Contrarian Writing Advice

by lsusr2 min read7th Mar 202113 comments

49

Writing (communication method)
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Daniel Kokotajlo points out that I write in ways that directly contradict standard writing advice.

Importance > Truth

Most writing revolves around whether is true. My writing revolves around whether is important. If is unimportant then you should not bother writing whether is true.

What you think about is more important than what you think. Most writing implies "we should talk about ". My writing often implies "we should not talk about ".

Clean logical chains

A single logical argument is sufficient to prove the truth value of a statement. Additional arguments are redundant. If I want to prove something is true then I write my best argument and stop. This maximizes cruxiness.

Cruxiness is a weakness a debate, which is why you don't see it in persuasive writing. Debates are dirty. A clean argument has nothing left to take away.

Write for an intelligent audience

No matter how carefully I write, there is always a chance someone will misinterpret it. When I spell things out so clearly only an idiot could misinterpret my words, the comments get worse because idiots misinterpret my words. On the other hand, when I fill my writing with differential equations, the only people with anything stupid to say are mathematicians and physics PhDs because they are the only ones confident enough to say anything at all. A lower bound is established.

There is a principle of marketing where you don't want to advertise your products to people who won't like them because then people will complain about you which is bad. Dumb people are less likely to misunderstand my complicated ideas when I abstain from dumbing them down.

Few Quotes

If I quote George Orwell then I imply that I couldn't come up with anything better to write than George Orwell. The reader should just read George Orwell instead.

Another reason to use quotes is to pass the buck. You can borrow authority on startups by quoting the expert Paul Graham. It's better to be an expert yourself. Einstein didn't need to quote Newton when he wrote about relativity.

Quotes are useful when they encapsulate someone else's large body of work. Such a reference functions like a DLL (dynamic link library).

Conclusion

The human brain is an opaque mass of connections. You cannot fully insulate the lies you tell from your model of reality. Persuasion is like lying. Pandering to others gunks up your internal model of reality.

I write to discover and explain. I do not write to persuade.

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13 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:58 PM
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Thanks for elaborating. I have a few disagreements:

1. Given a choice between thinking about more important topics, and thinking correctly, I think the answer is "alternate between trying to shift your thinking to more important topics, and thinking more correctly about the topics you are thinking about." If you don't do this, you are screwed.

2. Thinking about potential objections is not just a good dirty rhetoric trick. It's a good rationality tool for getting yourself to red-team your own arguments and views. Many times I've written the last sentence of an argument, and then thought "OK, time to anticipate objections... oh huh, now that I think about it objection X is pretty plausible, I should go think more." Plus it helps you rewrite your original argument to avoid stumbling into the objection, i.e. it helps to make your original argument more "clean logical chainy."

3. Yes, there will always be a chance of people misinterpreting. So? It's true that if your audience expands to include dumber people (or people who have less context and familiarity, or whatever) then the average comment quality will drop. But sometimes there are good reasons to want your writing to reach a wider audience! And often these reasons outweigh the cost of lower average comment quality.

4. If you quote G.Orwell it doesn't mean you can't come up with anything better to write; just that you can't come up with any better way to phrase the exact point that you are quoting him making. This is pretty common IMO. Analogy: "If you reuse someone else's code, that means you can't code any better than them. Therefore you shouldn't use libraries and whatnot, you should just do everything from scratch."

5. There are honest methods of doing persuasion, and it's very important that one master and employ these methods.

I agree with everything in your comment except the idea that we disagree.

  1. Yes. You're right.

  2. I do think about potential objections. If an objection is valid then I fix what I wrote. If an objection is plausible-sounding widely-believed and invalid then I ignore it.

  3. You're right.

  4. You're right. I don't understand what's different between your software library analogy and my DLL analogy. The idea that you should quote someone when "you can't come up with any better way to phrase the exact point" is something I almost included in my original post before deciding against. It is a valid point.

  5. Yes.

At the risk of being a misinterpreting idiot:

When I spell things out so clearly only an idiot could misinterpret my words, the comments get worse because idiots misinterpret my words.

Do you judge how successful a piece is by the quality of the comments it received? That strikes me as a strange metric to optimize for.

I could see this metric aligning with "discover", if you permit bad comments to waste your time. But I think you get more "explain" by writing for a broad audience. Maybe not "dumb", but at least "ignorant".

Even math PHDs prefer simple English before differential equations. See Eliezer on "aim high, shoot low": https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/2TPph4EGZ6trEbtku/explainers-shoot-high-aim-low

How could you not use comment quality as feedback? Often the alternative is no feedback at all

Of course, comment quality is an input into your overall feedback. But not the only input, and importantly not the main one, I think. (By "comment" here I'm thinking of "random internet strangers saying things about your article, eg here on Lesswrong.")

There are so many other sources of feedback, including:

  • how you yourself judge the article
  • feedback from people you trust
  • reshares, link backs, quotes of the article
  • up votes, views

Which I think should combine for a holistic evaluation of how well your particular article was received. Comments may be one of the easier metrics, but leaning on it too heavily runs afoul of "drunk looking under streetlight for keys"

I thought the bit about indirectly screening your commenters was very clever. I haven't written enough to know if it works the way you described, but it sounds very plausible

If I quote George Orwell then I imply that I couldn't come up with anything better to write than George Orwell. The reader should just read George Orwell instead.

But how do people know that they should read George Orwell rather than E.L. James? Quoting other authors is a little advertisement for that author, which can be a very valuable service for the reader.

Not sure how contrarian "Few Quotes" is. I've gotten that advice at least once in college. Then again, a lot of books (especially nonfiction) quote a bit too much, so maybe this is contrarian advice in such contexts.

I'm not sure I understand the first question. You demonstrate that you believe something is important via your actions by doing something about it. You imply that you believe something is important via your words by talking about it. I deal with truth > importance by deliberately not talking about things I think are unimportant.

It's possible for something to be clear while still gatekeeping. Mathematical proofs are perfectly clear (in the sense they are unambiguous) but gatekeeped in the sense there is a heavy burden of entry to even begin making sense of them.

All venues have some standard of behavior below which they'll kick you out. To paraphrase Mao, group norms emerge indirectly from this gun.

Many serious problems are virtually off limits to discussion.

Really? Like what? (You can private message me some examples.)

If I feel a topic will generate counterproductive comments then I just put it on my personal blog instead of Less Wrong. If I feel a topic is sensitive then I discuss it in private settings. I can neither confirm nor deny whether I use a separate pseudonym for truly sensitive topics.