Rhetoric for the Good

The topics of rationality and existential risk reduction need their own Richard Dawkins. Their own Darwin. Their own Voltaire.

Rhetoric moves minds.

Students and masochists aside, people read only what is exciting. So: Want to make an impact? Be exciting. You must be heard before you can turn heads in the right direction.

Thus, I've decided to try harder and actually put effort into the quality of my writing instead of just cranking stuff out quickly so I can fill in inferential gaps and get to the cutting edge of the research subjects I care about.

That's why I asked LWers for their picks of best nonfiction writing on Less Wrong.

It's also why I've been reading lots of good science writing, focusing on those who manage to be exciting while covering fairly complex subjects: Dawkins, Sagan, GleickZimmerShermer, Ramachandran, RoachSacks, Hawking, Greene, Hofstadter, Penrose, Wilson, Feynman, Kaku, Gould, Bryson, Pinker, Kurzban, and others.

I've also been re-reading lots of books and articles on how to write well: Keys to Great Writing, Style: Lessons in Clarity and GraceElements of Style, On Writing Well, The Classic Guide to Better Writing, The Book on WritingTelling True Stories, Writing Tools, Ideas into Words, The Chicago Guide to Communicating ScienceA Field Guide for Science WritersSix Rules for Rewriting, Writing, Briefly, and Singularity Writing Advice. (Conversations with Eliezer also helped.)

I don't know if I can become the Voltaire of rationality and existential risk reduction, but it seems worth a shot. Every improvement in writing style is beneficial even if my starry goal is never met. Also, it appears I produce better writing without really trying than most people produce with trying. (If you've ever had to grade essays by honors English seniors, you'll know what I mean.) I expect to gain more by striving where I already excel than by pushing where I have little natural talent.

(I won't try to write everything well. Sometimes I should just crank things out. To be honest, I didn't spend much time optimizing this post.)

My other hope is that a few other writers decide they would like to be the Voltaire of rationality and/or existential risk reduction. May this post be useful to them. It's a list of recommendations on writing style pulled from many sources, in no particular order.

  1. Begin in medias res (in the middle of things). Begin with movement. Excitement. Humor. Surprise. Insight. Explosions.
  2. Open with a question, and make your readers want to know the answer. Give the answer near the end.
  3. Outline with punchlines, not topics. A punchline is something that makes the reader feel: "Aha! I sure am glad I read that sentence."
  4. Tell stories about characters taking actions. Make the reader laugh and cry and sit in suspense at what will happen next.
  5. Every sentence should make the reader want to read the next sentence. End each paragraph in a way that makes the reader want to continue. End each section by posing an intriguing question answered in the next section. The moment your reader becomes bored is the moment she jumps to YouTube. Cats and skateboard accidents are more exciting than science and philosophy, even for Judea Pearl.
  6. Prefer brevity. Cut what isn't needed, or at least move it to an endnote.
  7. Always be wary of how much disbelief you're creating in the average reader, and keep that level low. You may need to add words and paragraphs to satisfy his or her skepticism. Don't merely state facts that your reader may disbelieve. Briefly describe an experiment that supports the fact. If you must say something that will trigger serious skepticism, build up lots of credibility first.
  8. Think through the post's emotional arc. In most cases, you'll want to keep readers happy, excited, and hopeful. In an article about effective charity, do not open with an example from Africa, because the words "Africa" and "charity" bring up feelings of guilt and hopelessness.
  9. Make positive points, not negative ones. Avoid "Someone is wrong in a journal!" Say instead: "Here's a solution to an old problem."
  10. Use a concrete-then-abstract pattern to pull readers forward. Start with a concrete example, probably more concrete than you feel it needs to be, and then make the more general point.
  11. When possible, let sentences point not just to the next sentence or paragraph, but to future sections.
  12. Favor surprise, as long as it doesn't engender too much disbelief. Avoid anything that lets the reader think, "I could have written that sentence." Avoid clichés.
  13. Write in the active voice when possible.
  14. Almost always list things in threes, in ascending order of the word length of the list item.
  15. Make sure your readers always know that the next paragraph and section will be valuable and exciting.
  16. Know your intended audience. Learn how they think and what they like to read. Tailor your writing to them.
  17. Beware the illusion of transparency and unexpectedly large inferential gaps. Due to these errors, writing aimed at high schoolers will hit university seniors.
  18. Use pictures.
  19. Avoid Engfish.
  20. Check the readability score of your writing. I aim for a Gunning Fog score between 8 and 13.
  21. Shorten your sentences and paragraphs. Replace semicolons with periods.
  22. Today's readers do not read. They scan. Make your text scannable.
  23. Distill significant ideas into potent, quotable sentences: "The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made of atoms it can use for something else."
  24. Identify every verb and ask if you can improve it, preferably in a way that lets you kill nearby adjectives and adverbs.
  25. Avoid simple mistakes of spelling, tense, etc.
  26. Find graceful ways to route around the horrors of the English language, like its lack of a gender-neutral personal pronoun.
  27. Write in plain talk. When possible, use small, old, Germanic words.
  28. Say aloud, to a friend or a stuffed animal, what you want to write. Write down what you said. After revising, read aloud and revise whatever sounds weird when spoken.
  29. Write and revise weeks in advance. Avoid the piece for a week. Then come back and revise again.
  30. As Paul Graham says: "Write for a reader who won't read the essay as carefully as you do, just as pop songs are designed to sound ok on crappy car radios." Hold their hand every step of the way. Remind them of what you just said, and tell them how each section fits into your larger points.
  31. Include human dialogue where possible. Spoken words are more natural to us than crafted prose, even though spoken words are inefficient.
  32. Show a very late draft to friends and ask which parts bore or confuse. Revise. If you find a good reader, bribe them to do you this favor again and again.
  33. Put the most impacting words at the end of a sentence.
  34. Follow the SUCCESS formula. Express your ideas with Simple (find the core), Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Stories.
  35. Imitate great writers who write to your audience.
  36. Build the reader's stake in your subject by writing about things that relate to their own lives, goals, dreams, and fears.
  37. Shape your reader's expectations so that when you get to Part B, you know what their next question is, and you can answer it. Otherwise they may have number of possible next questions or next objections, and you can't possibly answer them all.
  38. When introducing a new idea, open the sentence with old information and put the new stuff at the end.
  39. Obey these rules before you obey grammarians who say things like "Don't split infinitives" or "Don't begin sentences with And or But" and "Don't end a sentence with a preposition."

And, just one piece of process advice. Do not apply any of these rules while drafting. Instead, write down whatever horrible shit comes out of you and do it quickly. Then revise, revise, revise.

Now: What are your favorite pieces of writing advice?

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What are your favorite pieces of writing advice?

There's that quote about how "the most important thing is sincerity, and if you can fake that, you've got it made." So there are two equal and opposite commandments for popular writing. First, you've got to sound like you're chatting with your reader, like you're giving them an unfiltered stream-of-consciousness access to your ideas as you think them. Second, on no account should you actually do that.

Eliezer is one of the masters at this; his essays are littered with phrases like "y'know" and "pretty much", but they're way too tight to be hastily published first drafts (or maybe I'm wrong and Eliezer is one of the few people in the world who can do this; chances are you're not). You've got to put a lot of work into making something look that spontaneous. I'm a fan of words like "sorta" and "kinda" myself, but I have literally gone through paragraphs and replaced all of the "to some degrees" with "sortas" to get the tone how I wanted it.

I like inserting myself and my thought processes into things I write. It's a no-no in serious writing, but in informal writing it can emphasize the informality and become endearing, a sort of "we can take off the masks now, because we're all friends here". This only works if your personal asides are actually endearing to people, or at least not actively boring and off-putting, but if you get it right it lets you keep more spontaneity, since talking in first person is a natural impulse. As in everything, "first learn the rules and the reasons for them, then break them as much as you want".

The real meat of writing comes from an intuitive flow of words and ideas that surprises even yourself. Editing can only enhance and purify writing so far; it needs to have some natural potential to begin with. My own process here is to mentally rehearse an idea very many times without even thinking about writing. Once I'm an expert at explaining it to myself or an imaginary partner, then I transcribe the explanation I settle upon (some people say they don't think in words; I predict writing will not come naturally to these people). Then I edit the heck out of it.

The best way to improve the natural flow of ideas, and your writing in general, is to read really good writers so much that you unconsciously pick up their turns of phrase and don't even realize when you're using them. The best time to do that is when you're eight years old; the second best time is now.

Your role models here should be those vampires who hunt down the talented, suck out their souls, and absorb their powers. Which writers' souls you feast upon depends on your own natural style and your goals. I've gained most from reading Eliezer, Mencius Moldbug, Aleister Crowley, and G.K. Chesterton (links go to writing samples from each I consider particularly good); I'm currently making my way through Chesterton's collected works pretty much with the sole aim of imprinting his writing style into my brain.

Stepping from the sublime to the ridiculous, I took a lot from reading Dave Barry when I was a child. He has a very observational sense of humor, the sort where instead of going out looking for jokes, he just writes about a topic and it ends up funny. It's not hard to copy if you're familiar enough with it. And if you can be funny, people will read you whether you have any other redeeming qualities or not.

Getting imprinted with good writers like this will serve you for your entire life. It will serve you whether you're on your fiftieth draft of a thesis paper, or you're rushing a Less Wrong comment in the three minutes before you have to go to work. It will even serve you in regular old non-written conversation, because wit and clarity are independent of medium.

And it will also inform and limit your use of all the other rules above. Luke's fourth point - telling stories about characters taking actions - is a good one, but he very reasonably didn't start this post off with a story about some student working on a term paper. There have been a few LW posts that kind of seemed kludgy and artificial in adding characters and stories, and others that did it really well. Probably some very smart person could figure out why it succeeds somewhere and fails somewhere else, but it's easier to just cultivate the virtue that is nameless.

Some people say to write down everything and only edit later. I take the opposite tack. I used to believe that I rarely edited at all because I usually publish something as soon as it's done. Then a friend watching me write said that she was getting seasick from my tendency to go back and forth deleting and rewriting the same sentence fragment or paragraph before moving on. Most likely the best writers combine both editing methods.

Some people say to write down everything and only edit later. I take the opposite tack. I used to believe that I rarely edited at all because I usually publish something as soon as it's done. Then a friend watching me write said that she was getting seasick from my tendency to go back and forth deleting and rewriting the same sentence fragment or paragraph before moving on. Most likely the best writers combine both editing methods.

In the past, only the "edit later" method was even possible, because word processors didn't exist yet. There's really no longer any such thing as a "first draft" because we now tend to revise continuously instead of discretely.

Using a pencil and an eraser, unruled paper, and leaving lots of space between a line and the next (and, in extreme cases, a pair of scissors and some Scotch tape) you can do "incremental editing" (or a good approximation thereof) even without a computer.

(Even without scissors, you can draw a square around a paragraph you want to move and an arrow pointing to its new place, and stuff like that.)

Also, I've heard about people doing first drafts on note cards, which seems to allow for much easier editing of small passages as you go.

You can train yourself not to edit. It just takes practice.

Or a text editor that won't allow it:

stty erase ''; cat >>myessay

If you still want backspace, you can omit the first bit of that. If you still want to be able to edit within the current line:

rlwrap cat >>myessay

Edited to add:

Not that I necessarily think this is a good idea, but it might be an interesting thing to experiment with.

rlwrap is especially useful if you have a tendency to say almost exactly the same thing over and over again. Just press the up arrow, and a copy of what you wrote before appears, allowing you to say almost exactly the same thing over and over again.

Actually, never mind, that's silly.

Thanks for the Moldbug link-- it's the first thing I've read of his which didn't seem to be soaked in malice and pointlessly obscure.

One thing good writers have in common is that they convey a sense that the world is interesting. I'm not sure what the method is, though possibly Eric Raymond's idea (which I've heard him apply to speeches, but which probably also applies to text) is that frequent changes of tone are essential. It also (unlike the intimate tone) may be something that can't be faked.

This is an honest question-- is there a difference between writing that's simply a pleasure to read, and writing which gets people to do things? It's probable that the latter is a subset of the former.

First, you've got to sound like you're chatting with your reader, like you're giving them an unfiltered stream-of-consciousness access to your ideas as you think them. Second, on no account should you actually do that.

Eliezer is one of the masters at this; his essays are littered with phrases like "y'know" and "pretty much", but they're way too tight to be hastily published first drafts (or maybe I'm wrong and Eliezer is one of the few people in the world who can do this; chances are you're not). You've got to put a lot of work into making something look that spontaneous.

This is also important to keep in mind when writing fictional dialogue - the reader has to perceive the conversation as authentic, forgetting that people don't actually tend to speak in a manner that would be at all interesting to read. Basically, you have to borrow the tone of a real conversation by keeping only about 5-10% of the interjections and filler, and using them only when it helps keep a statement believable.

  1. Begin in medias res

I think you mean "2. Begin in medias res".

34. Obey these rules before you obey grammarians, who say things like "Don't split infinitives" or "Don't begin sentences with And or But" and "Don't end a sentence with a preposition."

Real grammarians, i.e. linguists who study the grammar of English as it is, teach us that these aren't actually rules of grammar anyway, so much as prescriptions that were made up out of whole cloth for various reasons and that never had much to do with the way English was spoken or written. Here, for example, is an index of postings on Language Log (a group blog run by several professional linguists) about the split-infinitive issue. (The well-known story of this silly prescription was that it was decided in the 18th century that, since you can't split infinitives in Latin [Latin infinitives are a single word], you shouldn't split them in English either.)

Relatedly, the passive in English has a bad reputation that is not very well deserved. See here for a full explanation by the author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

You'd think this was just so much nitpicking -- and to some extent it is -- but understanding these issues fully can help you make better rhetorical use of English. This is particularly true of the passive -- the article I linked above explains how passive and active versions of the same clause help us place emphasis in a sentence exactly where it will do us the most good. (As such, I think the strongest version of your point 13 that I could endorse would be "Understand clearly the difference between active and passive, and choose between them advisedly.")

One more point which I raise not least because it's a stunningly entertaining read: the same author's (Geoff Pullum's) "The Land of the Free and The Elements of Style" (PDF), an utter demolition of the grammar advice given in Strunk and White's book. This is NOT to say that S&W's stylistic advice should be thrown out as well, but Pullum certainly establishes that (a) they have absolutely no idea what they're talking about when grammar is concerned, and that (b) they follow almost none of their own grammatical or stylistic prescriptions, so the whole thing should be taken with a grain of salt. Read Pullum's article if you enjoy a well-deserved poison pen book review and would like to learn a few things about English grammar in the process.

I hesitate to counter your nitpicking with more nitpicking, but I do agree that "understanding these issues fully can help you make better rhetorical use of English". And so, I'd like to correct some of what you write about the split infinitive. The story is somewhat more subtle and interesting.

The well-known story of this silly prescription was that it was decided in the 18th century that, since you can't split infinitives in Latin [Latin infinitives are a single word], you shouldn't split them in English either.

This well-known story is actually a myth that has no factual basis. It is not true that the prohibition against split infinitives was decided in the 18th century (they started debating it mid-19th century), and more importantly none of the grammarians railing against it in those times based their arguments on anything to do with Latin. Never happened. The story seems to be a modern 20th-century invention, and has spread widely among those who oppose prescriptive grammarians because it makes them look very silly. It is repeated in many popular articles and books (e.g. Pinker's The Language Instinct), but for all that is completely untrue.

The interesting question, then, is - why did prescriptive grammarians of the 19th century start railing against the split infinitive, whereas the grammarians of the 18th century didn't much care about it? And the answer is, in the 18th century the split infinitive largely wasn't there. There are some examples we can find going back all the way to the 14th century, but they are rare examples. In fact, if you just read some random 18th century prose, you're likely to quickly run into phrases that sound a little awkward to the modern ear, because they seem to intentionally avoid splitting the infinitive. But those authors didn't try to write awkwardly or intentionally avoid the split infinitive (which wasn't known as a prohibition). They were using the conventions of their time in which it was a rarity.

In the 19th century the split infinitive started occurring more often (perhaps became a fad of sorts), and that's why the grammarians noticed it. Ever since then, despite all their efforts, it has only grown more popular and accepted. And yet minding your split infinitives is not bad advice to a writer (although wholesale rejection is decidedly silly), because, when overused, they tend to sound gimmicky and tinny (to forestall the obvious objection "anything is bad when overused": true, but split infinitives get there faster. You can't easily go wrong with sentences filled with "to X Y-ly", but do just a few "to Y-ly X" in a sequence, and it begins to look weird).

(I also disagree with your praise of Pullum's persistent critique of S&W; there's much criticism that can be made of that book, but it deserves criticism made in good faith. This blog post (not by me) offers a few clear examples of what I found distasteful in Pullum's bombastic approach.)

Thanks for the interesting comment and my apologies for having passed along an evident falsehood.

Real grammarians, i.e. linguists who study the grammar of English as it is, teach us that these aren't actually rules of grammar anyway, so much as prescriptions that were made up out of whole cloth for various reasons and that never had much to do with the way English was spoken or written.

But do also note that a lot of people do believe those prescriptions to be valid, and view breaking them to be low status. All the "singular they is fine" blog posts in the world are irrelevant if using singular they will annoy half your readers.

Of course, I tend to use singular they anyway. It's often the best alternative and I doubt that many people in my likely target audience will really care. But you should still know the biggest things that will annoy people, so that if you use them, it will be out of conscious choice and not of ignorance.

-16. Know your intended audience. Learn how they think and what they like to read. Tailor your writing to them.

Could stand more emphasis, in my opinion; this seems to be the overarching goal which subsumes the other advice. If your intended audience doesn't like in media res, for instance, don't do it.

I once had a professor that insisted that the construction "X. However, Y" was grammatically incorrect and forbade anyone in her class from using it.

Agree with all this. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grance also has pretty decent coverage of what you say above.

Also, I've removed the comma after "grammarians," which compactly addresses some of your "nitpicks."

I'm confused. Was grouchymusicologist's comment significantly different prior to editing? I don't see any issues with the way it is now. (I also don't see anything that isn't covered in Intro to Linguistics, but the links are good resources and the material generally bears repeating for a wider audience.)

I'm confused. I wouldn't call the above comment an example of some of the clearer writing on this site, but I don't find that anything about it significantly impedes my comprehension.

Although come to think of it, I've heard more or less the same points before, so maybe my perception of its clarity is corrupted by prior knowledge.

Was it the construction of the paragraph that you're found confusing, or the assumed prior knowledge of various grammatical disputes (splitting infinitives, passive vs. active, singular they)?

You're not helping to clarify what aspect of the comment made it seem like "Yes, yes, but [long, extremely detailed nitpick in academic-ese]" for people who didn't perceive it that way.

But my eyes cross and I clench my fists a little when comments consist of "Yes, yes, but [long, extremely detailed nitpick in academic-ese]." ...

Rationality and clear thinking should be as basic as Dick and Jane.

Provisionally agree in the general sense, but... should linguistics? (And what about physics?) I guess my objection is: if someone has an academic nitpick, why shouldn't it be phrased in the dialect of academia?

A lot of things (most things) on LW are about rationality and clear thinking, but some are about (and require) specialized knowledge. Conflating the two subjects by applying the same standards of discourse seems counterproductive.

Rationality and clear thinking should be as basic as Dick and Jane.

There is a cost to simplicity in terms of precision. There's a lot to be said about finding ways to convey your ideas with "beautiful simplicity" -- in the way often attributed to Feynman -- but some ideas just cannot be reduced to such a level, and some of those ideas are important.

Case in point: the differences between what a frequentist means by "probablity" and what a Bayesian means by "probability". The existential significance of the lack of curvature to the universe. (Sure, I could say, "Why its a big deal that spacetime is flat" -- but that's conveying a different range of meanings than the other statement, which if I hadn't already 'primed' you to that same understanding might've lead you to another conclusion.)

MWI, Aumann's Agreement Theorem, Great Filter concerns for existential risk, anthropic arguments in general, Bayes's Theorem in the non-finite case. But even these are not in general high priority issues for rationality. I think it is fair to say that most of the important ideas can have bumpersticker size statements. But, the level of unpacking may be so large from the bumpersticker forms that they only reason the bumpersticker form seems to do anything useful is just illusion of transparency.

If you want the "back cover blurb" for a 600-page book, that's an entirely sensible request... but it seems weird to criticize a 600-page book on the grounds that it isn't as accessible as a back-cover blurb. Back-cover blurbs can exist in addition to the books; they needn't be instead of.

Agreed.

What I challenge is the idea that most posts/comments here ought to make good cover blurbs.

If I need a cover blurb, it seems more productive to say "Hey, I need a cover blurb, any recommendations?" than to point to arbitrary contributions and say "This isn't a very good cover blurb."

Cool; glad we got that cleared up.

As for Blurb Ninjas... see comment elsewhere for my thoughts on how to encourage that.

Ok. If they are that large, say a one paragraph blurb, then I really don't think there's anything generally discussed here that could not if carefully phrased get the primary points across if someone is willing to read the paragraph and then actually think about it.

Off the top of my head, the first thing that comes to mind is: supergoals and how to assess them. Second: the process of figuring out how to parse a true utility function from a fake utility function.

Rationality is --or should be -- for regular people, and very few regular people need to worry about the curvature of the universe in an average day.

Requiring rationality to be restricted to an aversion to edge-cases limits its usefulness to the point of being almost entirely without value.

To relate this more directly: that flat-spacetime thing is very relevant to understanding how "something" can come from "nothing". Which touches on how we all got here -- a very important, existentially speaking, question. One that can have an impact on even the 'ordinary' person's 'average day'. After all; if it turns out there's no reason for anyone to believe in a God, then many of the things many people do or say on a daily basis become... extraneous at best.

Furthermore: one of the things that instrumental rationality as an approach needs to have in its "toolkit" is the ability to deeply examine thoughts, ideas, and events in advance and from those examinations create heuristics ("rules of thumb") that enable us to make better decisions. That requires the use of sometimes very 'technical' turns of phrase. It's simply unavoidable.

That gets all the more true when you're trying to convey a very precise thought about a very nuanced topic. The thing is, regardless of where one looks in life there are more levels of complexity than we normally pay attention to. But that doesn't make those levels of complexity irrelevant; it just means that we abstract that complexity away in our 'average' lives. Enter said heuristics.

Part of instrumental rationality as an approach, I believe, is the notion of at least occassionally breaking down into their constituent parts the various forms of complexity we usually ignore, in order to try to come up with better abstractions with which to ignore said complexity when it shouldn't be a focus of our attention. I've gotten in "trouble" here on lesswrong for making similar statements before, however -- (though to add nuance that was more about whether generalizations are appropriate in a given 'depth' of conversation.)

... Defining a few terms:

  • "ever": within the projected remaining longevity of anyone currently alive.

  • "average person": A sufficient portion of people who are no more than 1 standard deviation away from the mode of any given manner of behavior as to be representative of the whole.

-- that being said: no, no I do not.


A different set of definitions:

  • "ever": throughout the remainder of history

  • "an average person": at least one person who is validly described as 'average' at the time it happens

-- Yes, yes I do.


Even explaining that took more nuance than you'd like, I suspect. Please note how radically different the two statements are, even though they both conform very closely to what you said. THIS is why nuance is sometimes indispensable.

Within our lifetimes, conversational speech will not resemble a legal document.

Not all conversations, no -- but if an average person is unprepared for legalese then he'd better always have a lawyer with him when he signs anything, ever. This has an unhappy context for our conversatoin: is there a rationality-equivalent of a lawyer?

[V]ery few regular people need to worry about the curvature of the universe in an average day.

So far.

It may have been worthwhile for it to have been split into several posts, perhaps?

Could you do me a favor and elaborate? One thing I know for sure is that the quicker I'm writing, the longer my sentences are (a terrible habit). But I don't know if that's what you're talking about or if it's something else.

No apology needed, I appreciate the feedback. My comments often come out looking longer or wordier than they seemed while I was composing them, and I'll try to remember that tendency and keep a lid on it when possible.