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... (read more)

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.
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.
(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.)
That's a great point.
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.

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.

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 r... (read more)

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, ... (read more)

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.

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.
The mind, it boggles.
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."
Why was this downvoted? Edit: Why was this downvoted?
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.
I seem to have read your mind. (Three seconds!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
The Order of Silent Confessors, maybe?
It is by my will alone that I set my mind in motion.
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.

I assume there are also limits to the amount of cognitive effort anyone wants to spend writing comments.


I'm not being sarcastic. Sometimes writing in a way that's easy for other people to understand is just hard. Speaking for myself, normally when my own comments aren't clear it's because I've spent as much time as I'm willing to spend on writing a comment trying to come up with clearer ways to convey my idea, not because it feels gross or because I'm not trying. (For example, I rewrote that last sentence at least 4 times and it's still pretty clunky.) This seems to come as second nature to some people, the rest of us have to struggle a bit.

None of this is intended to detract from your point. Clearer writing is better.

Yeah, what saturn said, pretty much. And as comments from Desrtopa and pedanterrific in this thread suggest, not everyone finds my writing as opaque as you do. If I can make my writing 10% clearer by spending double the effort on it, I'm only occasionally going to think that's a good tradeoff (particularly when the writing in question is blog comments and not, say, my professional work).

Forgive me, but this seems like a little bit of an overreaction. You're the only one who's called me out for writing style (although I have no trouble believing that others have thought the same thing and not said it). Frankly, I don't comment much, but when I do, my comments tend to be reasonably highly rated.

The incomprehensible-to-outsiders thing strikes me as a reach. LW by all appearances is growing rapidly without noticeable worsening in the quality of discourse or community, which is a remarkable accomplishment. When outsiders do complain about LW being unapproachable, it's not because of people like me writing long sentences. It's because of jargon, a lot of shared background that takes time to catch up on, and the novelty of some of the ideas.

I've already said I will make a reasonable effort to do better. So, respectfully, with that promise, I think I've shouldered enough responsibility for improving colloquy around here for the time being.

(Because I don't know how well in control of my tone I am, I want to clarify that I appreciate your feedback on my commenting style, and I very much do not want to come across as annoyed or snippy.)

It sounds like you're implying that a typical comment/post on LW should be accessible, in terms of rhetoric and content, to everyone on the Internet. That idea, I dismiss out of hand. The principle of charity moves me to look for an alternative reading. The best one I can come up with is that there's some threshold of accessibility that you have in mind, which you assert a typical LW comment/post should and does not achieve. So, OK. Can you be somewhat more concrete about what that threshold is? For example, can you point to some examples of writing you think just-meets that threshold?
A sad story about plain talk..... In the summer between high school and college, I took a couple of courses at a parochial school. At some point some of the other students said something, not unkindly, about the way I talked. I asked them what they meant, specifically. They nearly fell over laughing. After a couple of repetitions of my question and laughter, one of them managed to get out that they wouldn't ever have said "specifically". I explained that I could hear the words they used, but I didn't know how I could tell what words they didn't use. I don't remember what was mentioned (in a different conversation) as a respect-worthy SAT score, I just remember being shocked and horrified at how low it was and drawing on reserves of tact to (I hope) not show how I felt. In retrospect, I now know that it's possible to acquire a feeling for what vocabulary set people use. It was also the only school or summer camp environment I was in (it got better in college) where people didn't harass me, and I wish I had observed enough to get some idea of what made the difference. Ultimately, I don't think actual plain talk (in other words, not just using shorter words and sentences, but really communicating to a wider audience) can be done without empirical knowledge. I'm willing to bet a small amount that "plain talk" is the wrong thing to call it.
(nods) Yeah, I sympathize. I am famous locally for the phrase "I have long since resigned myself to the fact that I'm the sort of person who, well, says things like 'I have long since resigned myself to'." Mostly I think it's not an "it"; there are dozens of different "plaintalks". Communicating successfully to any audience requires knowing a fair amount about that specific audience. When Gabriel (above) talks about plain talk, he means his particular formulation of it, which will be different from other people's.
Picking a register appropriate to my audience will move that audience. You gots to talk to people in their language.
I wouldn't, no. If I want to preach to the unconverted pagans, I do best to learn their language first.
My friend had just gotten to college, and was half listening to his randomly assigned roommates talking about their SAT scores. He overhears: "Yeah, I got a 790". "Holy shit!" my friend interjected. "That's fantastic! Which section?" "What do you mean which section?"
It's things like that which make me mentally apply the 'We Are The 1%' slogan... to IQ.
I'm pretty sure it's more like the 0.1%. I went to a fairly competitive private university (one that consistently makes the top 50 schools list in the US). Nevertheless, I was briefly anointed with my SAT score as a nickname freshman year, after mistakenly assuming that it wouldn't stand out that much and being willing to tell people what it was.
At my high school, someone retook the SAT after he got a 1580 and not a 1600, someone who got a perfect score on the PSAT retook the SAT too. (I'm not sure what her original SAT score was. It's more likely she bubbled incorrectly or something than bubbled correctly and got a score much below 1600, and there could have been a problem like that.)
That's also a quote from "Perks of Being A Wallflower", incidentally. Which doesn't mean it's not a true story.
I'm skeptical of this story. Even taking for granted that this was when the test was still normalized to 1600 as the max, if one looks at even a mediocre state school a total of 790 would be clearly in the very bottom. Note that in this data, the bottom 1 percent for both is slightly over a 400 for both sections. So someone scoring in that range is possible but extremely unlikely. This is around the 15th percentile for anyone taking the test, but the very bottom don't generally go to real colleges at all.

The average SAT score for a men's basketball player at that school is 916, for football it is 926, over 250 points lower than the average of non-athletes. Consider that there are about 100 football players per school, and not all excel at athletics enough that admission departments change their standards for them equally. If 50 of them average 1050 (about bottom 20th percentile), the other 50 would have to average 790 for the average for all of them to be as low as 920. If 90 average as high as 940 (about bottom 5th percentile), the other ten would have to average 790 for their collective average to be 925. A single student, who might or might not only be a marginal football player, who scored 1140 (not an outlandishly high score, 40th percentile at that school) would raise the football average about two points.

Considering that average football player SAT scores are tracked and schools desire their admissions standards to be perceived as high, both as part of the NCAA certification process and to justify their money-making programs, Goodhart's law should probably be applied an additional time. Not only are SAT scores imperfect proxies for intelligence, average SAT scores for a sport are imperfect proxies of their admission standards, which are probably even lower than implied. This means it is very likely that some individuals have far less than the average program SAT score.

That's an excellent set of points. I clearly underestimated the chance of such an event occurring.
Is it even possible to get a 790 total? I thought the lower bound was 900!
Lowest was 200 per section, and that was when it was out of 1600. So 400 was the lowest possible. Perhaps someone considering a three section test said "600 is the lowest possible" to someone who applied that to what they considered a two section test, and concluded "300 is the lowest per section", which you picked up.
Oh, okay. (I'm looking it up on the wiki now; I actually wasn't aware it used to be a 1600 point scale.) Nevermind then. So 790 would be... 13th percentile. Ouch. (Wikipedia gives 890 as the lowest point on the chart here, though it is for the new system.)
Thank you for providing examples -- that makes it much easier to understand what you're proposing. If those are examples of writing that just-meets the target threshold, then I agree with you completely that the writing on LW -- especially in comments, like what you were replying to initially -- completely fails to even approach that threshold. I also estimate that most contributors here would have to devote between one and two orders of magnitude more time to even get in the same ballpark as the threshold.
Sure. 1. Look for good examples of plain-enough talk on LW. 1b. If I can't find any, lower my standard of "plain enough" and try again. 2. Upvote those examples. 3. Comment on those examples, praising their plain-talk-ness. Be as specific as I can about what makes them plain talk and why that's good. Suggest ways to make them even more plain talk. 4. When I find enough examples, write a discussion post that praises them as exemplifying plain talk and demonstrates why that's good. 5. When I find subsequent examples, upvote with an "upvoted for plain talk" comment and a link to that post. 6. When people ask for feedback on their writing, suggest specific ways to make it more plain talk; include a link to that post.
Perhaps also, find examples of otherwise good posts that are not plain talk and attempt to paraphrase in plain talk. We need some protocol to mitigate offense, though.
Yeah, that's tricky. For example, I considered pointing out that a plainer-talk version of "Any suggestions as to how that work might be incentivized?" might be "How do I encourage people to do that?" but wasn't sure how that would be taken.
In general, the sentiment we want to convey seems to be, "That was interesting, informative, and precise. Here's an attempt to make it more approachable:"
Though one good thing about this approach is that if other people don't consider my plaintalkified version of X to be superior to X, and I do, that can be very educational... I may discover, for example, that what I consider to be virtues of plain talk aren't universal and I've been other-optimizing all along.
I don't suppose you've considered becoming a bad-ass Iron-Age hoplite?
This particular comment seemed just fine to me...
  1. Begin in medias res

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

That "Engfish" essay is strange. It's right that textbooks and so on encourage students to write in a way that's impersonal and overly verbose. But it doesn't recognize the advantages of academic English. It doesn't even seem to recognize the role (or existence!) of dialects in general. Instead, it takes bad examples of academic English (the writing textbook) and suggests they should be more like bad examples of informal English (the third-grader).



Anything by Knuth. E.g.
I've got to agree, things by Knuth are pretty damn irreducible.
What are "the advantages of academic English"? It is stuffy and turns off many people, so it sounds prestigious?

Good academic writing is concise, precise, and gets quickly to the point, delivering a huge amount of information in a short amount of space.

(Also, by sticking to the point, academic writing minimizes digressions to emotionally charged or controversial topics. This reduces the risk of distracting the reader by getting into mind-killer territory. But that's more about what academic writing says, not how.)

If informal English and academic English are the two extremes on a normal distribution of writing styles, and exhortations to alter your writing style tend to have a smaller effect than their intensity should dictate (because writing styles are well-ingrained), this advice should push academic writers towards the middle of the distribution but not far enough to get into informal areas.
So... They're overshooting because it takes a lot of persuasion to get people to change their writing style just a little? Jeez, why didn't you just say so?
As you have noted, I wrote it academically.
As a sort of example and a great discussion on academic English, I recommend David Foster Wallace's essay Tense Present. You will probably want to skip the paragraph that immediately follows the St. Augustine quote. (And, edit: this was intended to be in reply to GabrielDuquette's post here )

Beware that many things labeled "adverbs" in dictionaries (particularly older dictionaries) aren't the adverbs that we want to eliminate from clear writing. A better summation of the whole bit on adjectives and adverbs is a simple application of "Prefer Brevity": anytime you have , see if you can replace the whole thing with a single word of the same type as the target that expresses the whole idea. This will usually be shorter, clearer, and more interesting.

I agree with this, though since there are probably lots of fiction-writers here as well, I want to point out that for fiction the advice is somewhat different. In fiction, you'll want to replace adverbs with something longer, because an adverb is telling and not showing, and you need more words to show something than to to tell something.

To quote Techniques of the Selling Writer:

Whenever practical, substitute action for the adverb.
"Angrily, she turned on him"? Or, "Her face stiffened, and her hands clenched to small, white-knuckled-fists"?
"Wearily, he sat down"? Or, "With a heavy sigh, he slumped into the chair and let his head loll back, eyes closed"?
Vividness outranks brevity.
At least, sometimes.

This isn't always a bad guideline for non-fiction writing, either. Telling requires the reader to rely on your authority; showing lets them see for themselves. Compare just saying "biologists romanticized evolution" with giving an example of insects defying biologists' expectations by turning into cannibals.

Of course, on some matters you should just state an issue with your authority and get on with it. If you're explaining confirmatio... (read more)

Something recently reminded me of Paul McHenry Roberts's How to Say Nothing in 500 Words.

It was written mostly for high school children, but it has lots of solid advice and its primary focus is something crucial: making your writing more interesting to read, aside from writing style.

The sections, "AVOID THE OBVIOUS CONTENT, "TAKE THE LESS USUAL SIDE", and "GET RID OF OBVIOUS PADDING" are most likely useless or groan-worthy obvious to anyone who's at all likely to read this comment. The only section I think is particularly likely to be relevant to rationality writers is "CALL A FOOL A FOOL".

Still, it's a pretty entertaining essay, worth reading in full unless you're really that fucking busy like Luke Muehlhauser is.

The best idea in the whole essay is,

Those sentences that come to you whole, or in two or three doughy lumps, are sure to be bad sentences. They are no creation of yours but pieces of common thought floating in the community soup.

My impression is that high school writing assignments tend not to ask for as much volume as a student can reasonably produce without padding, but college writing assignments frequently ask for more.

If one professor gives assignments demanding at least ten pages, about topics that all invite at least that much legitimate content, other professors will feel the need to assign papers of similar length, lest they give the impression that their topics are less important, or their subject less demanding. Everyone learns to pad, and comes away with the impression that an important document should be long, because the more heavily graded their assignments are, the more page volume they demand.

I remember one of my professors assigned a twelve page paper detailing the results of the experiments our groups had spent the semester on. Mine was late, because the amount of informational content really only justified about half of that, and I was struggling to pad the paper to double length without turning it into something I would be embarrassed to hand in. When I turned the paper in to the professor, unhappy with its quality but not wanting to get more points taken off for lateness, he was asto... (read more)

That's funny. I had the opposite experience. In High School I just learned how to pad things out, and in college everything was actually sensible-length assignments.
In that case, I envy you your coursework.

The only section I think is particularly likely to be relevant to rationality writers is "CALL A FOOL A FOOL".

I find I get downvoted for calling a fool a fool approximately 33% of the time.

What are your favorite pieces of writing advice?

Use fungibility. People do this sort of thing for you if you pay them money.

Indeed! Would anybody like to pay Carl Zimmer to write a piece for the New York Times on intelligence explosion? (His Playboy piece on Singularity Summit 2009 was quite good.)
I would contribute to a fund specifically for this type of thing on an ongoing basis. One article, maybe not, but if I was contributing to a fund whose purpose was to get X LessWrongian articles a month in front of Y people, I'd be pretty excited.

My favorite book on writing is Stein on Writing, which has advice for both fiction and non-fiction writing. Possibly the two most important points of his are that non-fiction should not be dry, and that you should ideally grab your reader's curiosity from the very first sentence. If that doesn't work, then at least from the very first paragraph. That's more important than ever online, where the reader can always find something more interesting to read if an article seems boring. (I don't follow this advice nearly as often as I should.)

Here are some of his examples on good non-fiction, excerpted from real articles:

When it comes to shopping for a computer, the most important peripheral runs at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit and is known as a friend.

Here on a stony meadow in West Texas at the end of 10 miles of unpaved road through mesquite-covered, coyote-infested shurb land, several hundred bearers of a strategic commodity of the United States of America are gathered.
They are goats.

As the 155-millimeter howitzer shells whistled down on this crumbling city today, exploding into buildings all around, a disheveled stubble-bearded man in formal evening attire unfolded a plastic chair in the

... (read more)
Is it the word left out after "guard's"? Because, man, it really makes me want to know what two things of the security guard rushed to the scene.
Typo, it was supposed to be "guards".

Taking an outside view, I would guess a good piece of advice is: spend 10,000 hours writing.

Talent Is Overrated has a detailed account of how Benjamin Franklin taught himself to be a good writer.

What are your favorite pieces of writing advice?

  • Outline first.

Orwell, Politics And The English Language - The whole thing's worth a read, but especially his six-rule summary:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

This isn't a criticism, but one has to be careful to avoid becoming too general by using a slightly inappropriate everyday "equivalent" (which is the point of scientific/jargon words), especially with some of the material on this site.
Maybe that list wasn't intended for scientific writing, but for popular writing. In science writing, you're right, of course. Still, remember the table from this recent post, with examples of words which mean one thing to scientists and another to ordinary people.
Here's C.S. Lewis in 1964 (page down to "for whom are we to cater") talking about finding out that people from different social groups understand the same words differently. Twice as Less is a book about students who speak Black English Vernacular having trouble with science and math because of linguistic differences-- "Orr pinpoints misunderstandings that beset students whose first language is nonstandard English. Her belief that BEV is rule-governed and not merely "bad" English is supported by data from her students who, for example, confuse "twice" and "half" or combine "as" and "than" in their partitive comparisons." A reader review points out that some white students have the same problems. This is an area where a lot of empirical research would be valuable, but I haven't heard of anyone doing it. I haven't even heard of advertisers doing it, but perhaps they don't make their research public.
Anecdotal evidence here: From teaching and tutoring kids in math of a variety of racial groups, there are white kids who definitely have these problems especially the "twice" v "half" issue. So it could be that students who are weaker at math will have that sort of problem more frequently and the students who speak BEV are correlated for some reason with more weak students. Note that this hypothesis is essentially independent of why those students would be weaker.
This link may be more convenient.
Presumably that's where (vi) comes in.

I mostly endorse your list, though I often fail to follow it.

Among my favorites (these are not entirely disjoint from your list, but strike me as importantly different in emphasis):

  • Know where I'm going and why I'm going there
    Once I figure out what I'm trying to say, I can say it far more effectively.

  • Avoid the second person
    IME, second-person advice is far more likely to inspire defensiveness. When I'm really fine-tuning, I avoid the word "you" altogether unless I'm CERTAIN that my audience will feel complimented by the sentence.

  • Present compl

... (read more)

Few comments to the rules:

(5.) is a goal, but not a task. Wishing to make the text exciting doesn't help me to accomplish it.

(6.) Don't be too brief (style of mathematical textbooks is certainly not an ideal to aspire to) and don't make too many endnotes (they are intimidating).

(11.) I'd like to see concrete example of how to do it.

(12.) Presence of few "I could have said this" moments activates confirmation bias algorithms and actually keeps the reader happy and interested. A dark technique, but successful, the most when the reader thinks "... (read more)

Two general formulas for structuring material to convey information and persuade others to apply it.

First, the "why-what-how-what-if" framework (for tutorials, where the audience is seeking a solution):

  1. "Why" - description of a motivating concrete experience from which a general pattern can be inferred
  2. "What" - conceptual model of the problem space, forming a bridge from the identified pattern to...
  3. "How" - concrete step-by-step information on the recommended solution
  4. "What if" - suggest connections betwee
... (read more)

Write like you talk. When possible, use small, old, Germanic words.

Oh dear. Those two goals are ... contradictory for me. I've had the fact that "people don't talk like that, {Logos01}" stated to me on more occassions than I care to recall.

If it were up to me, nuclear fusion and nuclear fission would be called “nuclear merging” and “nuclear splitting”. Or even “kernel merging” and “kernel splitting”?

The tailbit of Poul Anderson's "Uncleftish Beholding":

Some of the higher samesteads are splitly. That is, when a neitherbit strikes the kernel of one, as for a showdeal ymirstuff-235, it bursts into lesser kernels and free neitherbits; the latter can then split more ymirstuff-235. When this happens, weight shifts into work. It is not much of the whole, but nevertheless it is awesome.

With enough strength, lightweight unclefts can be made to togethermelt. In the sun, through a row of strikings and lightrottings, four unclefts of waterstuff in this wise become one of sunstuff. Again some weight is lost as work, and again this is greatly big when set beside the work gotten from a minglingish doing such as fire.

Today we wield both kind of uncleftish doings in weapons, and kernelish splitting gives us heat and bernstoneness. We hope to do likewise with togethermelting, which would yield an unhemmed wellspring of work for mankindish goodgain.

Soothly we live in mighty years!

In case people want a lot more of this:

This is just begging to be a text in an alternative history novel.
Cute. When I first glanced at it, my 0-th reaction was "what the....???" - and then I saw the "235" Amazing how fast everything fell into place after that...
Kernel? That's a bit complicated for me. Can we call it 'core' instead?
A more runewise crosscarrying would be "the nut of the uncleft".
Doesn't that come from Latin cor ‘heart’? :-) (Just guessing.) (Also, core can also refer to the nucleus plus the electrons other than those in the outermost shell, so it'd be ambiguous.)
"middle bit"?
Wrong word. Actually, yes.
Oops. I failed to read that properly.
Maybe what i mean is "Write in plain talk." I'll change it.
It's a challenge.

I agree with your conclusion (this is a worthwhile pursuit), but I have some qualms.

There are a couple of general points that I think really need to be addressed before most of the individual points on this list can be considered seriously:

  • Following a list of prescriptions and proscriptions is a really poor way to learn any complex skill. A bad writer who earnestly tries to follow all the advice on this list will almost certainly still be bad at writing. I think the absolute best, most important advice to give to an aspiring writer is to write. A lot.

... (read more)
I believe that was one of the rules on the list.
My central objection is that this feels like a very un-LessWrongish way to approach a problem. A grab bag of unrelated and unsourced advice is what I might expect to see on the average blog. Not only is there basically no analysis of what we're trying to do and why, but the advice is a mixed bag. If one entry on the list completely dominates most of the others in terms of effectiveness (and is a prerequisite to putting the others to good use), I don't expect it to be presented as just another member of the list. A few other entries on the list I consider to be questionable advice or based on mistaken assumptions. Upon reread I fear this comes across as much harsher criticism than I intend it to be, because I really do think this is one of the most valuable skills to be cultivated. It's also a thorny problem that attracts a lot of bullshit, being particularly vulnerable to generalization from one example. I'm glad Lukeprog posted this.
Allow me to introduce you to the Sequences, which have been called out many times for being unsourced, rambling, and pointless, and yet they kept chugging away.

Avoid overuse of italics. Try to write so that the reader can intuit where the emphasis goes.

Do you find Eliezer's writing particularly annoying in this way? I always thought one of the most recognizable aspects of his work was the unusually large amount of italics. (I also always thought it was a positive aspect, so I'm interested in your perspective.)
If you read a lot of Eliezer, the italics gradually seem less important, and add just a light accent to the word. If you read any "normal" text and then an italics-heavy piece by Eliezer, it feels like he's speaking really slowly and sometimes loudly to a child. (I'm exaggerating, of course.)
Not sure it's a good idea, at least when writing in English. Spoken English resorts to intonation for stuff where other languages use word order, emphatic particles, etc. Writing already throws most of that away, and I can see no point in going further and throwing away all of it.
I don't think italics should be thrown away, but there are so many ways of expressing contrast in written English that render the use of italics superfluous. More often than not, having decent English composition and arranging your ideas in a logical order will automatically make the contrasts evident. I guess I get peeved when an author assumes I can't pick up on his distinctions, but maybe it doesn't bother you.
I would read the intonation of your last sentence differently if the italicized pronouns were not italicized. So if you actually meant to have that strong an emphasis on them, then the italics aren't superfluous.
I also would have read it differently in my mind without the italics. But consider that maybe the emphasis on "I" and "you" in the spoken version would be there in the first place to elucidate the opposition that comes across more easily in writing. It's difficult to be sure, but I don't think the I/you-emphasis version gives any extra information that's absent from the non-italicized written version.
Dunno how I would have read that sentence if the italics wasn't there. Damn hindsight bias!
No, really. Whenever I read two different wordings for the same statement to decide which is better, my perceptions of them interact in a weird way, so I'm not sure at all which one would sound better to me if I hadn't seen the other one. Also, I seem to be affected by some form of priming effect whereby the wording I've read first tends to sound better, unless a long time (at least one day) passes.
Italics seem pretty useful for conveyiong additional subliminal information to me. More common seems to be lazily using them too little.
I strongly agree. I find Eliezer's italics so off-putting that I avoid reading his writing in formatted text. I don't know why, and I'm sure not everyone has the same reaction, but excess italics just make me twitch.
Well, I can affirm that I, at least, don't have the same reaction. Also I use italics similarly myself. I treat it as a mark of emphasis by the authorial voice. I don't mind having a textual marker to show me where the emphasis is, preventing me from having to intuit it, any more than I mind hearing people's emphasis when they talk, rather than having to intuit it as I would if they were using a voice synthesizer. The idea of finding it offputting is weird to me.
Yes, I'm aware it's not universal. I can't really explain why it's so bothersome - it's similar to occasional words being in a bright colour, or someone poking me every so often while I'm trying to read. It's probably a pity because, combined with my laziness, it just means that I avoid reading writing with lots of italics. If I'm feeling particularly motivated I'll modify the text to remove all the italics before reading it.
Presumably it would be easy enough to strip out of everything (online) with a tiny bit of css voodoo.
I don't find it off-putting, but it does make me feel I'm reading Lewis Carrol.
What's wrong with that?
It's slightly disconcerting to imagine some of the writing coming from the pen of an Anglican deacon.
Interesting. I usually find they break up the monotony of a large block of text, and help me identify how the passage should flow.

Luke, this has little to do with this post, but I'd like to know how you're consuming a seemingly inhuman amount of information. Maybe you can write a post on rationalist news/data consumption? Like, for example, are you using clip files, notebooks, RSS readers, and so on? How are you optimizing the amount of time spent per unit of useful data consumption? How much time per day are you spending in doing all this research?

* * * (note modafinil)

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn it's pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they are, but by then it's--GASP!!--too late.

If you want to be a writer, then you must do two things above all others: read a

... (read more)
The single best piece of advice he gives is to get a room with a door, one that locks. It's made a huge difference in my writing.
Reading that PDF now, currently around page 140. So far I'm not very impressed. First he spends a hundred pages talking about his life, saying pretty much nothing useful about writing as far as I can tell. (Though I skipped most of it.) When he does finally get to the point, the advice-to-words ratio is quite low. The advice itself is fine, but so far only fine - not great or saying much that couldn't be found anywhere. Even if I'm charitable and disregard the first 100 pages, King says less in 40 pages than Stein does in five.
I think it's fair to say that Stephen King is engaging, but not efficient. Most of what intrigued me about the book was getting a feeling for what it's like to be outside the academic/SWPL/liberal elite culture I'm used to. King's fiction was a bit of a surprise to me because there was no contempt for people who use ordinary brand name products. [1] In On Writing, there's a bit about him resisting the idea of theme in fiction-- he had gotten the impression it was something arbitrarily added on, and then he realized that it was actually a way of emphasizing patterns which appeared spontaneously in early drafts. [1] I use brand name products, but I have a background sense that the more obscure they are, the better.
Because people here recommended it and I figured he might just take a while to get to the good stuff. It was also entertainingly written and pleasant to read even if it didn't offer much of value. There were plenty of funny lines that I copy-pasted for others to enjoy. I ended up reading it to the end due to the entertainment factor. There was some unique stuff - the open and closed door thing was interesting and possibly useful, though it won't work for everyone. I also imagine the encouragement about agents and not needing to be an industry insider to get published is great for someone looking to get published the ordinary way, though with the upcoming demise of traditional publishing, that is becoming less relevant. Overall verdict - can be worth reading if one is mostly looking for pleasant reading about writing, or something to motivate one to write, with the occasional piece of good advice thrown in. But I'd recommend people mainly looking for lots of advice on writing to look elsewhere.

Advice I give to my students at Smith College:

1) Be clear! 2) Be concise! 3) Be interesting!

• I am your audience. When you write a paper imagine what objections James Miller would make to your arguments and then either counter these objections or admit that these objections weaken your thesis. It’s better to admit a flaw in your argument than it is to ignore such a flaw. Consider having a pretend conversation with me in which I point out everything that is wrong with your paper.

• Using many subheadings often makes papers clearer and better orga... (read more)


To see what's distinctive about lukeprog's approach to writing, I think it's important to read his essay, "The Art of Plain Talk" (—which he links at point 27. Without this background, it's hard to see how his 37 rules are connected. But in my view, unexpressed inter-relation, as in the present piece, is at the root of what's problematic about the "plain-talk" style. (See

Begin with movement. Excitement. Humor. Surprise. Insight. Explosions.

I know I am a total nitpicker here but I think there is such a thing as too short a sentence.

I can think of some really good examples of sentences consisting of "Me" or "No". I can't think of any good examples of sentences of one letter. Two seems to be the limit.
You are the murderer! I?
Or, What is the correct article to use here? 'A'.
And, if we want to just obliterate the category altogether without having to think explicitly of examples: "What is an example of a sentence that is too short?"
"." walks away Edit: Added a period, per wedrifid "request." :)
You do realize that to the extent that is a sentence it excludes itself. Kind of the point... (Should have a period after it if it is a sentence too.)
Not in English, but i means “go” (imperative) in Latin. :-)
I'm trying to imagine people telling each other that and I can't help but thinking it sounds like monkeys communicating. Something to do with a single syllable with no consonant as a simple command. A little monkey at that, given that it's an 'i' not an 'o'.
Lemurs telling a human to get out of their space: eee! eee! eee~! Lemures telling a human to get out of their space: i! i! i~! (That's why they're called lemurs.)

Look at every sentence and ask yourself if you could rewrite the sentence in a way such that (a) you have conveyed the same information in fewer words and (b) the rewritten sentence is grammatically correct. If so then you should probably go with the more concise sentence. If you are not an excellent writer then you should always go with the shorter sentence.

Expel words that don't pay rent!

I agree with this, and I would recommend the caveat that it is a good rule of thumb at the level of the sentence but probably not at the level of the paragraph. Wordiness in sentences (all else being equal) is bad. But a lot of expository or informal writing benefits from having roughly the same thing said in a few different ways, if it can be done in a way that doesn't seem overly repetitive. You never know which angle on your point is going to make it click for someone.


I didn't frame this post in terms of rationality, and I didn't optimize it for front-page quality. But maybe that was a mistake. I'll edit the post a bit right now and put it on the front page in case an editor wants to promote it. Update: (Slight) editing done. Moved from LessWrong Discussion to LessWrong.

Rules are more memorable when written like so:

"2. Begin in medias res".

(2) How should you open? With a question.

Or like so:

(6) Prefer brevity. Cut what isn't needed, or at least move it to an endnote.

(12) Avoid cliches like the plague, they're old hat.

(21).Shorten your sentences and paragraphs; replace semicolons with periods.

(27) Employ the vernacular.



Simplicity is overrated, and a spate of research on "cognitive fluency" and "disfluency" is just starting to put it in perspective. One study that should jar some "plain language" proponents, for example, found that making high-school texts harder to read improved retention. (See Balancing simplicity and complexity is no simple matter, but science is finally addressing it.

I have a blog on writing—legal writing, actually—and it's the only place I've seen the cognitive-fluency research seriously appli... (read more)

I'm jumping in late, but isn't it kind of obvious? Making a high school text harder to read could simultaneously improve retention if you are obligated to read it and at the same time be a bad move for something people must elect to read.

I've always felt like Sagan and Dawkins have a certain talent for writing so far beyond my own that they're not even worth emulating. They write poetry. And in so doing, they manage to hide the process that created the work in the first place. That's the reason it's such a pleasure to read, but it doesn't help me get there, if you know what I mean.

An example of an excellently written pop-science book where I could glean the rules that were being followed was Stumbling Upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. It's very readable, and doesn't feel "fake", ... (read more)

Really? I felt like Dan GIlbert's book was a bad attempt at writing a Dave Barry book, with some good and entertaining science thrown in. I enjoyed the book, but every paragraph seemed to have a joke shoe-horned in. However, when I consulted the text to find an example, I couldn't readily find one. Which is amusing, as part of the book deals with how inaccurate impressions can form lasting memories. Still, I think lukeprog should aspire to a level higher than Gilbert.
Hmm.. Yes you might be right that lukeprog could do better. He's already clearer, though less engaging for a popular audience. But I don't think necessarily that learning the tricks that are so obvious in Gilbert precludes him from doing better. As my guitar teacher used to say: "you have to learn the theory, drive the theory into your head, and then forget it when the time comes to really play". Also, it might be perfect for the rest of us mere mortals.

Would it be possible to divide the list of rules into subsections?

Hey Luke,

This is great to hear. What drew me to you and your works initially was your extraordinary ability to take concepts foreign to me and make them accessible, easy to understand and even enjoyable. It's good to see that you intend to capitalize on this talent, and I can't wait to see what more comes of it. That being said seeing how far you've come already in the past few years is mind-blowing.

You really make me want to do better. Thank you.

-31. Put the most impacting words at the end of a sentence.

Am I the only one that sees something wrong with this?

You mean that the end of sentences should feature words with the biggest impact?
How about But then With the aid of explicit emphasis, I don't see any need.
3Paul Crowley12y
For example "The answer turns out to be A, not B" is usually better as "The answer turns out to be not B but A".
And often still better as "The answer turns out to be A." And sometimes even better as "The answer is A." And on occasion as "A."
I think "end" is the most important word here (though it maybe isn't the most "impacting"), and it is about as close to the end as it can be.
"When constructing sentences, put the most important word at the end." But my initial point was mostly that "the most impacting words" is a really awkward and unclear construction. And I think the disagreement in the responses to my comment as to which word would be the "most impacting" (and precisely what that means) rather bears me out.
I agree. (I mistook your point.) Edit: Joseph Williams (who wrote Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, which lukeprog mentioned in the original post) has a subtler version of this rule: That's from page 48 of his Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, which I think blows Strunk and White out of the water. (I believe it's a different book from the one lukeprog mentioned, though if so I'm sure they cover similar material.)
Often the best version of a sentence has the high impact word as either the first or last word of the sentence.

Great advice! I also thought it was funny as I was scanning rather than reading as I saw the line about scanning.

Do great writers (fiction or not) say that following composition advice helped them? Do they give consistent composition advice themselves? If the answer to both questions is 'no', that suggests that great writing is not something easily trainable.

(Disclaimer: I think Luke's a really good writer, so don't read this as "if you haven't got it, you never will, give up").

I don't think many great writers have disclosed what helped them. (That would explain, in any event, why no one's answered your significant questions.) But, if writing advice was futile, wouldn't you expect the great writers to have announced that realization? On the other hand, if some specific advice had proven very helpful, you might expect writers to be reluctant to convey it. Professional writing is highly competitive, giving truly useful tips the status of trade secrets. So, when it is forthcoming—as from Orwell—it ought to be appreciated.
If writing advice were futile, I'm not sure I would expect great writers to even know it. They are just as prone to post hoc ergo prompter hoc as anyone else, after all; if they received some plausible advice prior to doing some great writing, they would be inclined to infer a causal link between them, whether one actually existed or not.
I think they'd know it. Advice isn't a mere talisman; you consciously use it to alter your style. Some advice is universally accepted among competent writers; an example: don't use two words when one will do. (It goes back, at least, to Jefferson.) Can you write competently without direct guidance in the form of this rule? My vision may be overly limited, but I don't see how. [ I obviously disagree with Luke's advice to avoid semi-colons. :).]
I agree that it's possible to consciously use advice to alter my style, and that if I do that carefully and evaluate the results I can obtain information about what advice actually works. I'd be surprised if a sizable fraction of writers (even "competent" writers) actually did that. I agree that some advice is ubiquitously accepted by competent writers, in the sense that most competent writers endorse it. (I assume "universally" is intended as hyperbole.) Also agreed that some advice is ubiquitously accepted, in the sense that most competent writers act according to its dictates. I'd be surprised if the intersection of the two sets were a sizable fraction of either set, or if either set (let alone their intersection) were a sizable fraction of the advice any given writer either endorses or follows.
I wonder, then, what you think does help writers get better. I assume that practice is a big part of it; if you agree, the next question is what constitutes practice. Isn't practice a cycle of writing and revising according to principles ("advice"). I guess it's possible that some particularly gifted writers bypass rules and even guidelines, and instead, write entirely by ear. Is that your theory?
If you actually mean to be saying that "advice" refers to all principles that guide practice, whether they are articulable or not, then we disagree about what "advice" refers to, but we might not disagree about what distinguishes good writers from mediocre ones... I'm not sure. (If you want to pursue that question, I recommend we back up, taboo "advice", and start again.) If that was not your intent, and we agree that advice is necessarily articulable, then: yes, I think something similar to that. More precisely, I expect that good writers get good at writing by writing, and by experiencing the good and bad writing of others, and by developing related skills (for example, observation, thinking clearly, having something to say, an awareness of markets, the discipline of writing regularly, etc.). I expect that explicitly articulable principles and guidelines ("advice") can be helpful in guiding that process, but it doesn't follow that someone who has gotten good at those skills necessarily has access to better advice, or is necessarily capable of telling the difference between good and bad advice. I expect that the vast majority of what good writers have that mediocre writers lack is implicit knowledge they cannot explicitly articulate, and that the vast majority of explicitly articulable knowledge that good writers have is not what sets them apart from mediocre writers.
Let me try to be more concrete. Competent writers, generally, know that they should avoid using two words when one will do—to take one of the most basic writing tips. They can also articulate this knowledge—although it's far from self-executing, begging the question, after all, of when one word, in fact, "will do." That knowledge is mostly implicit. Yet, it's impossible, or nearly so, to write competently without being able to articulate this rule, which doesn't emerge spontaneously from comparing good and bad writing, but rather helps define what makes writing good. Conciseness as a goal is part of understanding writing's function. Some writers might figure it out for themselves, but however they get it, they're going to have to get it in an articulate form. Prolixity is inherently pleasurable, so lean writing demands discipline. And the enforcement of discipline is the role of the conscious, articulate mind.
You are indeed being perfectly concrete, which is very helpful; thank you. I disagree with most of what you say here. IMO, being able to recite "avoid using two words when one will do" and similar catchphrases is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for writing competently (still less for writing well), and being able to write competently does not entail being able to recite such catchphrases.

First approximation: Make your writing similar to a blockbuster movie.

First approximation: Make your writing similar to a blockbuster movie.

"Really nice cleavage and explosions" doesn't look nearly as impressive on paper.


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

Excuse me, but almost all writing on Less Wrong is nonfiction. Shouldn't you have simply asked for the best writing on Less Wrong?

(I meant to ask this in the linked post, but forgot.)

To be fair, Three Worlds Collide is venerated by many. The fiction tag has multiple pages of results. So while fiction is certainly not predominant, it's definitely had a presence in the community. If you count HPMoR or Luminosity, which-- while not actually on Less Wrong at this stage (I think)-- are pretty clearly connected-- I'd say that fiction has left a very, very strong impression indeed on the community as a whole.
Yes, I said "almost all", not "all". Only a tiny minority of posts on Less Wrong are fictional stories. Even most posts with the "fiction" tag are nonfiction!
My point is that LW-related fiction has probably had an impact out of proportion with its comparatively small number of posts, and thus many people probably have examples of Less Wrong fiction ready to go in their heads. Therefore, if you asked simply for the best writing on Less Wrong, I think a substantial number of people would misunderstand the question and say "HPMoR, of course," and a smaller but still significant number would interpret "writing" as "fictional writing" (this is a general norm in English) and say Three Worlds Collide or one of the Jeffreyssai stories or something.
I have to disagree; in fact it wouldn't even occur to me to interpret it that way, especially in this context. I also don't think many people would answer "HPMoR" to the question of what the best writing on Less Wrong is, since most people know it isn't hosted here. Three Worlds Collide has definitely had an impact greater than the average LW post. However, I am skeptical of the notion that its impact has been so great as to significantly distort people's perceptions of how much of LW content is fiction, to the point of interpreting a discussion of the "best writing on LW" as being about fiction.
Interesting. You may be right. I think I will try to test these predictions out in person the next time I go to a meetup. I'll let you know what my results are!
No, not if you want to find out their best pick of the nonfiction. Since a request for the 'best' tends to return a single result it only takes one instance of fiction to completely alter the expected result, assuming that single example has any potential for popularity.
The objection is not to the category restriction, but to the connotative implication of the title that the "fiction" category is significantly populated.
Personally, I see it as a fair tradeoff: one implies a falsehood in order to prime people to give better answers to a specific question.

I can't say I agree with all of your examples of good science writers. Hawking, for example, is a terrible science writer unless he's got somebody like Mlodinow to do all the actual writing for him. I've talked to a lot of people who are completely turned off to pop-cosmology books because of A Brief History of Time. Oliver Sacks too, though I absolute love the guy, can be overly convoluted. Hell, the guy has footnotes that literally fill the majority of the page!

You should check out Mary Roach. Her book Stiff is probably one of the best pop-science books I've read.

Oh yeah. I should re-read that. I remember loving it.

"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." That'll depend on your audience, there are people who enjoy having their own thoughts affirmed. Sometimes its a surprise that someone else thinks like we do.

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.

Any rationale? I generally state the principle first and then give a concrete example.

If I do it the other way around, I fear the reader will go: "what's up with the story?" - and turn off.

That is pretty much what happens in reverse when other authors launch into examples without telling me where they are going with them.

Edit: Grouchymusicologist has already covered silly grammar-nazism, passives, and Strunk and White, complete with the Languagelog links I was looking for.

\25. Write like you talk. When possible, use small, old, Germanic words.

I think this one should be deleted. The first sentence of it is wrong as written, but the idea behind it is expressed clearly and sufficiently in #26 anyway. People do not talk in grammatical, complete sentences.

As for the second half, do you really look up etymologies as you write? I have only the vaguest sense of the origins of ... (read more)

You don't need to look up etymology to have a feeling for the sources of words. In general, the Germanic words are shorter, seem less academic, and have a lower proportion of vowels. Of course, it's possible to overdo it.
This gave me so many jollies. Someone call up Seamus Heaney and have him put it into Anglo-Saxon verse. In the workstead watching, we made a worldken; A beholding of bits, their bulk and bindings...
This is beautiful: (You could almost call it "Einstein for Newton's era".)
Interesting: I knew German used (the equivalent) of "coalstuff" for carbon, but I didn't know they used "chokestuff" ("stickstoff") for nitrogen. Per the German wikipedia, that's due to its use in "choking out" flames.
And "sourstuff" for oxygen. Unfortunately they don't use "sunstuff" for helium though.
We also use "waterstuff" for hydrogen.
"Speed" is Germanic, no need to replace this one.
Perhaps it was meant as a replacement of "velocity". ("Weight" is used for "mass", making me suspect that something such as "heft" might be used for "weight", i.e. "force".)
That usenet post is incredibly entertaining, thank you for linking it.
Excuse me if I'm telling people things they already know, but it's a quote of a short article which is also available in books. Poul Anderson was one of the major golden age sf writers (both fantasy and science fiction), and quite possibly worth looking up-- a lot of his work has been reprinted by NESFA and Baen. I'm not sure what the best Anderson for rationalists would be, maybe "The Three-Cornered Wheel". I'm very fond of his A Midsummer Tempest-- alternate history set in a universe where everything Shakespeare wrote was literally true. Check out Three Hearts and Three Lions if you want to see what golden age pacing looks like-- it's a short novel, a lot happens in it, and I think a contemporary writer would have puffed it up into six long novels. Vernor Vinge and GRR Martin's writing remind me of Anderson-- there's something about the style of description and the way heroism is constructed.

Also see Pinker's talk "The Sense of Style: Scientific Communication for the 21st Century", a preview of his upcoming book on writing style.


Is there a copy of Singularity Writing Advice anywhere? I'd very much like to re-read it, but the actual page seems have been down for a while.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

I found that the book Made to Stick was very helpful, especially for conveying statistics and other data with the right emotional context to make people care.

Edit: I guess I scanned instead of reading - I didn't see on my first read that you did include the SUCCESS formula from Made to Stick. Sorry about that.

lukeprog wrote: "Now: What are your favorite pieces of writing advice?"

"On Style" by Arthur Schopenhauer

German original:

English translation:

Excerpt: "It would generally serve writers in good stead if they would see that, whilst a man should, if possible, think like a great genius, he should talk the same language as everyone else. Authors should use common words to say uncommon things. But they do just the opposite. We find them trying to wrap up trivial idea... (read more)

You might also consider adding Isaac Asimov to your list of great science writers. Asimov's New Guide To Science, though a touch dated now is still an excellent read across many fields.

If you're willing to step outside academia then check out Edward DeBono also, he will fit in beautifully with the SUCCESS formula you present.

At least 29 and 32 are process advice, too.

31: Anything can be done in dialogue (cf. Plato), but probably shoudn't.

22: Reader of blogs or of papers? What's the target audience?

Further points:

  • Avoid formulas
  • Use key words, catch phrases, highlighting.
  • Use a Summary and/or Conclusion where possible.

Personally, I'm very much against the idea of writing down "whatever horrible shit comes out of you." Maybe it's me personally. I think it's faster to actually outline, revise, develop, revise, etc. in a much more cyclical manner. Planning can break the looming threat of writer's block. Quite often, I won't have enough ideas to start to get anywhere in a worthwhile manner.

Instead, I want to flesh out the major ideas and develop them as much as I can along the entirety of your work. Write out parts here and there to determine what the directio... (read more)

Creators seem to cluster as conceptual or experimental. Conceptual creators work well with outlines; experimental creators work well with revisions.
A How I Met Your Mother reference?
In a recent episode, it was revealed that the characters text each other symbols representing what their poop looks like.
The inevitable result of a Dutch breakfast.
3Paul Crowley12y
"I'm so rational, I shit Bayes Theorem"?
That would be the Best. Eliezer Yudkowsky Fact. Ever.

Thanks for posting this list. I've also been feeling this lately:

Also, it appears I produce better writing without really trying than most people produce with trying.

What are you doing to practice on a regular basis? I'm active on several forums, which are great for snapping out brief (1-3 paragraph) blurbs of persuasive text. I've been wondering what the next step should be. Start a blog and make it part of my routine to post every day? How does that square with revising appropriately, though?

Thanks for this.

Both your links on point 21 are to the same page.

Would you care to take a crack at how much and what sort of redundancy is useful, and how to supply it? I think I err too much on the side of only saying things once.

The Hot Zone struck me as a perfect example of how non-fiction is written for a popular audience, especially the way it alternated between stories and abstraction. I don't know that's still current, or if fashions have changed.

Consensus from writers: your beta readers are much better at identifying problems than solving them. ... (read more)

Fixed, thanks.

I'd recommend Orwell's articles on writing. And Korzybski for thinking and writing.

  • Down voted for this? Well, maybe I was unclear. I certainly didn't mean to suggest that you should write like Korzybski does. Yes, he's a rather painful read. Just apply the insights he provides about thinking and communicating to writing.
That was me; sorry for not explaining the downvote. Perhaps it merited a disagreeing comment more than a downvote, but I was lazy/in a hurry. I actually haven't read any Korzybski, but consensus among linguists is that Orwell's articles on writing are pretty awful and he doesn't take any of his own advice in his works.
I've read Orwell's articles, and found value in them. I think his advice works for communicating ideas, and making them stick. As for not always taking his own advice, Orwell grants as much in the articles. EY has an article on Orwell. But thanks for clarifying your objection. And it did give me a chance to clarify my position on Korzybski. I had to work hard to get past his writing style to get the value out of his work, which is considerable.

Do you think fiction has a place in moving minds? Or should rationalists boycott fiction?

Yes, fiction moves minds. Especially movies. Rationalists definitely should not boycott fiction.

Especially movies ? Could you elaborate on that ? I always got the feelings that books are much more powerful at moving minds than movies, at least, at moving minds for the long term. Movies tend be much more ephemeral to me, they may create strong feelings during the watching, but they get forgotten a few days afterwards. While books tend to mark me profoundly. It's especially true for movie adaption of books (they seem always more shallow than the books), but also in general, I can't name any movie which had a power on me comparable to Asimov' robots or Foundation series, Tolkien's LOTR and Silmarillion, Orwell's 1984, Zola's Germinal, Voltaire's Candide or Eliezer's HP:MoR, just to name a few from totally different genres/writing styles.
All I meant was that way, way more people watch movies than read books. A best-seller is not read by nearly as many people as see a week's #1 box office winner.
"Should rationalists invade the movie industry, and if so, how?" would be a whole 'nother post, or, more likely, a series of posts.
The wrath of Spock? ;-)
Indeed, I didn't read it this way, but if you speak of the amount of minds moved, movies win easily. Thanks for clarifying.
My first reaction was similar, but I think Luke is probably right. When I think of cases of people generalizing from fictional evidence, it seems to me that people are most likely to draw on movies. We may imagine books vividly, but movies are seen, and our brains developed in a context where that which was seen could be assumed to be real.
Cf lukeprog's answer to my comment, indeed, much more people see movies - so when you generalize from fictional evidence, you'll refer to movies more easily than to books, because you've more chance of the other knowing the movie. But you know that your audience did read a book, it's not more uncommon to call to a book (LOTR, Foundation or 1984 for example) than to movies. For myself, I tend to refer to books more than to movies when I know that people did read them, but more to movies when I don't know my audience well.
Have you corrected that by the number of books you read and films you watch? I watch approximately as many films as I read books, and I think the numbers of books and of films which “impacted” me are approximately the same.
Well, I don't know exactly how much movies I've seen and how much books I've read, I don't count them. I definitely spent more time reading than watching movies. But in term of number of books vs number of movies I would say they are about even. And yet, I can't name any single movie which comes close to dozens of books in term on how they impacted me. And the movies that I feel impacted me the most are movie adaptation of books which did impact me (reading the book AND watching the movie impacts me more than just doing one, I agree with that). Well, after thinking more there is one movie which really impacted me as much as books did, which is also adapted from a book, but I didn't read the book : Schindler's List. But it's not a fiction. And I would have to read the book to tell if the book impacts me more or less than the movie.

Some problems:

  1. "Rhetoric moves minds." Well, what do you make of this? Is using rhetoric the exploitation of rhetoric a dark art? Why not?

  2. "(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.)"

A questionable, temporizing stance. First, if you want to improve your writing, you should write everything well. Poor or mediocre writing practices bad habits. Second, language is tightly integrated with thought: you can't perfect an idea without perfecting its expression. Shitty writing risks shitty cognition.