Write Surprisingly About Reality

by lsusr1 min read16th Oct 20217 comments


Writing (communication method)Practical

Good writing illuminates surprising things about reality. It must therefore be grounded in reality. Losing touch with reality is boring.

The best way to keep your writing grounded in reality is to write concretely. Don't write "the United States committed war crimes". Write "the United States firebombed women and children". Personal experience is always concrete.

  • Don't argue. Arguing shifts your focus from things to ideas. It distances you from empirical reality. Don't anticipate counterarguments. Preemptive counterargument is form of arguing.
  • Don't write positively about other peoples' opinions. I love George Orwell but putting him on a pedestal is no less shallow than arguing against him.

Writing about facts, feelings and faith is fine. Fiction has its place too. What you shouldn't write about is other peoples' beliefs. Doing so opens the Box of Infinite Recursion and ultimately leads to the Black Hole of Drama.

Reversed conformity is orthogonal to independent thought. Independent thought equals ignoring others' opinions.

Most people are right most of the time about most things. Deviating from consensus makes you less correct on average. How correct you are on average is unimportant when you are inventing radical ideas. You must weigh according to impact.

  • Personal attacks cause collateral damage. Before you make a personal attack you should be extremely confident that your claim is true and that the good will outweigh the harm.
  • It's worth publishing weird ideas even when most of them are wrong because if you publish a weird idea and your idea is good then it will be adopted by many people whereas if the idea is bad then it will be quickly forgotten.

Make your claims easy to falsify. Claims that aren't falsifiable aren't grounded in reality.


Unsurprising facts are boring. Good writing focuses on the surprising ones. If you're ignoring others' opinions then "surprising" means "surprising to you". Explore.

Surprise is temporary. If you discover something surprising then you should write about it immediately, before you acclimatize.


7 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:43 PM
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I think this post is decent, and I was surprised to see the karma so low. I think this is getting at a central generator of the best LW content, and a generator which is not often articulated. Previously I articulated this to myself as trust the truth to be interesting: if I notice myself wanting to write "the most interesting story" (in a nonfiction post) or getting defensive, I remind myself that the truth should be interesting (if I was asking an interesting question to begin with), and the truth should be defensible; I can "trust the truth to have my back" -- if it doesn't, then I should want to lose (the argument / the audience).

However, I kind of think you are wrong to caution against anticipating arguments. I think anticipating arguments is a great tool for getting closer to reality, because it helps you knock down your own bad beliefs.

Good writing illuminates surprising things about reality. It must therefore be grounded in reality.

It must therefore illuminate, as well .

There a kind of bad writing that only states concrete facts, and expects the reader to draw the "obvious" conclusion.

Why are you writing? If you are trying to change someone,'s mind, you need to present them with new facts, or new reactions,inferences ,etc from facts. If you just present them with facts they already know, without any novel interpretation,why would they change their minds?

Don't argue

Do argue: why would anyone want to read a recitation of facts with no overall point.?

Most people are right most of the time about most things

Perhaps about practical things. But given the great variety of religious, political, ethical, and philosophical.ideas, and how evenly distributed they are, it would be very hard to say that most people are right about abstract, impractical things.

Darth Vader debuted a super laser blowing up Alderaan to strike fear in the rebel alliance. That is fiction and used to mark how villaineous the galactic empire is.

In reality there has been essentially 1 deployment of weapons of mass destruction against civilian targets in order to strike fear for geopolitical reasons. The deployer has not suffered signficant reputational harm and has not made an apology.

I'm not sure what superweapons have to do with this post. Did you mean to comment here instead?

The connection here is that is not the most surprising angle (at least for me). It strikes like complaining about pickpocketing going on during a bank robbery.

I will discuss the actual events in the linked place.

The example on what makes the firebombing framing more concrete might not be the most illuminating. If I want to highlight an asepct of reality I could emphasises the HIGHLIGHT or the REALITY (facts). Writing purely the facts is likely to get the highlight very muddled or leave the highlighting to the reader.

I guess I got a alternative formulation of "USA did a nuclear terror attack and got away with it". Having isolated facts without context seems like a kind of distortion. This setup is also supposed to make a reader go "that is not what terrorism looks like" but then fullfill all the concept delineations

Assuming you're talking about the atomic bombing of Japan, there is plenty of debate on the subject.  The main argument in favor is that, if the nukes weren't an option to force the Japanese government to surrender, then instead the Allies would have invaded Japan with conventional forces, with casualty estimates on the order of 1 million lives, as opposed to the ~180k killed by the nukes.


I would be pretty surprised if somebody would start to argue that Vader was being reasonable and had a forced hand to sacrifice Alderaan instead of doing violent police forcing all around the galaxy.

I guess the upshot of centering around reality is that there is guaranteed to be depth and nuance while fiction can be cartoonish.