Effective Writing

by diegocaleiro1 min read18th Jul 201429 comments


Personal Blog

Granted, writing is not very effective. But some of us just love writing...

Earning to Give Writing: Which are the places that pay 1USD or more dollars per word?

Mind Changing Writing: What books need being written that can actually help people effectively change the world?

Clarification Writing: What needs being written because it is only through writing that these ideas will emerge in the first place?

Writing About Efficacy: Maybe nothing else needs to be written on this.

What should we be writing about if we have already been, for very long, training the craft? What has not yet been written, what is the new thing?

The world surely won't save itself through writing, but it surely won't write itself either.


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Mind Changing Writing: What books need being written that can actually help people effectively change the world?

A rationalist fiction book where the main character learns CBT techniques to get out of his depression. He does those things laid out in the Feeling Good handbook and maybe a bunch of mental techniques that got invented later.

What's the best way to improve at writing? I was surprised at how much harder it is a few years out of school.

Unfortunately, there aren't too many ways to cheat the learning curve. "Write a lot" really is the first-order answer, and it's usually the one given by professionals that don't stand to make any money from their answer. Writing workshops and other 'accelerants' seem to be very questionable.

A friend who was recently signed as a science fiction author at Tor suggests that you could try compressing things that you have already written. Take something like a blog post, and express the same ideas and content using half the words. This will help with clarity and concision, as you get better at the exercise- one of the telltale signs of an amateur writer is that they use words inefficiently.

What I am doing is to express myself using Twitter. Plenty of times I noticed that I want to use more characters than allowed and that I need to cut down on my writing. With time I'll allow myself to move on to larger formats.

Sharpening the one-liner skills is definitely worth it. I got on Usenet and my sentence quality went through the roof.

OTOH, my ability to write anything over five coherent paragraphs atrophied and I had to relearn it.

No point in using many words for what can be said in few.

Personally I crige every time I read a book or blog post where it is more than obvious that the author's point can be summarised in a couple of sentences. Though it might be a weakness of my mind that I have nothing to write about that would warrant a blog post of its own or anything longer than two sentences.

The Twitter therapy in general is for people who like to have extreme challenges and find it difficult to use fewer words. In school it was a mystery to me how people could write so much about the exact same assignment I did, where I used about 50% fewer words. The teacher went on to institute a minimum and a maximum word count to reign in these excesses. Granted, writing an essay consisting of only 150 words is extreme, but to stay competitive in today's information overloaded world requires authors to be brief, to make their point very clear from the beginning, to use only the exact words they need. Longer, more foreign arguments need longer text, but most thought I have seen is not complex enough to warrant that much text.

No matter how brief you think you are, there are superfluous words, as I tried to show with the three paragraphs above.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

I read your third paragraph and thought "this sounds like my writing" :-(

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"Read a lot" is actually the first-order answer.

"Read a lot" is actually the first-order answer.

Assume moderate literacy for an academically inclined individual. Hypothesis: "Read a lot" is less valuable than "Write a lot" which in turn less valuable than "Read and write a lot".

Zeroth-order, maybe.

Things that aren't typically suggested that worked for me and may generalize:

I. Read mediocre writing. If you only read good writing, you can't tell what makes it good; it just looks like all writing is good. By comparing good writing to mediocre (or bad) writing, you can see what the good writers did that the mediocre writers didn't (or, as is often the case, what the mediocre writers did that the good writers didn't). My writing only started improving after getting out of English class and replacing cultured reading with mediocre fanfiction.

You want to spend time in the position of the reader, thinking to yourself "I wish that the author had written this part differently," so when you're doing your own writing, you notice when you do the same mediocre thing, you change it.

Good, professional writing is what you seek to emulate, so reading it is valuable. However, it covers up the drafting process, which is how you actually get there. This is somewhat analogous to math, where you want your proofs to look like the ones in the textbook, but the way you generate such proofs is much messier.

(EDIT: As has been discussed below, reading mediocre writing is, by itself, probably a bad idea. The value comes when you deliberately train yourself to recognize bad things and how to make them good.)

II. Spend time in writing communities. I've gleaned a lot of value by reading a blog that reviews MLP fanfic, mostly from getting three doses of "this writer did this and this, but it didn't work for these reasons" a week. More recently, I joined a proofreading team, where one of my co-betas yelled at the rest of us about hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes, resulting in me finally using them correctly (and learning how to type them, which depends on your system).

III. SICP. Computer programs are complex. Only reason we can write them is that we've developed some sophisticated complexity-controlling techniques, which SICP covers. These techniques generalize to other areas, like math, physics, and, most importantly, writing. I spent years unable to write anything coherent longer than 500 words until Dr. Abelson started talking to me about wishful thinking and black-box abstraction.

IV. Learn to type. You will (1) type faster, (2) use better technique, thereby reducing injury potential, (3) hit the wrong key less often, reducing the base rate of typos and unnecessary keystrokes, (4) be able to look at the screen, which means you (a) will notice more of the typos that get through, (b) can see what you've written, and (c) have better ergonomics, and (5) you'll achieve automaticity, which will free up cognitive resources for other things. This, I think, is another area where programmers are ahead of writers, even though they should be doing essentially the same thing.

Standard recommendations that bear repeating: read Strunk and White and, if you don't have any writing of your own to work on, beta read somebody else's writing.

I. Read mediocre writing. If you only read good writing, you can't tell what makes it good; it just looks like all writing is good.

Doesn't anyone who spends a decent amount of time on the internet these days have a lot of contact with mediocre writing?

I think it works for fanfic. Certainly does for music. Some ideas, you don't realise how bad they can be without seeing.

It's the same with teaching: You never know in how many ways an argument can be wrong until you grade 25 assignments in a row.

Humans make a lot of their choices via the availability heuristic. Being exposed to bad writing can make those trains of thought more available in your mind. I would be wary of it.

When I switched schools I got into an English class with a lot of people who were bad at it. I noticed that I copied some of their mistakes.

This produces interesting results in music: musically talented people who take a mediocre form and turn out something really good from it. c.f. the fans of terrible hardcore punk in the '80s who turned into the grunge scene, Nirvana and cohorts.

Doesn't anyone who spends a decent amount of time on the internet these days have a lot of contact with mediocre writing?

Yes. I question the merit of that advice too. "Read a lot, the best books possible" as a strategy will still result in reading far more mediocre writing than optimal.

You know how bad the worst released stuff is? That's still the good stuff - the bottom of the barrel is at least in the barrel. The slush pile has horrors. Worst is the stuff that's just ... not good. Being able to identify why helps you learn from others.

Read Strunk and White with a sharp critical eye. Most of their book gives style recommendations, not normative grammar.

Not to mention, style recommendations dreamed up based on spurious nonsense about what is and is not grammatical and which are noticeably not followed by any good writer.

My writing only started improving after getting out of English class and replacing cultured reading with mediocre fanfiction.

Same thing in music - I'd do stuff in my own terrible demos, then hear other people's terrible demos and go "... ah, that's why good music doesn't do that." It's like there's a whole heap of bad ideas that people try out, and mediocre works are where you'll find the mistakes of others to learn from.

(It used to be a lot harder to find terrible demos before the Internet. The slush pile at the local community radio station helped, for example. Even the bottom 10% of a review pile - my previous sample of the bottom of the barrel - was at least in the barrel.)

I can't speak to "best," but I suggest reading Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams, which crystallizes lots of non-trivial components of "good writing." (The link is to an older, less expensive edition which I used.)

I'll also second "write a lot" and "read a lot." Reading closely and with purpose in mind will speed up the latter (as opposed to the default of throwing books at your brain and hoping to pick up good writing by osmosis). Also, read good writers.

Write in a environment where you have the time to review what you wrote and edit your work. At best have someone else read it and give you suggestions about what you can improve.

I write quite a lot but at the moment don't do enough editing and peer feedback. I have probably written 10,000 online forum posts totaling more than a million words but my writing still isn't where I want it to be.

Write a lot. Lots and lots. Do it where people can see you. ciphergoth just tweeted this link on suggestions of how to fill a blog. Writing makes you better at writing.

One thing that helped me a lot was writing fanfiction. For me, it was good training wheels, since I didn't have to explain the character or the world to a reader, and could try to tell stories without having to be good at everything at once. (I mean, I even wrote filks using Avril Lavigne lyrics to carry part of the plot!) It let me futz around thinking about how to structure a story and what words to choose without getting stalled out by other skills.

Also, practice just telling stories out loud! Tell people about your day, retell good anecdotes you've heard, etc for good practice with narratives and editing with high bandwith, rapid feedback (other people's faces!)

Writing is not very effective? Perhaps you meant "not very efficient"? The right thoughts at the right time given to the right person have had extremely profound effects throughout history (e.g. Karl Marx. Notice I said "profound", not necessarily "good") However, the percentage of reading that results in profound effects is very small.

I think it would be very interesting to compose a reading list, or a reading decision tree, that is as short as possible while communicating the most important possible ideas to someone, especially a young person.

What I mean't is " the percentage of reading that results in profound effects is very small"

[-][anonymous]7y 1

Being misunderstood (false positive) is worse than being disagreed with. Reduce that error first.

Revise and clarify.

Never speak of your writing until it is done.

This is some of what led to my being in 20+ books, so I have that many data point to suggest success (in getting published)...