Rhetoric for the Good

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

Rhetoric moves minds.

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

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

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

It’s also why I’ve been reading lots of good science writing, focusing on those who manage to be exciting while covering fairly complex subjects: Dawkins, Sagan, Gleick, Zimmer, Shermer, Ramachandran, Roach, Sacks, 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 Grace, Elements of Style, On Writing Well, The Classic Guide to Better Writing, The Book on Writing, Telling True Stories, Writing Tools, Ideas into Words, The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science, A Field Guide for Science Writers, Six 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?