Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Rhetoric for the Good

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

The topics of rationality and existential risk reduction need their own Richard Dawkins. Their own Darwin. Their own Voltaire.

Rhetoric moves minds.

Students and masochists aside, people read only what is exciting. So: Want to make an impact? Be exciting. You must be heard before you can turn heads in the right direction.

Thus, I've decided to try harder and actually put effort into the quality of my writing instead of just cranking stuff out quickly so I can fill in inferential gaps and get to the cutting edge of the research subjects I care about.

That's why I asked LWers for their picks of best nonfiction writing on Less Wrong.

It's also why I've been reading lots of good science writing, focusing on those who manage to be exciting while covering fairly complex subjects: Dawkins, Sagan, GleickZimmerShermer, Ramachandran, RoachSacks, Hawking, Greene, Hofstadter, Penrose, Wilson, Feynman, Kaku, Gould, Bryson, Pinker, Kurzban, and others.

I've also been re-reading lots of books and articles on how to write well: Keys to Great Writing, Style: Lessons in Clarity and GraceElements of Style, On Writing Well, The Classic Guide to Better Writing, The Book on WritingTelling True Stories, Writing Tools, Ideas into Words, The Chicago Guide to Communicating ScienceA Field Guide for Science WritersSix Rules for Rewriting, Writing, Briefly, and Singularity Writing Advice. (Conversations with Eliezer also helped.)

I don't know if I can become the Voltaire of rationality and existential risk reduction, but it seems worth a shot. Every improvement in writing style is beneficial even if my starry goal is never met. Also, it appears I produce better writing without really trying than most people produce with trying. (If you've ever had to grade essays by honors English seniors, you'll know what I mean.) I expect to gain more by striving where I already excel than by pushing where I have little natural talent.

(I won't try to write everything well. Sometimes I should just crank things out. To be honest, I didn't spend much time optimizing this post.)

My other hope is that a few other writers decide they would like to be the Voltaire of rationality and/or existential risk reduction. May this post be useful to them. It's a list of recommendations on writing style pulled from many sources, in no particular order.

  1. Begin in medias res (in the middle of things). Begin with movement. Excitement. Humor. Surprise. Insight. Explosions.
  2. Open with a question, and make your readers want to know the answer. Give the answer near the end.
  3. Outline with punchlines, not topics. A punchline is something that makes the reader feel: "Aha! I sure am glad I read that sentence."
  4. Tell stories about characters taking actions. Make the reader laugh and cry and sit in suspense at what will happen next.
  5. Every sentence should make the reader want to read the next sentence. End each paragraph in a way that makes the reader want to continue. End each section by posing an intriguing question answered in the next section. The moment your reader becomes bored is the moment she jumps to YouTube. Cats and skateboard accidents are more exciting than science and philosophy, even for Judea Pearl.
  6. Prefer brevity. Cut what isn't needed, or at least move it to an endnote.
  7. Always be wary of how much disbelief you're creating in the average reader, and keep that level low. You may need to add words and paragraphs to satisfy his or her skepticism. Don't merely state facts that your reader may disbelieve. Briefly describe an experiment that supports the fact. If you must say something that will trigger serious skepticism, build up lots of credibility first.
  8. Think through the post's emotional arc. In most cases, you'll want to keep readers happy, excited, and hopeful. In an article about effective charity, do not open with an example from Africa, because the words "Africa" and "charity" bring up feelings of guilt and hopelessness.
  9. Make positive points, not negative ones. Avoid "Someone is wrong in a journal!" Say instead: "Here's a solution to an old problem."
  10. Use a concrete-then-abstract pattern to pull readers forward. Start with a concrete example, probably more concrete than you feel it needs to be, and then make the more general point.
  11. When possible, let sentences point not just to the next sentence or paragraph, but to future sections.
  12. Favor surprise, as long as it doesn't engender too much disbelief. Avoid anything that lets the reader think, "I could have written that sentence." Avoid clichés.
  13. Write in the active voice when possible.
  14. Almost always list things in threes, in ascending order of the word length of the list item.
  15. Make sure your readers always know that the next paragraph and section will be valuable and exciting.
  16. Know your intended audience. Learn how they think and what they like to read. Tailor your writing to them.
  17. Beware the illusion of transparency and unexpectedly large inferential gaps. Due to these errors, writing aimed at high schoolers will hit university seniors.
  18. Use pictures.
  19. Avoid Engfish.
  20. Check the readability score of your writing. I aim for a Gunning Fog score between 8 and 13.
  21. Shorten your sentences and paragraphs. Replace semicolons with periods.
  22. Today's readers do not read. They scan. Make your text scannable.
  23. Distill significant ideas into potent, quotable sentences: "The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made of atoms it can use for something else."
  24. Identify every verb and ask if you can improve it, preferably in a way that lets you kill nearby adjectives and adverbs.
  25. Avoid simple mistakes of spelling, tense, etc.
  26. Find graceful ways to route around the horrors of the English language, like its lack of a gender-neutral personal pronoun.
  27. Write in plain talk. When possible, use small, old, Germanic words.
  28. Say aloud, to a friend or a stuffed animal, what you want to write. Write down what you said. After revising, read aloud and revise whatever sounds weird when spoken.
  29. Write and revise weeks in advance. Avoid the piece for a week. Then come back and revise again.
  30. As Paul Graham says: "Write for a reader who won't read the essay as carefully as you do, just as pop songs are designed to sound ok on crappy car radios." Hold their hand every step of the way. Remind them of what you just said, and tell them how each section fits into your larger points.
  31. Include human dialogue where possible. Spoken words are more natural to us than crafted prose, even though spoken words are inefficient.
  32. Show a very late draft to friends and ask which parts bore or confuse. Revise. If you find a good reader, bribe them to do you this favor again and again.
  33. Put the most impacting words at the end of a sentence.
  34. Follow the SUCCESS formula. Express your ideas with Simple (find the core), Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Stories.
  35. Imitate great writers who write to your audience.
  36. Build the reader's stake in your subject by writing about things that relate to their own lives, goals, dreams, and fears.
  37. Shape your reader's expectations so that when you get to Part B, you know what their next question is, and you can answer it. Otherwise they may have number of possible next questions or next objections, and you can't possibly answer them all.
  38. When introducing a new idea, open the sentence with old information and put the new stuff at the end.
  39. Obey these rules before you obey grammarians who say things like "Don't split infinitives" or "Don't begin sentences with And or But" and "Don't end a sentence with a preposition."

And, just one piece of process advice. Do not apply any of these rules while drafting. Instead, write down whatever horrible shit comes out of you and do it quickly. Then revise, revise, revise.

Now: What are your favorite pieces of writing advice?

Comments (289)

Comment author: Yvain 25 October 2011 11:03:04PM *  43 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 11 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: army1987 26 October 2011 08:02:03PM 4 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: army1987 27 October 2011 11:22:26AM 2 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 2 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: 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: Kaj_Sotala 26 October 2011 05:53:31AM 1 point [-]

That's a great point.

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.

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: Manfred 25 October 2011 06:11:01AM 22 points [-]
  1. Begin in medias res

I think you mean "2. Begin in medias res".

Comment author: grouchymusicologist 25 October 2011 05:02:47AM *  21 points [-]

34. Obey these rules before you obey grammarians, who say things like "Don't split infinitives" or "Don't begin sentences with And or But" and "Don't end a sentence with a preposition."

Real grammarians, i.e. linguists who study the grammar of English as it is, teach us that these aren't actually rules of grammar anyway, so much as prescriptions that were made up out of whole cloth for various reasons and that never had much to do with the way English was spoken or written. Here, for example, is an index of postings on Language Log (a group blog run by several professional linguists) about the split-infinitive issue. (The well-known story of this silly prescription was that it was decided in the 18th century that, since you can't split infinitives in Latin [Latin infinitives are a single word], you shouldn't split them in English either.)

Relatedly, the passive in English has a bad reputation that is not very well deserved. See here for a full explanation by the author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

You'd think this was just so much nitpicking -- and to some extent it is -- but understanding these issues fully can help you make better rhetorical use of English. This is particularly true of the passive -- the article I linked above explains how passive and active versions of the same clause help us place emphasis in a sentence exactly where it will do us the most good. (As such, I think the strongest version of your point 13 that I could endorse would be "Understand clearly the difference between active and passive, and choose between them advisedly.")

One more point which I raise not least because it's a stunningly entertaining read: the same author's (Geoff Pullum's) "The Land of the Free and The Elements of Style" (PDF), an utter demolition of the grammar advice given in Strunk and White's book. This is NOT to say that S&W's stylistic advice should be thrown out as well, but Pullum certainly establishes that (a) they have absolutely no idea what they're talking about when grammar is concerned, and that (b) they follow almost none of their own grammatical or stylistic prescriptions, so the whole thing should be taken with a grain of salt. Read Pullum's article if you enjoy a well-deserved poison pen book review and would like to learn a few things about English grammar in the process.

Comment author: Anatoly_Vorobey 27 October 2011 03:26:51PM *  10 points [-]

I hesitate to counter your nitpicking with more nitpicking, but I do agree that "understanding these issues fully can help you make better rhetorical use of English". And so, I'd like to correct some of what you write about the split infinitive. The story is somewhat more subtle and interesting.

The well-known story of this silly prescription was that it was decided in the 18th century that, since you can't split infinitives in Latin [Latin infinitives are a single word], you shouldn't split them in English either.

This well-known story is actually a myth that has no factual basis. It is not true that the prohibition against split infinitives was decided in the 18th century (they started debating it mid-19th century), and more importantly none of the grammarians railing against it in those times based their arguments on anything to do with Latin. Never happened. The story seems to be a modern 20th-century invention, and has spread widely among those who oppose prescriptive grammarians because it makes them look very silly. It is repeated in many popular articles and books (e.g. Pinker's The Language Instinct), but for all that is completely untrue.

The interesting question, then, is - why did prescriptive grammarians of the 19th century start railing against the split infinitive, whereas the grammarians of the 18th century didn't much care about it? And the answer is, in the 18th century the split infinitive largely wasn't there. There are some examples we can find going back all the way to the 14th century, but they are rare examples. In fact, if you just read some random 18th century prose, you're likely to quickly run into phrases that sound a little awkward to the modern ear, because they seem to intentionally avoid splitting the infinitive. But those authors didn't try to write awkwardly or intentionally avoid the split infinitive (which wasn't known as a prohibition). They were using the conventions of their time in which it was a rarity.

In the 19th century the split infinitive started occurring more often (perhaps became a fad of sorts), and that's why the grammarians noticed it. Ever since then, despite all their efforts, it has only grown more popular and accepted. And yet minding your split infinitives is not bad advice to a writer (although wholesale rejection is decidedly silly), because, when overused, they tend to sound gimmicky and tinny (to forestall the obvious objection "anything is bad when overused": true, but split infinitives get there faster. You can't easily go wrong with sentences filled with "to X Y-ly", but do just a few "to Y-ly X" in a sequence, and it begins to look weird).

(I also disagree with your praise of Pullum's persistent critique of S&W; there's much criticism that can be made of that book, but it deserves criticism made in good faith. This blog post (not by me) offers a few clear examples of what I found distasteful in Pullum's bombastic approach.)

Comment author: grouchymusicologist 28 October 2011 01:01:45AM 5 points [-]

Thanks for the interesting comment and my apologies for having passed along an evident falsehood.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 25 October 2011 09:05:16AM 7 points [-]

Real grammarians, i.e. linguists who study the grammar of English as it is, teach us that these aren't actually rules of grammar anyway, so much as prescriptions that were made up out of whole cloth for various reasons and that never had much to do with the way English was spoken or written.

But do also note that a lot of people do believe those prescriptions to be valid, and view breaking them to be low status. All the "singular they is fine" blog posts in the world are irrelevant if using singular they will annoy half your readers.

Of course, I tend to use singular they anyway. It's often the best alternative and I doubt that many people in my likely target audience will really care. But you should still know the biggest things that will annoy people, so that if you use them, it will be out of conscious choice and not of ignorance.

Comment author: pedanterrific 25 October 2011 05:38:27PM 4 points [-]

-16. Know your intended audience. Learn how they think and what they like to read. Tailor your writing to them.

Could stand more emphasis, in my opinion; this seems to be the overarching goal which subsumes the other advice. If your intended audience doesn't like in media res, for instance, don't do it.

Comment author: CronoDAS 25 October 2011 11:59:49PM 1 point [-]

I once had a professor that insisted that the construction "X. However, Y" was grammatically incorrect and forbade anyone in her class from using it.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 26 October 2011 05:48:38AM 3 points [-]

The mind, it boggles.

Comment author: lukeprog 25 October 2011 05:09:21AM *  3 points [-]

Agree with all this. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grance also has pretty decent coverage of what you say above.

Also, I've removed the comma after "grammarians," which compactly addresses some of your "nitpicks."

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 25 October 2011 05:06:40AM *  1 point [-]

As much for any LW commenter as for you: I don't mean to pick on you, but it is physically difficult to read your writing and I really, authentically want to understand what you're saying. Because I'm positive it's valuable.

Comment author: pedanterrific 25 October 2011 05:14:29AM 5 points [-]

I'm confused. Was grouchymusicologist's comment significantly different prior to editing? I don't see any issues with the way it is now. (I also don't see anything that isn't covered in Intro to Linguistics, but the links are good resources and the material generally bears repeating for a wider audience.)

Comment author: Desrtopa 25 October 2011 05:14:26AM 5 points [-]

I'm confused. I wouldn't call the above comment an example of some of the clearer writing on this site, but I don't find that anything about it significantly impedes my comprehension.

Although come to think of it, I've heard more or less the same points before, so maybe my perception of its clarity is corrupted by prior knowledge.

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 25 October 2011 05:25:49AM *  0 points [-]

maybe my perception of its clarity is corrupted by prior knowledge.

Yes, it is. As well as by probably being smarter than I am, and likely possessing a longer attention span and more self-control in general. Without having to work at it.

Comment author: atucker 25 October 2011 04:59:33PM 0 points [-]

Was it the construction of the paragraph that you're found confusing, or the assumed prior knowledge of various grammatical disputes (splitting infinitives, passive vs. active, singular they)?

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 25 October 2011 05:19:18PM *  0 points [-]

Again, I don't mean to pick on grouchymusicologist. And clearly LW is a special place on the internet, in terms of productive discussion. But my eyes cross and I clench my fists a little when comments consist of "Yes, yes, but [long, extremely detailed nitpick in academic-ese]." So I guess I'm not positive it's valuable, despite what I said above.

Rationality and clear thinking should be as basic as Dick and Jane. But I'm willing to update my beliefs if someone shows me otherwise.

Comment author: komponisto 25 October 2011 05:21:45PM *  6 points [-]

You're not helping to clarify what aspect of the comment made it seem like "Yes, yes, but [long, extremely detailed nitpick in academic-ese]" for people who didn't perceive it that way.

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 25 October 2011 05:40:55PM 1 point [-]

It's one of the most highly upvoted comments on the page (after another nitpick), and it seems to completely miss the point of the OP. Call me naive, but I was hoping commenters would deliberately try to follow Luke's recommendations.

I reacted emotionally because I'm frustrated by the mental distance between myself and the "people who didn't perceive it that way." I'm doubly frustrated by the mental distance between those people and the rest of the world. The world needs you guys! Don't make it so hard for them to understand what you're trying to say!

Comment author: pedanterrific 25 October 2011 07:47:01PM 3 points [-]

But my eyes cross and I clench my fists a little when comments consist of "Yes, yes, but [long, extremely detailed nitpick in academic-ese]." ...

Rationality and clear thinking should be as basic as Dick and Jane.

Provisionally agree in the general sense, but... should linguistics? (And what about physics?) I guess my objection is: if someone has an academic nitpick, why shouldn't it be phrased in the dialect of academia?

A lot of things (most things) on LW are about rationality and clear thinking, but some are about (and require) specialized knowledge. Conflating the two subjects by applying the same standards of discourse seems counterproductive.

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 25 October 2011 09:13:54PM 0 points [-]

if someone has an academic nitpick, why shouldn't it be phrased in the dialect of academia?

To see what happens if it isn't phrased in the dialect of academia. Maybe nothing bad will happen. Maybe something really good will happen.

Comment author: Logos01 25 October 2011 05:25:30PM 1 point [-]

Rationality and clear thinking should be as basic as Dick and Jane.

There is a cost to simplicity in terms of precision. There's a lot to be said about finding ways to convey your ideas with "beautiful simplicity" -- in the way often attributed to Feynman -- but some ideas just cannot be reduced to such a level, and some of those ideas are important.

Case in point: the differences between what a frequentist means by "probablity" and what a Bayesian means by "probability". The existential significance of the lack of curvature to the universe. (Sure, I could say, "Why its a big deal that spacetime is flat" -- but that's conveying a different range of meanings than the other statement, which if I hadn't already 'primed' you to that same understanding might've lead you to another conclusion.)

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 25 October 2011 05:51:36PM 1 point [-]

Would you or anyone else care to list the ideas on LW that cannot be reduced to refrigerator magnet/bumper sticker/memorable stand-up comedy routine level?

Comment author: JoshuaZ 25 October 2011 06:16:12PM 4 points [-]

MWI, Aumann's Agreement Theorem, Great Filter concerns for existential risk, anthropic arguments in general, Bayes's Theorem in the non-finite case. But even these are not in general high priority issues for rationality. I think it is fair to say that most of the important ideas can have bumpersticker size statements. But, the level of unpacking may be so large from the bumpersticker forms that they only reason the bumpersticker form seems to do anything useful is just illusion of transparency.

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 25 October 2011 06:29:47PM *  1 point [-]

Think of it as an enticing slogan, then. Or a tagline. Something to lure the lure-able. People read 600-page books based on back-cover blurbs, and they do so on a whim, at an airport.

Comment author: Logos01 25 October 2011 06:02:35PM *  1 point [-]

Off the top of my head, the first thing that comes to mind is: supergoals and how to assess them. Second: the process of figuring out how to parse a true utility function from a fake utility function.

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 25 October 2011 05:39:21PM 0 points [-]

The existential significance of the lack of curvature to the universe.

Yes, but I do not need this information to get through an average day. Rationality is --or should be -- for regular people, and very few regular people need to worry about the curvature of the universe in an average day.

Comment author: Logos01 25 October 2011 05:49:33PM 6 points [-]

Rationality is --or should be -- for regular people, and very few regular people need to worry about the curvature of the universe in an average day.

Requiring rationality to be restricted to an aversion to edge-cases limits its usefulness to the point of being almost entirely without value.

To relate this more directly: that flat-spacetime thing is very relevant to understanding how "something" can come from "nothing". Which touches on how we all got here -- a very important, existentially speaking, question. One that can have an impact on even the 'ordinary' person's 'average day'. After all; if it turns out there's no reason for anyone to believe in a God, then many of the things many people do or say on a daily basis become... extraneous at best.

Furthermore: one of the things that instrumental rationality as an approach needs to have in its "toolkit" is the ability to deeply examine thoughts, ideas, and events in advance and from those examinations create heuristics ("rules of thumb") that enable us to make better decisions. That requires the use of sometimes very 'technical' turns of phrase. It's simply unavoidable.

That gets all the more true when you're trying to convey a very precise thought about a very nuanced topic. The thing is, regardless of where one looks in life there are more levels of complexity than we normally pay attention to. But that doesn't make those levels of complexity irrelevant; it just means that we abstract that complexity away in our 'average' lives. Enter said heuristics.

Part of instrumental rationality as an approach, I believe, is the notion of at least occassionally breaking down into their constituent parts the various forms of complexity we usually ignore, in order to try to come up with better abstractions with which to ignore said complexity when it shouldn't be a focus of our attention. I've gotten in "trouble" here on lesswrong for making similar statements before, however -- (though to add nuance that was more about whether generalizations are appropriate in a given 'depth' of conversation.)

Comment author: grouchymusicologist 25 October 2011 05:10:51AM 2 points [-]

Could you do me a favor and elaborate? One thing I know for sure is that the quicker I'm writing, the longer my sentences are (a terrible habit). But I don't know if that's what you're talking about or if it's something else.

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 25 October 2011 05:21:33AM *  2 points [-]

Again, for all LW commenters, not just you:

I'm sorry. You are obviously a really knowledgeable person. Content comes first, you've obviously got that down. But if I've only got, like, 5 cognitive dollars to spend on LW per day, then I can't blow it all on a single comment.

Bottom line: don't write "for high schoolers to hit university seniors." Write for third graders to hit me.

Please, I know it feels gross. But just try it. It's all in the recommendations above, thanks to Luke.

Comment author: grouchymusicologist 25 October 2011 05:25:03AM 3 points [-]

No apology needed, I appreciate the feedback. My comments often come out looking longer or wordier than they seemed while I was composing them, and I'll try to remember that tendency and keep a lid on it when possible.

Comment author: CronoDAS 25 October 2011 11:55:14PM 0 points [-]

This particular comment seemed just fine to me...

Comment author: Grognor 27 October 2011 02:45:23AM *  10 points [-]

Something recently reminded me of Paul McHenry Roberts's How to Say Nothing in 500 Words.

It was written mostly for high school children, but it has lots of solid advice and its primary focus is something crucial: making your writing more interesting to read, aside from writing style.

The sections, "AVOID THE OBVIOUS CONTENT, "TAKE THE LESS USUAL SIDE", and "GET RID OF OBVIOUS PADDING" are most likely useless or groan-worthy obvious to anyone who's at all likely to read this comment. The only section I think is particularly likely to be relevant to rationality writers is "CALL A FOOL A FOOL".

Still, it's a pretty entertaining essay, worth reading in full unless you're really that fucking busy like Luke Muehlhauser is.

The best idea in the whole essay is,

Those sentences that come to you whole, or in two or three doughy lumps, are sure to be bad sentences. They are no creation of yours but pieces of common thought floating in the community soup.

Comment author: wedrifid 27 October 2011 03:08:23AM 8 points [-]

The only section I think is particularly likely to be relevant to rationality writers is "CALL A FOOL A FOOL".

I find I get downvoted for calling a fool a fool approximately 33% of the time.

Comment author: Desrtopa 27 October 2011 06:02:06PM 7 points [-]

My impression is that high school writing assignments tend not to ask for as much volume as a student can reasonably produce without padding, but college writing assignments frequently ask for more.

If one professor gives assignments demanding at least ten pages, about topics that all invite at least that much legitimate content, other professors will feel the need to assign papers of similar length, lest they give the impression that their topics are less important, or their subject less demanding. Everyone learns to pad, and comes away with the impression that an important document should be long, because the more heavily graded their assignments are, the more page volume they demand.

I remember one of my professors assigned a twelve page paper detailing the results of the experiments our groups had spent the semester on. Mine was late, because the amount of informational content really only justified about half of that, and I was struggling to pad the paper to double length without turning it into something I would be embarrassed to hand in. When I turned the paper in to the professor, unhappy with its quality but not wanting to get more points taken off for lateness, he was astonished by the quality of my writing, and emailed me to tell me that he was confused by my claims to have struggled with the assignment, because my paper was easily the best out of the class. I found this unsurprising; he must have developed low standards for the papers his students would turn in, because his expectations for volume and content were completely out of synch.

Comment author: DoubleReed 29 October 2011 08:05:17PM 0 points [-]

That's funny. I had the opposite experience. In High School I just learned how to pad things out, and in college everything was actually sensible-length assignments.

Comment author: Desrtopa 30 October 2011 09:07:09PM 0 points [-]

In that case, I envy you your coursework.

Comment author: complexmeme 25 October 2011 06:21:05PM 10 points [-]

That "Engfish" essay is strange. It's right that textbooks and so on encourage students to write in a way that's impersonal and overly verbose. But it doesn't recognize the advantages of academic English. It doesn't even seem to recognize the role (or existence!) of dialects in general. Instead, it takes bad examples of academic English (the writing textbook) and suggests they should be more like bad examples of informal English (the third-grader).

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 25 October 2011 07:07:07PM 6 points [-]

Can you link to examples of irreducibly good academic writing?

Comment author: Zed 27 October 2011 01:50:55AM 3 points [-]

Anything by Knuth.

E.g. http://cs.utsa.edu/~wagner/knuth/

Comment author: wedrifid 27 October 2011 01:52:09AM 1 point [-]

I've got to agree, things by Knuth are pretty damn irreducible.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 25 October 2011 11:54:02PM 2 points [-]

What are "the advantages of academic English"?

It is stuffy and turns off many people, so it sounds prestigious?

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 26 October 2011 06:01:08AM 8 points [-]

Good academic writing is concise, precise, and gets quickly to the point, delivering a huge amount of information in a short amount of space.

(Also, by sticking to the point, academic writing minimizes digressions to emotionally charged or controversial topics. This reduces the risk of distracting the reader by getting into mind-killer territory. But that's more about what academic writing says, not how.)

Comment author: shokwave 27 October 2011 05:36:22AM 1 point [-]

it takes bad examples of academic English (the writing textbook) and suggests they should be more like bad examples of informal English (the third-grader).

If informal English and academic English are the two extremes on a normal distribution of writing styles, and exhortations to alter your writing style tend to have a smaller effect than their intensity should dictate (because writing styles are well-ingrained), this advice should push academic writers towards the middle of the distribution but not far enough to get into informal areas.

Comment author: hamnox 30 October 2011 04:27:57PM 4 points [-]

So... They're overshooting because it takes a lot of persuasion to get people to change their writing style just a little?

Jeez, why didn't you just say so?

Comment author: shokwave 31 October 2011 01:36:25PM 2 points [-]

As you have noted, I wrote it academically.

Comment author: Antisuji 26 October 2011 06:03:16AM *  1 point [-]

As a sort of example and a great discussion on academic English, I recommend David Foster Wallace's essay Tense Present. You will probably want to skip the paragraph that immediately follows the St. Augustine quote.

(And, edit: this was intended to be in reply to GabrielDuquette's post here )

Comment author: dlthomas 25 October 2011 05:24:29PM 10 points [-]

Beware that many things labeled "adverbs" in dictionaries (particularly older dictionaries) aren't the adverbs that we want to eliminate from clear writing. A better summation of the whole bit on adjectives and adverbs is a simple application of "Prefer Brevity": anytime you have <modifier> <target>, see if you can replace the whole thing with a single word of the same type as the target that expresses the whole idea. This will usually be shorter, clearer, and more interesting.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 26 October 2011 06:21:59AM *  11 points [-]

I agree with this, though since there are probably lots of fiction-writers here as well, I want to point out that for fiction the advice is somewhat different. In fiction, you'll want to replace adverbs with something longer, because an adverb is telling and not showing, and you need more words to show something than to to tell something.

To quote Techniques of the Selling Writer:

Whenever practical, substitute action for the adverb.
"Angrily, she turned on him"? Or, "Her face stiffened, and her hands clenched to small, white-knuckled-fists"?
"Wearily, he sat down"? Or, "With a heavy sigh, he slumped into the chair and let his head loll back, eyes closed"?
Vividness outranks brevity.
At least, sometimes.

This isn't always a bad guideline for non-fiction writing, either. Telling requires the reader to rely on your authority; showing lets them see for themselves. Compare just saying "biologists romanticized evolution" with giving an example of insects defying biologists' expectations by turning into cannibals.

Of course, on some matters you should just state an issue with your authority and get on with it. If you're explaining confirmation bias, no point in launching to a digression about how and why the brain is composed of neurons. Skip that, or if writing online, just provide a link.

Vividness outranks brevity - at least, sometimes.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 26 October 2011 06:59:58AM *  8 points [-]

My favorite book on writing is Stein on Writing, which has advice for both fiction and non-fiction writing. Possibly the two most important points of his are that non-fiction should not be dry, and that you should ideally grab your reader's curiosity from the very first sentence. If that doesn't work, then at least from the very first paragraph. That's more important than ever online, where the reader can always find something more interesting to read if an article seems boring. (I don't follow this advice nearly as often as I should.)

Here are some of his examples on good non-fiction, excerpted from real articles:

When it comes to shopping for a computer, the most important peripheral runs at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit and is known as a friend.

Here on a stony meadow in West Texas at the end of 10 miles of unpaved road through mesquite-covered, coyote-infested shurb land, several hundred bearers of a strategic commodity of the United States of America are gathered.
They are goats.

As the 155-millimeter howitzer shells whistled down on this crumbling city today, exploding into buildings all around, a disheveled stubble-bearded man in formal evening attire unfolded a plastic chair in the middle of Vase Miskina Street. He lifted his cello from its case and began playing Albinoni's Adagio.

Repetition is sometimes a useful technique:

Yesterday morning Henry Sorbino walked into the K-Mart on Eleventh Street carrying an umbrella and walked out carrying an umbrella and someone else's purse.

Adding color can be done subtly - note the one word that makes this sentence more interesting:

At exactly 10:19 A.M. yesterday, a grandmother's purse on a conveyor belt at Orange Country airport set off an alarm that caused two security guards to rush to the scene.

An otherwise uninteresting piece of news can be made more interesting with an eye for detail:

Carl Gardhof, his head held high as if he had done nothing wrong, was sentenced in Superior Court to eighteen months in jail this morning.

Note how much better the preceeding sentence works than if we'd used the cliché of "maintaining his innocence".

The real subject of the next story was the suspension of auto union talks because workers were loath to chip in for health care costs:

Since learning last year that he had multiple sclerosis, Andy Torok has become less and less steady on his feet, and his worries have accumulated along with the hand prints on his apartment's white walls.

An obit or memorial piece doesn't have to be dull:

Andy Warhol, draftsman of shoes, is dead, and the people viewing his remains are mostly wearing scuffed white sneakers.

A year after his death, the recurring image I associate with Raymond Carver is one of people leaning toward him, working very hard at the act of listening.

Nor does the opening of an autobiography:

Many problems confront an autobiographer, and I am confident that I have not solved them.

I see no reason why the reader should be interested in my private life.

Comment author: wnoise 26 October 2011 08:02:02AM *  5 points [-]

note the one word that makes this sentence more interesting:

At exactly 10:19 A.M. yesterday, a grandmother's purse on a conveyor belt at Orange Country airport set off an alarm that caused two security guard's to rush to the scene.

Is it the word left out after "guard's"? Because, man, it really makes me want to know what two things of the security guard rushed to the scene.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 26 October 2011 10:26:21AM 1 point [-]

Typo, it was supposed to be "guards".

Comment author: wedrifid 25 October 2011 07:58:44PM 8 points [-]

What are your favorite pieces of writing advice?

Use fungibility. People do this sort of thing for you if you pay them money.

Comment author: lukeprog 25 October 2011 09:54:30PM *  2 points [-]

Indeed! Would anybody like to pay Carl Zimmer to write a piece for the New York Times on intelligence explosion? (His Playboy piece on Singularity Summit 2009 was quite good.)

Comment author: Dustin 27 October 2011 01:37:05AM 0 points [-]

I would contribute to a fund specifically for this type of thing on an ongoing basis. One article, maybe not, but if I was contributing to a fund whose purpose was to get X LessWrongian articles a month in front of Y people, I'd be pretty excited.

Comment author: dlthomas 26 October 2011 07:46:23PM 6 points [-]

Taking an outside view, I would guess a good piece of advice is: spend 10,000 hours writing.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 27 October 2011 03:07:39AM 4 points [-]

Talent Is Overrated has a detailed account of how Benjamin Franklin taught himself to be a good writer.

Comment author: Logos01 25 October 2011 05:29:01PM 5 points [-]

Write like you talk. When possible, use small, old, Germanic words.

Oh dear. Those two goals are ... contradictory for me. I've had the fact that "people don't talk like that, {Logos01}" stated to me on more occassions than I care to recall.

Comment author: army1987 25 October 2011 06:57:53PM 4 points [-]

If it were up to me, nuclear fusion and nuclear fission would be called “nuclear merging” and “nuclear splitting”. Or even “kernel merging” and “kernel splitting”?

Comment author: wnoise 25 October 2011 08:27:27PM *  19 points [-]

http://groups.google.com/group/alt.language.artificial/msg/69250bac6c7cbaff?pli=1

The tailbit of Poul Anderson's "Uncleftish Beholding":

Some of the higher samesteads are splitly. That is, when a neitherbit strikes the kernel of one, as for a showdeal ymirstuff-235, it bursts into lesser kernels and free neitherbits; the latter can then split more ymirstuff-235. When this happens, weight shifts into work. It is not much of the whole, but nevertheless it is awesome.

With enough strength, lightweight unclefts can be made to togethermelt. In the sun, through a row of strikings and lightrottings, four unclefts of waterstuff in this wise become one of sunstuff. Again some weight is lost as work, and again this is greatly big when set beside the work gotten from a minglingish doing such as fire.

Today we wield both kind of uncleftish doings in weapons, and kernelish splitting gives us heat and bernstoneness. We hope to do likewise with togethermelting, which would yield an unhemmed wellspring of work for mankindish goodgain.

Soothly we live in mighty years!

Comment author: Sniffnoy 25 October 2011 11:24:09PM 5 points [-]

In case people want a lot more of this: http://anglish.wikia.com/wiki/Headside

Comment author: Konkvistador 27 October 2011 08:06:48PM *  2 points [-]

This is just begging to be a text in an alternative history novel.

Comment author: soreff 25 October 2011 10:56:19PM 2 points [-]

Cute. When I first glanced at it, my 0-th reaction was "what the....???" - and then I saw the "235" Amazing how fast everything fell into place after that...

Comment author: wedrifid 25 October 2011 07:16:16PM 0 points [-]

Kernel? That's a bit complicated for me. Can we call it 'core' instead?

Comment author: fubarobfusco 26 October 2011 12:00:49AM 1 point [-]

A more runewise crosscarrying would be "the nut of the uncleft".

Comment author: army1987 25 October 2011 07:32:20PM 1 point [-]

Doesn't that come from Latin cor ‘heart’? :-) (Just guessing.)

(Also, core can also refer to the nucleus plus the electrons other than those in the outermost shell, so it'd be ambiguous.)

Comment author: dlthomas 25 October 2011 07:46:37PM 1 point [-]

"middle bit"?

Comment author: Sniffnoy 26 October 2011 12:12:54AM 0 points [-]

Doesn't that come from Latin cor ‘heart’?

Nope: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=kernel

Comment author: komponisto 26 October 2011 12:20:24AM 0 points [-]

Wrong word. Actually, yes.

Comment author: Sniffnoy 26 October 2011 12:21:24AM 0 points [-]

Oops. I failed to read that properly.

Comment author: [deleted] 26 October 2011 12:27:56AM 4 points [-]

Orwell, Politics And The English Language - http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm The whole thing's worth a read, but especially his six-rule summary:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Comment author: dbaupp 26 October 2011 08:11:20AM *  2 points [-]

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

This isn't a criticism, but one has to be careful to avoid becoming too general by using a slightly inappropriate everyday "equivalent" (which is the point of scientific/jargon words), especially with some of the material on this site.

Comment author: Solvent 28 October 2011 11:07:59AM 1 point [-]

Maybe that list wasn't intended for scientific writing, but for popular writing. In science writing, you're right, of course. Still, remember the table from this recent post, with examples of words which mean one thing to scientists and another to ordinary people.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 28 October 2011 12:16:57PM 1 point [-]

Here's C.S. Lewis in 1964 (page down to "for whom are we to cater") talking about finding out that people from different social groups understand the same words differently.

Twice as Less is a book about students who speak Black English Vernacular having trouble with science and math because of linguistic differences-- "Orr pinpoints misunderstandings that beset students whose first language is nonstandard English. Her belief that BEV is rule-governed and not merely "bad" English is supported by data from her students who, for example, confuse "twice" and "half" or combine "as" and "than" in their partitive comparisons."

A reader review points out that some white students have the same problems.

This is an area where a lot of empirical research would be valuable, but I haven't heard of anyone doing it. I haven't even heard of advertisers doing it, but perhaps they don't make their research public.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 28 October 2011 01:02:20PM 2 points [-]

A reader review points out that some white students have the same problems

Anecdotal evidence here: From teaching and tutoring kids in math of a variety of racial groups, there are white kids who definitely have these problems especially the "twice" v "half" issue. So it could be that students who are weaker at math will have that sort of problem more frequently and the students who speak BEV are correlated for some reason with more weak students. Note that this hypothesis is essentially independent of why those students would be weaker.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 28 October 2011 12:39:00PM 0 points [-]

Here's C.S. Lewis in 1964 (page down to "for whom are we to cater") talking about finding out that people from different social groups understand the same words differently.

This link may be more convenient.

Comment author: ShardPhoenix 27 October 2011 11:01:57AM 1 point [-]

Presumably that's where (vi) comes in.

Comment author: dbaupp 27 October 2011 02:28:09PM 0 points [-]

Yep

Comment author: timtyler 25 October 2011 06:22:24PM 4 points [-]

What are your favorite pieces of writing advice?

  • Outline first.
Comment author: prase 25 October 2011 03:49:14PM *  4 points [-]

Few comments to the rules:

(5.) is a goal, but not a task. Wishing to make the text exciting doesn't help me to accomplish it.

(6.) Don't be too brief (style of mathematical textbooks is certainly not an ideal to aspire to) and don't make too many endnotes (they are intimidating).

(11.) I'd like to see concrete example of how to do it.

(12.) Presence of few "I could have said this" moments activates confirmation bias algorithms and actually keeps the reader happy and interested. A dark technique, but successful, the most when the reader thinks "this is the best formulation of what I was thinking all the time".

(13.) Has been criticised a lot.

(14.) I am curious about the rationale behind this, and/or evidence that it works.

(15.) like no.5, not an algorithm to follow.

(23.) Why only improving verbs? Does it have something common with the dubious advice "write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs"?

Comment author: antigonus 25 October 2011 02:52:22PM 4 points [-]

Avoid overuse of italics. Try to write so that the reader can intuit where the emphasis goes.

Comment author: pedanterrific 25 October 2011 07:11:47PM 5 points [-]

Do you find Eliezer's writing particularly annoying in this way? I always thought one of the most recognizable aspects of his work was the unusually large amount of italics. (I also always thought it was a positive aspect, so I'm interested in your perspective.)

Comment author: jmmcd 27 October 2011 06:32:04PM 5 points [-]

If you read a lot of Eliezer, the italics gradually seem less important, and add just a light accent to the word. If you read any "normal" text and then an italics-heavy piece by Eliezer, it feels like he's speaking really slowly and sometimes loudly to a child.

(I'm exaggerating, of course.)

Comment author: army1987 25 October 2011 06:53:20PM 4 points [-]

Not sure it's a good idea, at least when writing in English. Spoken English resorts to intonation for stuff where other languages use word order, emphatic particles, etc. Writing already throws most of that away, and I can see no point in going further and throwing away all of it.

Comment author: antigonus 25 October 2011 07:11:57PM 0 points [-]

I don't think italics should be thrown away, but there are so many ways of expressing contrast in written English that render the use of italics superfluous. More often than not, having decent English composition and arranging your ideas in a logical order will automatically make the contrasts evident. I guess I get peeved when an author assumes I can't pick up on his distinctions, but maybe it doesn't bother you.

Comment author: Prismattic 26 October 2011 01:59:43AM 2 points [-]

I would read the intonation of your last sentence differently if the italicized pronouns were not italicized. So if you actually meant to have that strong an emphasis on them, then the italics aren't superfluous.

Comment author: Anatoly_Vorobey 28 October 2011 09:14:34PM 0 points [-]

I also would have read it differently in my mind without the italics. But consider that maybe the emphasis on "I" and "you" in the spoken version would be there in the first place to elucidate the opposition that comes across more easily in writing. It's difficult to be sure, but I don't think the I/you-emphasis version gives any extra information that's absent from the non-italicized written version.

Comment author: army1987 25 October 2011 07:36:05PM 1 point [-]

Dunno how I would have read that sentence if the italics wasn't there. Damn hindsight bias!

Comment author: army1987 28 October 2011 09:59:17AM 1 point [-]

No, really. Whenever I read two different wordings for the same statement to decide which is better, my perceptions of them interact in a weird way, so I'm not sure at all which one would sound better to me if I hadn't seen the other one. Also, I seem to be affected by some form of priming effect whereby the wording I've read first tends to sound better, unless a long time (at least one day) passes.

Comment author: lythrum 27 October 2011 09:05:59PM 1 point [-]

I strongly agree. I find Eliezer's italics so off-putting that I avoid reading his writing in formatted text. I don't know why, and I'm sure not everyone has the same reaction, but excess italics just make me twitch.

Comment author: Desrtopa 27 October 2011 09:13:27PM 2 points [-]

Well, I can affirm that I, at least, don't have the same reaction. Also I use italics similarly myself. I treat it as a mark of emphasis by the authorial voice. I don't mind having a textual marker to show me where the emphasis is, preventing me from having to intuit it, any more than I mind hearing people's emphasis when they talk, rather than having to intuit it as I would if they were using a voice synthesizer. The idea of finding it offputting is weird to me.

Comment author: lythrum 27 October 2011 09:19:03PM 0 points [-]

Yes, I'm aware it's not universal. I can't really explain why it's so bothersome - it's similar to occasional words being in a bright colour, or someone poking me every so often while I'm trying to read. It's probably a pity because, combined with my laziness, it just means that I avoid reading writing with lots of italics. If I'm feeling particularly motivated I'll modify the text to remove all the italics before reading it.

Comment author: dlthomas 27 October 2011 09:29:58PM 0 points [-]

Presumably it would be easy enough to strip out of everything (online) with a tiny bit of css voodoo.

Comment author: MatthewW 28 October 2011 09:57:50PM 0 points [-]

I don't find it off-putting, but it does make me feel I'm reading Lewis Carrol.

Comment author: dlthomas 28 October 2011 10:16:15PM 0 points [-]

What's wrong with that?

Comment author: MatthewW 29 October 2011 11:34:59AM 0 points [-]

It's slightly disconcerting to imagine some of the writing coming from the pen of an Anglican deacon.

Comment author: dlthomas 27 October 2011 09:09:25PM 0 points [-]

Interesting. I usually find they break up the monotony of a large block of text, and help me identify how the passage should flow.

Comment author: timtyler 25 October 2011 06:21:03PM 1 point [-]

Italics seem pretty useful for conveyiong additional subliminal information to me. More common seems to be lazily using them too little.

Comment author: CharlesR 25 October 2011 05:47:18AM *  4 points [-]

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn it's pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they are, but by then it's--GASP!!--too late.

If you want to be a writer, then you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

You must be prepared to do some serious turning inward toward the life of the imagination, and that means, I'm afraid, that Geraldo, Keith Obermann, and Jay Leno must go. Reading takes time, and the glass teat takes too much of it.

Must you write complete sentences each time, every time? Perish the thought.

It's always easier to kill someone else's darlings than it is to kill your own.

Stephen King, On Writing

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 25 October 2011 05:53:08AM *  1 point [-]

That book is the best thing he's written since the 80s.

EDIT: Come to think of it, the writing in Skeleton Crew stands out in my mind as quite literally the most absorbing I have ever encountered. If I bring it into the bathroom, I end up with a ring on my tuchis.

EDIT 2: I found a pdf of On Writing last night, and stayed up until 5:30 am, reading. The guy is a master of holding my attention.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 27 October 2011 10:31:24AM 1 point [-]

Reading that PDF now, currently around page 140. So far I'm not very impressed. First he spends a hundred pages talking about his life, saying pretty much nothing useful about writing as far as I can tell. (Though I skipped most of it.) When he does finally get to the point, the advice-to-words ratio is quite low. The advice itself is fine, but so far only fine - not great or saying much that couldn't be found anywhere. Even if I'm charitable and disregard the first 100 pages, King says less in 40 pages than Stein does in five.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 27 October 2011 02:55:03PM 0 points [-]

I think it's fair to say that Stephen King is engaging, but not efficient.

Most of what intrigued me about the book was getting a feeling for what it's like to be outside the academic/SWPL/liberal elite culture I'm used to. King's fiction was a bit of a surprise to me because there was no contempt for people who use ordinary brand name products. [1] In On Writing, there's a bit about him resisting the idea of theme in fiction-- he had gotten the impression it was something arbitrarily added on, and then he realized that it was actually a way of emphasizing patterns which appeared spontaneously in early drafts.

[1] I use brand name products, but I have a background sense that the more obscure they are, the better.

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 27 October 2011 01:53:52PM 0 points [-]

So why did you read 140 pages of it?

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 28 October 2011 06:12:47AM 2 points [-]

Because people here recommended it and I figured he might just take a while to get to the good stuff. It was also entertainingly written and pleasant to read even if it didn't offer much of value. There were plenty of funny lines that I copy-pasted for others to enjoy.

I ended up reading it to the end due to the entertainment factor. There was some unique stuff - the open and closed door thing was interesting and possibly useful, though it won't work for everyone. I also imagine the encouragement about agents and not needing to be an industry insider to get published is great for someone looking to get published the ordinary way, though with the upcoming demise of traditional publishing, that is becoming less relevant.

Overall verdict - can be worth reading if one is mostly looking for pleasant reading about writing, or something to motivate one to write, with the occasional piece of good advice thrown in. But I'd recommend people mainly looking for lots of advice on writing to look elsewhere.

Comment author: CharlesR 25 October 2011 03:11:20PM 1 point [-]

The single best piece of advice he gives is to get a room with a door, one that locks. It's made a huge difference in my writing.

Comment author: JStewart 25 October 2011 05:24:45AM *  4 points [-]

I agree with your conclusion (this is a worthwhile pursuit), but I have some qualms.

There are a couple of general points that I think really need to be addressed before most of the individual points on this list can be considered seriously:

  • Following a list of prescriptions and proscriptions is a really poor way to learn any complex skill. A bad writer who earnestly tries to follow all the advice on this list will almost certainly still be bad at writing. I think the absolute best, most important advice to give to an aspiring writer is to write. A lot.

  • What constitutes "good" writing is a matter of taste. As with other aesthetic endeavors, it's practically impossible to write tasteful prose if you don't have taste in reading prose. I don't see any real way to develop taste without reading a lot, and paying attention to what you're reading and how it's written. To some extent I think every person has to pick apart writing that they think is good and figure out for themselves the nuts and bolts of good writing. The resulting insights might be temptingly easy to distill into bullet points, but this is a very leaky process of abstraction. Most of the value of these insights isn't really communicated in the summary, but is in the data in your brain that made these patterns obvious to you. It's the A Monad is Like a Burrito problem.

  • Compounding the issue of taste, there's the problem that "good writing" is an underspecified term. There are a lot of extremely popular and wealthy authors whose writing isn't considered "good," at least by those who seem to have taste. Is popularity orthogonal to "good"? Should our goal even be "good," then? Or is maximal popularity not, in fact, our goal? I have no idea what the answers to these questions should be. Would I rather write like Nabokov than like Dan Brown? Yes. Would that be instrumentally useful in spreading my ideas (or ideas that I like) as widely as possible? I don't know. Possibly not.

I have a few comments about specific points on your list, but I'll split those into other comments.

Comment author: thomblake 26 October 2011 07:35:26PM 0 points [-]

A bad writer who earnestly tries to follow all the advice on this list will almost certainly still be bad at writing. I think the absolute best, most important advice to give to an aspiring writer is to write. A lot.

I believe that was one of the rules on the list.

Comment author: JStewart 26 October 2011 11:15:13PM *  4 points [-]

My central objection is that this feels like a very un-LessWrongish way to approach a problem. A grab bag of unrelated and unsourced advice is what I might expect to see on the average blog.

Not only is there basically no analysis of what we're trying to do and why, but the advice is a mixed bag. If one entry on the list completely dominates most of the others in terms of effectiveness (and is a prerequisite to putting the others to good use), I don't expect it to be presented as just another member of the list. A few other entries on the list I consider to be questionable advice or based on mistaken assumptions.

Upon reread I fear this comes across as much harsher criticism than I intend it to be, because I really do think this is one of the most valuable skills to be cultivated. It's also a thorny problem that attracts a lot of bullshit, being particularly vulnerable to generalization from one example. I'm glad Lukeprog posted this.

Comment author: thomblake 27 October 2011 01:22:07PM 2 points [-]

My central objection is that this feels like a very un-LessWrongish way to approach a problem. A grab bag of unrelated and unsourced advice is what I might expect to see on the average blog.

Allow me to introduce you to the Sequences, which have been called out many times for being unsourced, rambling, and pointless, and yet they kept chugging away.

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 25 October 2011 04:42:42AM *  4 points [-]

Why wait? Just promote this now.

A couple of weeks ago, I drafted a post about making LW more accessible to a lay audience. Despite the help of the LW Public Goods Team, I got discouraged and abandoned it. But because it feels pertinent, here's the end:

As LWers know, most people don't like to hear that their brains aren't perfect engines of reason, or that their intuitions aren't made of magic. But plenty of these same people live in an intellectual comfort zone that overlaps LW just enough to make them relatively easy to persuade, with the right combination of words. How many of them remain unpersuaded because the material on LW is unnecessarily difficult?

Of course, much of the material on LW is difficult because it's just, well, difficult. But that shouldn't stop LWers from striving to make themselves understood by a non-technical audience (and I'm not the first to mention this). The majority of LWers don't come here already very rational. It's just that the learning curve seems geared toward those already capable of making the ascent. If raising the sanity waterline is a priority, then LW has to minimize the cost of participation.

Unless, on some level, it's about having a club, and reading highly leveraged abstract language is the initiation.

Don't get me wrong; I want to join this club. Even now, as I write this, it's hard to not use all the little clubhouse-y words and phrases. I want to signal my membership (and consequently my intelligence). I want to prove my worth to the tribe.

Is plain talk low-status on LW? And if so, is its non-prevalence one big huge example of akrasia?

Comment author: lukeprog 25 October 2011 04:52:08AM *  1 point [-]

Why wait? Just promote this now.

I didn't frame this post in terms of rationality, and I didn't optimize it for front-page quality. But maybe that was a mistake. I'll edit the post a bit right now and put it on the front page in case an editor wants to promote it.

Update: (Slight) editing done. Moved from LessWrong Discussion to LessWrong.

Comment author: Thrasymachus 26 October 2011 07:36:50PM 3 points [-]

Do great writers (fiction or not) say that following composition advice helped them? Do they give consistent composition advice themselves? If the answer to both questions is 'no', that suggests that great writing is not something easily trainable.

(Disclaimer: I think Luke's a really good writer, so don't read this as "if you haven't got it, you never will, give up").

Comment author: [deleted] 30 October 2011 08:33:49PM *  0 points [-]

I don't think many great writers have disclosed what helped them. (That would explain, in any event, why no one's answered your significant questions.) But, if writing advice was futile, wouldn't you expect the great writers to have announced that realization? On the other hand, if some specific advice had proven very helpful, you might expect writers to be reluctant to convey it. Professional writing is highly competitive, giving truly useful tips the status of trade secrets. So, when it is forthcoming—as from Orwell—it ought to be appreciated.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 30 October 2011 09:09:07PM 2 points [-]

But, if writing advice was futile, wouldn't you expect the great writers to have announced that realization?

If writing advice were futile, I'm not sure I would expect great writers to even know it. They are just as prone to post hoc ergo prompter hoc as anyone else, after all; if they received some plausible advice prior to doing some great writing, they would be inclined to infer a causal link between them, whether one actually existed or not.

Comment author: [deleted] 30 October 2011 10:28:14PM 0 points [-]

I think they'd know it. Advice isn't a mere talisman; you consciously use it to alter your style.

Some advice is universally accepted among competent writers; an example: don't use two words when one will do. (It goes back, at least, to Jefferson.) Can you write competently without direct guidance in the form of this rule? My vision may be overly limited, but I don't see how.

[ I obviously disagree with Luke's advice to avoid semi-colons. :).]

Comment author: TheOtherDave 31 October 2011 12:07:23AM 0 points [-]

I agree that it's possible to consciously use advice to alter my style, and that if I do that carefully and evaluate the results I can obtain information about what advice actually works. I'd be surprised if a sizable fraction of writers (even "competent" writers) actually did that.

I agree that some advice is ubiquitously accepted by competent writers, in the sense that most competent writers endorse it. (I assume "universally" is intended as hyperbole.) Also agreed that some advice is ubiquitously accepted, in the sense that most competent writers act according to its dictates. I'd be surprised if the intersection of the two sets were a sizable fraction of either set, or if either set (let alone their intersection) were a sizable fraction of the advice any given writer either endorses or follows.

Comment author: pjeby 26 October 2011 03:46:46AM 3 points [-]

Two general formulas for structuring material to convey information and persuade others to apply it.

First, the "why-what-how-what-if" framework (for tutorials, where the audience is seeking a solution):

  1. "Why" - description of a motivating concrete experience from which a general pattern can be inferred
  2. "What" - conceptual model of the problem space, forming a bridge from the identified pattern to...
  3. "How" - concrete step-by-step information on the recommended solution
  4. "What if" - suggest connections between situations in the reader's life and the problem/solution presented, and invite them to apply it

This is woefully inadequate as a description of the method, and I don't remember the name of the academic learning theory on which it's based. But when I switched doing my own CD programs from a more adhoc organization to one based on this model, I got a lot of positive comments from listeners about how much more valuable the format was.

Second framework, which is more oriented towards persuasion (in fact, it's a format designed for advertising, selling a product or service, but it works even better for selling ideas):

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Why is it hard?
  3. What is possible? (present an ideal future, i.e., "But what if we could...?")
  4. What has changed? (i.e., why is this hard problem now solvable, implicitly leading to the ideal future proposed)
  5. What should you do now (to take advantage of this change)?

There are several important psychological and rhetorical points built into this structure. Presenting a reason why the problem is hard, for example, is needed to absolve the audience of responsibility for the problem, as well as to increase curiosity and contrast in part 3 and to continue operating in rapport with the audience.

In essence, parts 1 through 3 build rapport and agreement - you first agree what their problem is, and that it's hard, and that boy, it'd be great if we could do better than that. Now they're ready to listen to your actual information, which comes in at parts 4 and 5 - the discovery and recommended action.

This format is more useful for evangelism and broad advice than it is for detailed teaching; otherwise parts 4 and 5 can overshadow the rest of the thing in size. ;-)

Sometimes, I use a hybrid version of these two frameworks, as there is actually some overlap in how they begin and end. But more often, I begin most serious pieces of writing or training by doing two separate outlines of the idea I have in mind, to see which one is a better fit. Longer works usually end up as a series of multiple why-what-how-what-if modules.

A common element of both approaches, however: begin, if possible, with a single concrete experience, story, anecdote, or episode that establishes the emotional motivation for why the reader should continue reading. (Or listener listening, viewer viewing, etc.)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 25 October 2011 04:59:12PM 3 points [-]

I mostly endorse your list, though I often fail to follow it.

Among my favorites (these are not entirely disjoint from your list, but strike me as importantly different in emphasis):

  • Know where I'm going and why I'm going there
    Once I figure out what I'm trying to say, I can say it far more effectively.

  • Avoid the second person
    IME, second-person advice is far more likely to inspire defensiveness. When I'm really fine-tuning, I avoid the word "you" altogether unless I'm CERTAIN that my audience will feel complimented by the sentence.

  • Present complex points iteratively
    I'm fond of short-phrase bullet points followed by a few sentences of explanation (and cross-references to longer explanations where needed).

  • Specify who is doing what to whom.
    This is related to your point 13, though distinct from it.
    Also related is limiting pronoun use.

  • Avoid lists of more than five or six items.
    If I genuinely have that many things to say, I try to chunk them into more comprehensive items and expand each item.

Comment author: siodine 25 October 2011 12:28:22PM 3 points [-]

Luke, this has little to do with this post, but I'd like to know how you're consuming a seemingly inhuman amount of information. Maybe you can write a post on rationalist news/data consumption? Like, for example, are you using clip files, notebooks, RSS readers, and so on? How are you optimizing the amount of time spent per unit of useful data consumption? How much time per day are you spending in doing all this research?

Comment author: gwern 25 October 2011 05:25:10PM *  4 points [-]
Comment author: James_Miller 25 October 2011 05:17:19AM 3 points [-]

Look at every sentence and ask yourself if you could rewrite the sentence in a way such that (a) you have conveyed the same information in fewer words and (b) the rewritten sentence is grammatically correct. If so then you should probably go with the more concise sentence. If you are not an excellent writer then you should always go with the shorter sentence.

Expel words that don't pay rent!

Comment author: grouchymusicologist 25 October 2011 05:22:20AM 5 points [-]

I agree with this, and I would recommend the caveat that it is a good rule of thumb at the level of the sentence but probably not at the level of the paragraph. Wordiness in sentences (all else being equal) is bad. But a lot of expository or informal writing benefits from having roughly the same thing said in a few different ways, if it can be done in a way that doesn't seem overly repetitive. You never know which angle on your point is going to make it click for someone.

Comment author: James_Miller 09 May 2013 05:05:17PM 2 points [-]

Advice I give to my students at Smith College:

1) Be clear! 2) Be concise! 3) Be interesting!

• I am your audience. When you write a paper imagine what objections James Miller would make to your arguments and then either counter these objections or admit that these objections weaken your thesis. It’s better to admit a flaw in your argument than it is to ignore such a flaw. Consider having a pretend conversation with me in which I point out everything that is wrong with your paper.

• Using many subheadings often makes papers clearer and better organized. If other instructors have said that your writing is unclear or disorganized then definitely use subheadings. Using bullet points often makes papers more clear and concise. Bullet points often work well in introductions or conclusions. Weak writers should almost always use bullet points because bullet points partially compensate for confused writing.

• The first sentence of your paper sets the tone and is a huge hint to me about your writing quality. Your first sentence should be interesting and give me significant information about your paper’s contents. Look at the first sentences of articles in major newspapers for examples of well-written first sentences.

• Students often use clichés and pronouns incorrectly. Avoid clichés. Make sure that it is obvious what noun a pronoun refers to. If there is any doubt, don’t use the pronoun.

• Look at every sentence and ask yourself if you could rewrite the sentence in a way such that (a) you have conveyed the same information in fewer words and (b) the rewritten sentence is grammatically correct. If so then you should probably go with the more concise sentence. If you are not an excellent writer then you should always go with the shorter sentence.

Comment author: [deleted] 06 November 2011 09:05:40PM 2 points [-]

To see what's distinctive about lukeprog's approach to writing, I think it's important to read his essay, "The Art of Plain Talk" (http://tinyurl.com/18r)—which he links at point 27. Without this background, it's hard to see how his 37 rules are connected. But in my view, unexpressed inter-relation, as in the present piece, is at the root of what's problematic about the "plain-talk" style. (See http://tinyurl.com/3glcy28)

Comment author: lessdazed 30 October 2011 07:19:11AM *  2 points [-]

Rules are more memorable when written like so:

"2. Begin in medias res".

(2) How should you open? With a question.

Or like so:

(6) Prefer brevity. Cut what isn't needed, or at least move it to an endnote.

(12) Avoid cliches like the plague, they're old hat.

(21).Shorten your sentences and paragraphs; replace semicolons with periods.

(27) Employ the vernacular.

Etc.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 October 2011 10:32:50PM *  2 points [-]

Simplicity is overrated, and a spate of research on "cognitive fluency" and "disfluency" is just starting to put it in perspective. One study that should jar some "plain language" proponents, for example, found that making high-school texts harder to read improved retention. (See http://tinyurl.com/3aouvja) Balancing simplicity and complexity is no simple matter, but science is finally addressing it.

I have a blog on writing—legal writing, actually—and it's the only place I've seen the cognitive-fluency research seriously applied to persuasive writing. Most often, the research is misinterpreted to favor the old plain-language pablum of one-sided simplification. The most persuasive writing doesn't clock in with a low Gunning fog index; consider Darwin's writing style, which is anything but simple—rather, simply excellent. (See http://tinyurl.com/48dxal4)

My blog, "Disputed Issues: Controversies in Legal Writing," is at the link. The advantages of disfluency are discussed at http://tinyurl.com/3e9fqcs; integration of cognitive-fluency research with working-memory research, at http://tinyurl.com/3qz3gxd

[The final link was bad: corrected 7:54 p.m., 8/30.]

Comment author: adamisom 18 December 2011 03:03:20AM 1 point [-]

I'm jumping in late, but isn't it kind of obvious? Making a high school text harder to read could simultaneously improve retention if you are obligated to read it and at the same time be a bad move for something people must elect to read.

Comment author: fburnaby 27 October 2011 01:39:49AM *  2 points [-]

I've always felt like Sagan and Dawkins have a certain talent for writing so far beyond my own that they're not even worth emulating. They write poetry. And in so doing, they manage to hide the process that created the work in the first place. That's the reason it's such a pleasure to read, but it doesn't help me get there, if you know what I mean.

An example of an excellently written pop-science book where I could glean the rules that were being followed was Stumbling Upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. It's very readable, and doesn't feel "fake", yet he clearly follows a fairly rigid formula. Each chapter seems to go something like this: "So, here's a conundrum you can relate to. I'll give that conundrum a cutesy name. Here's a hard example where the conundrum is pretty easy to solve, after all, and an experiment to back up my reasoning, recounted in story form, not data form. The solution generalizes over <cutesy problem>. [then, the hard-hitting part] The conundrum, <cutesy name> is solved by <general solution, which probably also has a cutesy name>."

I have not tried writing a popular book, so I can't vouch for sure that the pattern I've noticed in Gilbert is all one would need to translate from science-speak to pop-speak... But it's something I couldn't help noticing when I read the book, such that your post made me think of it immediately. Maybe worth checking out.

Comment author: Bo102010 27 October 2011 02:38:20AM 1 point [-]

Really? I felt like Dan GIlbert's book was a bad attempt at writing a Dave Barry book, with some good and entertaining science thrown in. I enjoyed the book, but every paragraph seemed to have a joke shoe-horned in.

However, when I consulted the text to find an example, I couldn't readily find one. Which is amusing, as part of the book deals with how inaccurate impressions can form lasting memories.

Still, I think lukeprog should aspire to a level higher than Gilbert.

Comment author: fburnaby 28 October 2011 03:01:48AM *  0 points [-]

Hmm.. Yes you might be right that lukeprog could do better. He's already clearer, though less engaging for a popular audience. But I don't think necessarily that learning the tricks that are so obvious in Gilbert precludes him from doing better. As my guitar teacher used to say: "you have to learn the theory, drive the theory into your head, and then forget it when the time comes to really play". Also, it might be perfect for the rest of us mere mortals.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 26 October 2011 10:08:38AM 2 points [-]

Would it be possible to divide the list of rules into subsections?

Comment author: komponisto 25 October 2011 12:03:54PM *  2 points [-]

That's why I asked LWers for their picks of best nonfiction writing on Less Wrong.

Excuse me, but almost all writing on Less Wrong is nonfiction. Shouldn't you have simply asked for the best writing on Less Wrong?

(I meant to ask this in the linked post, but forgot.)

Comment author: katydee 25 October 2011 12:20:09PM *  5 points [-]

To be fair, Three Worlds Collide is venerated by many. The fiction tag has multiple pages of results.

So while fiction is certainly not predominant, it's definitely had a presence in the community. If you count HPMoR or Luminosity, which-- while not actually on Less Wrong at this stage (I think)-- are pretty clearly connected-- I'd say that fiction has left a very, very strong impression indeed on the community as a whole.

Comment author: komponisto 25 October 2011 12:33:36PM 0 points [-]

Yes, I said "almost all", not "all". Only a tiny minority of posts on Less Wrong are fictional stories. Even most posts with the "fiction" tag are nonfiction!

Comment author: katydee 25 October 2011 12:44:28PM *  1 point [-]

My point is that LW-related fiction has probably had an impact out of proportion with its comparatively small number of posts, and thus many people probably have examples of Less Wrong fiction ready to go in their heads.

Therefore, if you asked simply for the best writing on Less Wrong, I think a substantial number of people would misunderstand the question and say "HPMoR, of course," and a smaller but still significant number would interpret "writing" as "fictional writing" (this is a general norm in English) and say Three Worlds Collide or one of the Jeffreyssai stories or something.

Comment author: komponisto 25 October 2011 01:05:48PM 5 points [-]

interpret "writing" as "fictional writing" (this is a general norm in English)

I have to disagree; in fact it wouldn't even occur to me to interpret it that way, especially in this context.

I also don't think many people would answer "HPMoR" to the question of what the best writing on Less Wrong is, since most people know it isn't hosted here.

Three Worlds Collide has definitely had an impact greater than the average LW post. However, I am skeptical of the notion that its impact has been so great as to significantly distort people's perceptions of how much of LW content is fiction, to the point of interpreting a discussion of the "best writing on LW" as being about fiction.

Comment author: katydee 25 October 2011 05:56:23PM 3 points [-]

Interesting. You may be right. I think I will try to test these predictions out in person the next time I go to a meetup. I'll let you know what my results are!

Comment author: wedrifid 25 October 2011 02:20:39PM 2 points [-]

Excuse me, but almost all writing on Less Wrong is nonfiction. Shouldn't you have simply asked for the best writing on Less Wrong?

No, not if you want to find out their best pick of the nonfiction. Since a request for the 'best' tends to return a single result it only takes one instance of fiction to completely alter the expected result, assuming that single example has any potential for popularity.

Comment author: komponisto 25 October 2011 02:45:10PM 0 points [-]

The objection is not to the category restriction, but to the connotative implication of the title that the "fiction" category is significantly populated.

Comment author: eugman 28 October 2011 01:17:26AM 0 points [-]

Personally, I see it as a fair tradeoff: one implies a falsehood in order to prime people to give better answers to a specific question.

Comment author: Goobahman 25 October 2011 07:55:02AM 2 points [-]

Hey Luke,

This is great to hear. What drew me to you and your works initially was your extraordinary ability to take concepts foreign to me and make them accessible, easy to understand and even enjoyable. It's good to see that you intend to capitalize on this talent, and I can't wait to see what more comes of it. That being said seeing how far you've come already in the past few years is mind-blowing.

You really make me want to do better. Thank you.

Comment author: Kutta 25 October 2011 06:51:26AM *  2 points [-]

Begin with movement. Excitement. Humor. Surprise. Insight. Explosions.

I know I am a total nitpicker here but I think there is such a thing as too short a sentence.

Comment author: wedrifid 25 October 2011 06:57:18AM 2 points [-]

I know I am a total nitpicker here, but I think there is such a thing as too short a sentence.

I can think of some really good examples of sentences consisting of "Me" or "No". I can't think of any good examples of sentences of one letter. Two seems to be the limit.

Comment author: pedanterrific 25 October 2011 07:09:46AM 4 points [-]

You are the murderer!

I?

Comment author: Alicorn 25 October 2011 07:11:55AM 2 points [-]

Or, What is the correct article to use here?

'A'.

Comment author: wedrifid 25 October 2011 08:09:43AM *  3 points [-]

And, if we want to just obliterate the category altogether without having to think explicitly of examples:

"What is an example of a sentence that is too short?"

Comment author: army1987 25 October 2011 07:02:19PM 3 points [-]

Not in English, but i means “go” (imperative) in Latin. :-)

Comment author: wedrifid 25 October 2011 07:08:18PM 0 points [-]

I'm trying to imagine people telling each other that and I can't help but thinking it sounds like monkeys communicating. Something to do with a single syllable with no consonant as a simple command. A little monkey at that, given that it's an 'i' not an 'o'.

Comment author: pedanterrific 25 October 2011 07:30:59PM *  4 points [-]

Lemurs telling a human to get out of their space: eee! eee! eee~!

Lemures telling a human to get out of their space: i! i! i~!

(That's why they're called lemurs.)

Comment author: pedanterrific 25 October 2011 05:23:12AM *  2 points [-]

-31. Put the most impacting words at the end of a sentence.

Am I the only one that sees something wrong with this?

Comment author: timtyler 25 October 2011 06:30:54PM *  3 points [-]

-31. Put the most impacting words at the end of a sentence.

Am I the only one that sees something wrong with this?

You mean that the end of sentences should feature words with the biggest impact?

Comment author: ciphergoth 26 October 2011 09:55:48AM 2 points [-]

For example "The answer turns out to be A, not B" is usually better as "The answer turns out to be not B but A".

Comment author: TheOtherDave 26 October 2011 08:18:01PM 1 point [-]

And often still better as "The answer turns out to be A."
And sometimes even better as "The answer is A." And on occasion as "A."

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 25 October 2011 06:06:25AM 2 points [-]

How about

31b. Reserve the end of the sentence for what matters.

But then

It's you who's guilty.

The guilty person is you.

With the aid of explicit emphasis, I don't see any need.

Comment author: arundelo 25 October 2011 11:20:01PM 0 points [-]

I think "end" is the most important word here (though it maybe isn't the most "impacting"), and it is about as close to the end as it can be.

Comment author: pedanterrific 25 October 2011 11:27:16PM 1 point [-]

"When constructing sentences, put the most important word at the end."

But my initial point was mostly that "the most impacting words" is a really awkward and unclear construction. And I think the disagreement in the responses to my comment as to which word would be the "most impacting" (and precisely what that means) rather bears me out.

Comment author: arundelo 25 October 2011 11:42:41PM *  1 point [-]

I agree. (I mistook your point.)

Edit: Joseph Williams (who wrote Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, which lukeprog mentioned in the original post) has a subtler version of this rule:

Put at the end of your sentence the newest, the most surprising, the most significant information: information that you want to stress -- perhaps the information that you will expand on in your next sentence.

That's from page 48 of his Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, which I think blows Strunk and White out of the water. (I believe it's a different book from the one lukeprog mentioned, though if so I'm sure they cover similar material.)

Comment author: James_Miller 25 October 2011 01:52:57PM 0 points [-]

Often the best version of a sentence has the high impact word as either the first or last word of the sentence.

Comment author: antybu 25 October 2011 05:09:53AM 2 points [-]

I can't say I agree with all of your examples of good science writers. Hawking, for example, is a terrible science writer unless he's got somebody like Mlodinow to do all the actual writing for him. I've talked to a lot of people who are completely turned off to pop-cosmology books because of A Brief History of Time. Oliver Sacks too, though I absolute love the guy, can be overly convoluted. Hell, the guy has footnotes that literally fill the majority of the page!

You should check out Mary Roach. Her book Stiff is probably one of the best pop-science books I've read.

Comment author: MichaelAnissimov 25 October 2011 05:01:32AM *  2 points [-]

Great advice! I also thought it was funny as I was scanning rather than reading as I saw the line about scanning.

Comment author: Peacewise 31 October 2011 07:51:16AM 1 point [-]

"Favor surprise, as long as it doesn't engender too much disbelief. Avoid anything that lets the reader think, "I could have written that sentence." That'll depend on your audience, there are people who enjoy having their own thoughts affirmed. Sometimes its a surprise that someone else thinks like we do.

Comment author: timtyler 25 October 2011 06:17:04PM *  1 point [-]

Use a concrete-then-abstract pattern to pull readers forward. Start with a concrete example, probably more concrete than you feel it needs to be, and then make the more general point.

Any rationale? I generally state the principle first and then give a concrete example.

If I do it the other way around, I fear the reader will go: "what's up with the story?" - and turn off.

That is pretty much what happens in reverse when other authors launch into examples without telling me where they are going with them.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 25 October 2011 03:14:07PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: spuckblase 25 October 2011 02:14:55PM 1 point [-]

First approximation: Make your writing similar to a blockbuster movie.

Comment author: wedrifid 25 October 2011 03:28:51PM 11 points [-]

First approximation: Make your writing similar to a blockbuster movie.

"Really nice cleavage and explosions" doesn't look nearly as impressive on paper.

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 26 October 2011 02:22:51AM 2 points [-]

Great title for a post, though.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 25 October 2011 06:05:16AM *  1 point [-]

I'd recommend Orwell's articles on writing. And Korzybski for thinking and writing.

  • Down voted for this? Well, maybe I was unclear. I certainly didn't mean to suggest that you should write like Korzybski does. Yes, he's a rather painful read. Just apply the insights he provides about thinking and communicating to writing.
Comment author: Emily 25 October 2011 10:05:16PM 2 points [-]

That was me; sorry for not explaining the downvote. Perhaps it merited a disagreeing comment more than a downvote, but I was lazy/in a hurry. I actually haven't read any Korzybski, but consensus among linguists is that Orwell's articles on writing are pretty awful and he doesn't take any of his own advice in his works.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 26 October 2011 01:08:06AM *  1 point [-]

I've read Orwell's articles, and found value in them. I think his advice works for communicating ideas, and making them stick. As for not always taking his own advice, Orwell grants as much in the articles.

EY has an article on Orwell. http://lesswrong.com/lw/jc/rationality_and_the_english_language/

But thanks for clarifying your objection. And it did give me a chance to clarify my position on Korzybski. I had to work hard to get past his writing style to get the value out of his work, which is considerable.

Comment author: JStewart 25 October 2011 05:56:35AM *  1 point [-]

Edit: Grouchymusicologist has already covered silly grammar-nazism, passives, and Strunk and White, complete with the Languagelog links I was looking for.

\25. Write like you talk. When possible, use small, old, Germanic words.

I think this one should be deleted. The first sentence of it is wrong as written, but the idea behind it is expressed clearly and sufficiently in #26 anyway. People do not talk in grammatical, complete sentences.

As for the second half, do you really look up etymologies as you write? I have only the vaguest sense of the origins of the vast majority of words in English, and this despite taking 5 years of French in school. This advice doesn't look like it was actually meant to be followed in any practical sense, and I would need some convincing that it's even a good idea.

\14. Almost always list things in threes, in ascending order of the word length of the list item.

This advice seems similarly quite arbitrary and unmotivated.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 25 October 2011 12:57:23PM 7 points [-]

You don't need to look up etymology to have a feeling for the sources of words. In general, the Germanic words are shorter, seem less academic, and have a lower proportion of vowels. Of course, it's possible to overdo it.

Comment author: [deleted] 25 October 2011 04:02:21PM 5 points [-]

This gave me so many jollies. Someone call up Seamus Heaney and have him put it into Anglo-Saxon verse.

In the workstead watching, we made a worldken;
A beholding of bits, their bulk and bindings...

Comment author: komponisto 25 October 2011 02:40:53PM 3 points [-]

This is beautiful:

Nor are stuff and work unakin. Rather, they are groundwise the same, and one can be shifted into the other. The kinship between them is that work is like unto weight manifolded by the fourside of the haste of light.

(You could almost call it "Einstein for Newton's era".)

Comment author: SilasBarta 25 October 2011 04:37:15PM 1 point [-]

Interesting: I knew German used (the equivalent) of "coalstuff" for carbon, but I didn't know they used "chokestuff" ("stickstoff") for nitrogen. Per the German wikipedia, that's due to its use in "choking out" flames.

Comment author: prase 25 October 2011 04:50:48PM 0 points [-]

And "sourstuff" for oxygen. Unfortunately they don't use "sunstuff" for helium though.

Comment author: Tripitaka 25 October 2011 04:52:22PM 1 point [-]

We also use "waterstuff" for hydrogen.

Comment author: prase 25 October 2011 03:56:19PM 0 points [-]

haste of light

"Speed" is Germanic, no need to replace this one.

Comment author: komponisto 25 October 2011 03:58:53PM *  1 point [-]

Perhaps it was meant as a replacement of "velocity".

("Weight" is used for "mass", making me suspect that something such as "heft" might be used for "weight", i.e. "force".)

Comment author: DSimon 25 October 2011 02:08:17PM *  0 points [-]

That usenet post is incredibly entertaining, thank you for linking it.

The firststuffs have their being as motes called unclefts. These are mightly small; one seedweight of waterstuff holds a tale of them like unto two followed by twenty-two naughts.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 25 October 2011 04:49:38PM *  2 points [-]

Excuse me if I'm telling people things they already know, but it's a quote of a short article which is also available in books. Poul Anderson was one of the major golden age sf writers (both fantasy and science fiction), and quite possibly worth looking up-- a lot of his work has been reprinted by NESFA and Baen.

I'm not sure what the best Anderson for rationalists would be, maybe "The Three-Cornered Wheel". I'm very fond of his A Midsummer Tempest-- alternate history set in a universe where everything Shakespeare wrote was literally true. Check out Three Hearts and Three Lions if you want to see what golden age pacing looks like-- it's a short novel, a lot happens in it, and I think a contemporary writer would have puffed it up into six long novels.

Vernor Vinge and GRR Martin's writing remind me of Anderson-- there's something about the style of description and the way heroism is constructed.

Comment author: lukeprog 22 July 2013 05:55:01AM 0 points [-]

Also see Pinker's talk "The Sense of Style: Scientific Communication for the 21st Century", a preview of his upcoming book on writing style.

Comment author: OnTheOtherHandle 14 November 2012 04:18:00AM *  0 points [-]

I found that the book Made to Stick was very helpful, especially for conveying statistics and other data with the right emotional context to make people care.

Edit: I guess I scanned instead of reading - I didn't see on my first read that you did include the SUCCESS formula from Made to Stick. Sorry about that.

Comment author: Larkus 31 October 2011 08:29:19PM *  0 points [-]

lukeprog wrote: "Now: What are your favorite pieces of writing advice?"

"On Style" by Arthur Schopenhauer

German original: http://aboq.org/schopenhauer/parerga2/stil.htm

English translation: http://tinyurl.com/68oajcg

Excerpt: "It would generally serve writers in good stead if they would see that, whilst a man should, if possible, think like a great genius, he should talk the same language as everyone else. Authors should use common words to say uncommon things. But they do just the opposite. We find them trying to wrap up trivial ideas in grand words, and to clothe their very ordinary thoughts in the most extraordinary phrases, the most far-fetched, unnatural, and out-of-the-way expressions. Their sentences perpetually stalk about on stilts. They take so much pleasure in bombast, and write in such a high-flown, bloated, affected, hyperbolical and acrobatic style that their prototype is Ancient Pistol, whom his friend Falstaff once impatiently told to say what he had to say 'like a man of this world'."

Comment author: Peacewise 31 October 2011 03:18:55PM 0 points [-]

You might also consider adding Isaac Asimov to your list of great science writers. Asimov's New Guide To Science, though a touch dated now is still an excellent read across many fields.

If you're willing to step outside academia then check out Edward DeBono also, he will fit in beautifully with the SUCCESS formula you present.

Comment author: spuckblase 26 October 2011 08:12:47AM 0 points [-]

At least 29 and 32 are process advice, too.

31: Anything can be done in dialogue (cf. Plato), but probably shoudn't.

22: Reader of blogs or of papers? What's the target audience?

Further points:

  • Avoid formulas
  • Use key words, catch phrases, highlighting.
  • Use a Summary and/or Conclusion where possible.
Comment author: DoubleReed 25 October 2011 08:01:48PM *  0 points [-]

Personally, I'm very much against the idea of writing down "whatever horrible shit comes out of you." Maybe it's me personally. I think it's faster to actually outline, revise, develop, revise, etc. in a much more cyclical manner. Planning can break the looming threat of writer's block. Quite often, I won't have enough ideas to start to get anywhere in a worthwhile manner.

Instead, I want to flesh out the major ideas and develop them as much as I can along the entirety of your work. Write out parts here and there to determine what the direction of the development is.

Ideas are comparatively cheap. It's the development and details of ideas that can be difficult. So you need to give yourself room to make those developments.

Comment author: Vaniver 27 October 2011 02:39:13PM 2 points [-]

Personally, I'm very much against the idea of writing down "whatever horrible shit comes out of you." Maybe it's me personally.

Creators seem to cluster as conceptual or experimental. Conceptual creators work well with outlines; experimental creators work well with revisions.

Comment author: wedrifid 25 October 2011 08:04:08PM 0 points [-]

Personally, I'm very much against the idea of writing down "whatever horrible shit comes out of you."

&

Comment author: malthrin 25 October 2011 07:54:17PM 0 points [-]

Thanks for posting this list. I've also been feeling this lately:

Also, it appears I produce better writing without really trying than most people produce with trying.

What are you doing to practice on a regular basis? I'm active on several forums, which are great for snapping out brief (1-3 paragraph) blurbs of persuasive text. I've been wondering what the next step should be. Start a blog and make it part of my routine to post every day? How does that square with revising appropriately, though?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 25 October 2011 01:16:21PM 0 points [-]

Thanks for this.

Both your links on point 21 are to the same page.

Would you care to take a crack at how much and what sort of redundancy is useful, and how to supply it? I think I err too much on the side of only saying things once.

The Hot Zone struck me as a perfect example of how non-fiction is written for a popular audience, especially the way it alternated between stories and abstraction. I don't know that's still current, or if fashions have changed.

Consensus from writers: your beta readers are much better at identifying problems than solving them. A beta reader who can report accurately on their own specific reactions is a treasure.

Tentative: think about what cognitive resources you're invoking. I realized that one of the reasons I don't like most milsf is that my ability at visualization for tactics is limited. I'll take the trouble for Tolkien, but not much of anyone else.

Discussion of skimming and fiction-- short version: there are people who skim sex scenes, action scenes, and/or description. No one skims dialogue.

Comment author: lukeprog 25 October 2011 03:43:02PM 0 points [-]

Both your links on point 21 are to the same page.

Fixed, thanks.