How To Write Well
Alex Danco, Scott Adams, Paul Graham, Scott Alexander, and Holden Karnofsky all say...
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Hey team! Played a bunch of spikeball this weekend. If you haven’t played yet, it’s well worth your $70.
Anywho, as we’ve been building Roote, I’ve been focusing more on how to build. As one specific instance of that, I wrote this piece on How To Write Well.
It synthesizes learnings from Alex Danco, Scott Adams, Paul Graham, Scott Alexander, and Holden Karnofsky. Hope it helps!
How To Write Well
When editing, look to cut.
Write in chunks.
Have fun with it.
1. Alex Danco's 5 Writing Tips
Write in parallel tracks using "meanwhile".
Meanwhile establishes parallel tracks of thought.
A, therefore B. Meanwhile, C, yet D is a more powerful way to communicate complex ideas than one-track linear writing.
When the punchline eventually comes, and those lines of thought collide into something interesting, you can make a better point than if you only had one track to work with.
Read your own writing.
The most important writing style to master is your own.
An hour spent reading your own writing will make every next thing you write maybe half a percent easier and half a percent faster.
It won’t feel like much at first, but it pays compound interest.
2. Scott Adams on The Day You Became A Better Writer
Write short sentences. Cut every word you can.
Writing is about clarity and persuasion.
The main technique is keeping things simple.
Simple writing is persuasive. A good argument in five sentences will sway more people than a brilliant argument in a hundred sentences. Don’t fight it.
Simple means getting rid of extra words. Don’t write, “He was very happy” when you can write “He was happy.” You think the word “very” adds something.
Write short sentences. Avoid putting multiple thoughts in one sentence. Readers aren’t as smart as you’d think.
3. Paul Graham on How To Write
Write simply. Remove all friction for reading.
I try to write using ordinary words and simple sentences.
That kind of writing is easier to read, and the easier something is to read, the more deeply readers will engage with it. The less energy they expend on your prose, the more they'll have left for your ideas.
And the further they'll read. Most readers' energy tends to flag part way through an article or essay. If the friction of reading is low enough, more keep going till the end.
And remember, if you're writing in English, that a lot of your readers won't be native English speakers. Their understanding of ideas may be way ahead of their understanding of English. So you can't assume that writing about a difficult topic means you can use difficult words.
When editing, focus on cutting words.
The other reason my writing ends up being simple is the way I do it. I write the first draft fast, then spend days editing it, trying to get everything just right. Much of this editing is cutting, and that makes simple writing even simpler.
4. Scott Alexander's Nonfiction Writing Advice
A. Break things into chunks.
Nobody likes walls of text. By this point most people know that you should have short, sweet paragraphs with line breaks between them. The shorter, the better. If you’re ever debating whether or not to end the paragraph and add a line break, err on the side of “yes”.
B. Be funny. Be yourself.
You’ve heard of microaggressions. Now try microhumor. It’s things that aren’t a joke in the laugh-out-loud told-by-a-comedian sense, but still put the tiniest ghost of a smile on your reader’s face while they’re skimming through them.
Here’s a paragraph from my “about” page:
Topics here tend to center vaguely around this meta-philosophical idea of how people evaluate arguments for their beliefs, and especially whether this process is spectacularly broken in a way that may or may not doom us all.
C. Lead with specifics, follow with abstraction.
See Julia Evans and Grant Sanderson's similar point here.
If you’re going to be making a very complicated point, start with a lot of concrete examples.
When I wrote Meditations on Moloch, probably the most complicated point I’ve ever tried to express on this blog, I began with fourteen different examples before I even started trying to express the underlying principle.
If you want to convince someone of a meta-level principle, you need to build it up from examples that support it.
And if you want the principle to be well-founded and stable under reflective equilibrium, you also need to present the examples that don’t support it and explain why you didn’t make your principle out of those instead.
Free tip for this: use words like “me” and “you” instead of “a person” or “someone”.
D. Use metaphor. Use images. Use memes.
The idea of concept-handles is itself a concept-handle; it means a catchy phrase that sums up a complex topic.
Eliezer Yudkowsky is really good at this. See “belief in belief“, “semantic stopsigns“, “applause lights“, “Pascal’s mugging“, “adaptation-executors vs. fitness-maximizers“, “reversed stupidity vs. intelligence“, “joy in the merely real”.
5. Holden Karnofsky's Honesty About Reading
Make your writing easy to skim. Use bold. Use bullets.
Skimming is necessary, even good. Writers should accommodate it, readers should own it.
There’s way too much to read.
Complementarily, authors should try to make life easy for readers who do not want to carefully read every word of their piece.
They should have easy-to-find sections of their piece that summarize and/or outline their arguments, with clear directions for which parts of the piece will give more detail on each point.
They shouldn’t force or expect readers to wade through all their prose to find a TL;DR on what they are arguing, what their main evidence is, why it matters, and what their responses to key objections are.
Please send me other writing advice you've found helpful. I recognize that I don't have much advice here from women. I'd love more. Thank you!
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