Writing Style and the Typical Mind Fallacy

by lukeprog 1 min read14th Jul 201376 comments


For a long time, Eliezer has been telling me I should write more like he does. I've mostly resisted, preferring instead to write like this:

  1. Explain the lesson of the post immediately, and outline the ideas clearly with lots of headings, subheadings, lists, etc.
  2. State the abstract points first, then give concrete examples.
  3. Provide lots of links and references to related work so that readers have the opportunity to read more detail about what I'm trying to say (in case it wasn't clear in a single sentence or paragraph), or read the same thing from a different angle (in case the metaphors and language I used weren't clear to that reader).
Eliezer talks as though his style is simply better writing, while I've complained that I often can't even tell what his posts are saying.

I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that it wasn't until sometime last month that I realized that, obviously, different people prefer each style, and Eliezer and I were both falling prey to the typical mind fallacy.


At the recent Effective Altruism Summit I tried to figure out which personal features predicted writing style preference.

One hypothesis was that people who read lots of fiction (like Eliezer) will tend to prefer Eliezer's story-like style, while those who read almost exclusively non-fiction (like me) will tend to prefer my "just gimme the facts" style. This hypothesis didn't hold up well on my non-scientific survey of ~10 LW-reading effective altruists.

Another hypothesis was that most people would prefer Eliezer's more exciting posts, while people trained in the sciences or analytic philosophy (which insist on clear organization, definitions, references to related work, etc.) would prefer my posts. This hypothesis fared a bit better, but not by much.

Another hypothesis was that people who had acquired an epiphany addiction would prefer Eliezer's style, whereas those who just want to learn everything efficiently would prefer my style. But I didn't test this.

Another hypothesis that occurs to me is that people with short attention spans could prefer my more skimmable style. But I haven't tested this.

Perhaps the community would like to propose some hypotheses, and test them with LW polling?