Cross-posted from my new blog

Recently, I gave a few people some advice on how to write well. Below is that advice.

 

What is it to write well?

  1. Have a thought.
  2. Get that thought from your head to someone else’s.

 

What is a thought? 

In this community, a ‘thought’ tends to be some idea. But, thoughts are not synonymous with ideas. Some thoughts are vibes, forms of inspiration, emotions, etc.

 

Can’t writing itself come before step (1) of the above?

You can write to think, but that kind of writing is profoundly different from the writing I discuss here: writing to clarify your own thought is not writing to get your thought to someone else.

 

Must I have thoughts to write well? How can I get thoughts?

It is outside the scope of this piece to teach you to have thoughts. But, until you do, you can’t write well. You really must have something to say.

 

I have a thought. How do I get it in someone else’s head?

Specific advice

  1. Every word has a unique meaning or a unique set of connotations. Use words precisely. Don’t think about big words or small words—think about which particular word you mean.
  2. This will generally lead to clear writing. Other things also tend to help. For example, clear writing usually entails good grammar. Often, I say things like “we can always break grammar rules if it sounds better”—and this is perfectly true. But, unless you genuinely understand the point of the grammatical rules and why they’re there, you’re probably better off nearly always following them. Grammar rules can be modelled well as Chesterton’s Fences.
  3. There are several books excellent at teaching grammar. My own favourite is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (various editions exist, all do the job). I’ve heard other things are good, e.g. Pinker’s stuff (according to someone I like) but I haven’t read it.
  4. A common issue I see in this community is something broadly called a reference problem. An example: “Alice ran a workshop, which Barbara attended. She really enjoyed the entire process and event.” Which person does ‘she’ refer to? Alice, or Barbara? I often see this kind of error, usually with words such as ‘it’ and ‘this’. Rationalists don’t usually overcomplicate, but an idea is only simple if I can figure out which specific nouns we’re talking about.
  5. For good writing, clear writing is usually necessary but insufficient. Do not get so bogged down in clear writing that you forget good writing—warm writing, or inviting writing, or writing which evokes a specific feeling through non-specific imagery. Recall my earlier point about getting your thought into your reader’s mind. That thought might not always be propositional content. Getting your personality or emotion across can be important too.
  6. A sentence is a particular kind of thing. It should contain one idea. Each idea should be encapsulated in its sentence. Connected sentences should be strung together, one after another, to build a broader idea. That single broader idea belongs in a single paragraph. Do not split ideas unnecessarily; and certainly do not combine them.
  7. Each sentence should make sense in its place. You should be able to quickly and cleanly note why one sentence is where it is in its paragraph, and justify why it isn’t somewhere else.
  8. A common tip, with some use, is to think of verbs as the driving force of sentences. Don’t think about a sentence in terms of merely its noun. I don’t think ‘I’m going to write a sentence about a cat’. I think ‘I’m going to write a sentence about a cat running’. 
  9. Another note on common rationalist and EA writing. One can write about X; and one can write about the activity of interacting with the idea X. Example: ‘X is great.’; or, ‘I’ve come to think that X is great’. Both are fine, but they are different, and you should think about which you would like to convey to your reader.
  10. And another note on rationalist and EA writing. There is this thing where, like, we like to use little words because it seems like it helps us think clearly. This is not always, like, awful, but I’ve started to feel like it’s a bit overused. In particular, I think it mixes up the act of writing for oneself with the act of writing for others. 
  11. Signposting is very good. Think of phrases like ‘I mention this because’, ‘At first, this might seem irrelevant, but it is actually relevant, because…’. Similarly, structure is also good—sequence ideas in a logical way.

 

Less-specific advice

  1. Read a lot—and, in particular, read those authors you’d like to write like. And try to avoid reading too much of those authors you wouldn’t like to write like.
  2. When you write, think about both the genre and the audience. Good writing in one genre, or for one audience, looks very different than good writing in another genre or for another audience.
  3. Get people around you to edit your work. Getting writers to edit your work is probably the fastest way to improve. It’s also a great way to build friendships and clarify your thinking. I’m relatively harsh. But, if you’re confident that I won’t make you hate me or make you miserable by being absurdly critical, then shoot me a message—I’d probably be delighted to edit. At the very least, it’d make me happy to read what you have to say. 

 

Thanks to Evgeny and mishajw for helpful comments.

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11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:00 PM

Interesting points. I think the specific advice here is particularly useful for eliminating mistake in expression. That is, to ensure that your reader is receiving from the page the impression you are intending him to, and that you are actually communicating what you think you are. I suppose that is quite precisely what you intend to assist with when noting that this advice is aimed at fulfilling your posited 2nd objective in writing well.

However, I can't help but feel there is a bit of a leap occuring within this article, between the intro and the provision of advice. Not that the advice is not highly useful, or that following it would not lead to this desired objective of better writing (I personally think point (1) from your less-specific advice to be a crucial directive), but the listed advice seems to assume not only that one has a thought, but also that one's thought has at least some kind of expressable form. 

I think there are, or at least it is useful to conceive of there being, quite a few steps between the formation of a thought and its realization in an expressable language. In a way, all of our expressions are imperfect representations of our internal ideas that have come about as a function of our learned process in transforming intuitions and tendencies into words and phrases. I think, therefore, that perhaps the most crucial steps in 'good writing' do not occur close to the final stages of the realization, where we are re-configuring our expressions, choosing between essentially analogous (to us) expressions to ensure we squash potential misinterpretations. Instead, these most crucial steps are likely in the more sub-conscious, primary stages, where we make the most foundational decisions about our expression, before we even have any potential wording of it before us for consideration for alteration.

One could perhaps subsume all of this into step (1) as all part of the thought-forming process. But that, I think, would be to pile in the initial formation of an idea with our formation of how we can express it, which are intuitively different functions.

Not to say this leap is any real issue with this post, of course. I wonder what you think about the need to analyse and find improvement mechanisms for these intermediate stages between thoughts and concreted forms of expression (writing).

My main takeaway from your comment is that not all thoughts are of an expressible form, and that there’s a pre-writing step where inexpressible thoughts sometimes become expressible ones.

Before your comment, I would’ve considered the step you discuss part of step (1) of the intro (‘have a thought’). But, I think you make a good point about the end of idea formation being separable from the end of clarifying that idea into a potentially communicable thing—and about both being separable from the act of actually communicating the thing (e.g. writing). 

Obviously, the borders between the three steps (or kinds of steps?) are vague and somewhat arbitrary. But, you make an interesting point, and I for one would be curious to see an attempt at a more precise delineation.

(A digression: I would also be curious how your idea fits with the distinction between thinking something and thinking that one thinks something. Have you thought about this? I’d *maybe* consider looking at some stuff in epistemology about knowing X and knowing that one knows X.) 

That's a good summary of the main thrust of my comment. I am very glad to have had an influence on your position here!

On these steps being vague and perhaps arbitrary, I think this primarily arises from the difficulties we experience in observing the functions of our own mind. Using examples, though, I think we can discover some aspects of these steps in our thought-formation (sorry if this is getting a little far from the initial topic of writing advice!).

If I see a mug precariously perched on the edge of a table, and that table then shakes, causing the mug to teeter over, I think to myself "that mug is about to fall off the table and onto the floor". Except I don't. Not really. The real content of my thought is not that phrase in english, not unless I am actively trying to have an inner monologue in language, or considering communicating this fact to someone else in the room. But nevertheless that phrase would be an accurate description of my thought - so what's going on there?

To borrow from my very limited knowledge of neuroscience, I think one could replace each of the words in that sentence with a particular web of neurons. Each of those webs would contain my collective understanding of the concepts - 'mug', 'table', 'falling' et cetera. But the thoughts are not in and of themselves those words - it is only when I activate an adjacent web, the web used for expressing those conceptions, that they are crystallised into a thought in language.

The extent to which that conception rings true for you, I think, is the extent to which you can intuitively agree with the need to differentiate these steps as distinct (the step of adjusting the form of the expression would be beyond this as another distinct action). What do you think?

Unfortunately my awareness of epistemology is rather limited. My intuition tells me that "I think x" and "I think I think x" are two distinct, different thoughts in the same format -  they are both a conscious conception about some object. In the latter, your mind is treating itself, temporarily, as the object. Do tell me if I have misunderstood the distinction you were representing here.

What is it to write well?

  1. Have a thought.
  2. Get that thought from your head to someone else’s.

I came to the same conclusion before reading this post and even phrased it similarly in my head. I strongly agree.

I’ve heard other things are good, e.g. Pinker’s stuff

Can you be more specific? I doubt you're talking about Enlightenment Now, for instance.

There is this thing where, like, we like to use little words because it seems like it helps us think clearly. This is not always, like, awful, but I’ve started to feel like it’s a bit overused.

I don't understand what mistake you're pointing to here.

read those authors you’d like to write like

Do you have any recommendations?

The point of point 10 is that overusing words like ‘like’ or choosing simple, possibly-inexact words can cause problems. In particular, it can cause writing to stray from being about the idea to being about the interaction with the idea (see point 9), it can set the wrong kind of vibe (communicate the wrong emotive thought to the reader), and it can occasionally obscure the logical content. I think using ‘like’ and deliberately simplified language is great when one is thinking through one’s ideas, but I think it often makes writing less sharp (less bell-like, if that simile resonates). 

Pinker has a book about writing called The Sense of Style

Don’t think about big words or small words—think about which particular word you mean.

I think this is good advice for most people who are used to being forced to use big words by school systems, but I personally follow a different version of this.

I see compression as an important feature of communication, and there are always tradeoffs to be made between

  1. Making my sentence short
  2. Conveying exactly what I want to say.

And sometimes I settle with transferring a "good enough" version of my idea, because communicating all the hairy details takes too much time / energy / social credit. I'm always scared of taking too much of people's attention or overrunning their working memory.

There are certainly always tradeoffs, but sometimes clarity can help save time/social credit simultaneously, since in a lot of cases making someone truly use their own brain is a bigger ask than just reading another sentence or two.

Second the recommendation for Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style. His own summary here: https://davidlabaree.com/2021/07/08/pinker-why-academics-stink-at-writing/

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader so she can see for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. The writer and the reader are equals: The reader can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. And the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.

Most academic writing, in contrast, is a blend of two styles. The first is practical style, in which the writer’s goal is to satisfy a reader’s need for a particular kind of information, and the form of the communication falls into a fixed template, such as the five-paragraph student essay or the standardized structure of a scientific article. The second is a style that Thomas and Turner call self-conscious, relativistic, ironic, or postmodern, in which “the writer’s chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naïveté about his own enterprise.”

That single broader idea belongs in a single paragraph. Do not split ideas unnecessarily; and certainly do not combine them.

That's interesting, I usually don't think about this when writing. I will in the future.

On using words precisely: I find it more useful to think about how the reader will use the text to make an inference about what's going on in my head. Of course words have official labels that say what they are supposed to mean, but in pratice what matters is how you think I think, and how I think you think I think (you'll recognize a Schelling point). This may be correlated with the dictionary definitions, but it doesn't have to. For example, the word pratice doesn't exist, yet you can understand the meaning of this paragraph just as precisely as if I had written practice. Maybe it's just my experience, but thinking in this way makes writing feel less constrained.

There are several books excellent at teaching grammar. My own favourite is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (various editions exist, all do the job).

While precise grammar is appropriate for some audiences, I would discourage valuing it too highly. If the central characteristic of writing well is to put an idea in somebody else's head, then shouldn't we optimize for efficiency?

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