into making something look that spontaneous.

This is also important to keep in mind when writing fictional dialogue - the reader has to perceive the conversation as authentic, forgetting that people don't actually tend to speak in a manner that would be at all interesting to read. Basically, you have to borrow the tone of a real conversation by keeping only about 5-10% of the interjections and filler, and using them only when it helps keep a statement believable.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 26 October 2011 09:58:38AM 6 points [-]

Thanks for the Moldbug link-- it's the first thing I've read of his which didn't seem to be soaked in malice and pointlessly obscure.

One thing good writers have in common is that they convey a sense that the world is interesting. I'm not sure what the method is, though possibly Eric Raymond's idea (which I've heard him apply to speeches, but which probably also applies to text) is that frequent changes of tone are essential. It also (unlike the intimate tone) may be something that can't be faked.

This is an honest question-- is there a difference between writing that's simply a pleasure to read, and writing which gets people to do things? It's probable that the latter is a subset of the former.