This post is adapted from a memo I wrote a while back, for people at GovAI. It may, someday, turn out to be the first post in a series on skill-building.
If you're a researcher, then you should probably try to become very good at writing. Writing well helps you spread your ideas, think clearly, and be taken seriously. Employers also care a lot about writing skills.
Improving your writing is doable: it’s mostly a matter of learning guidelines and practicing. Since hardly anyone consciously works on their writing skills, you can become much better than average just by setting aside time for study and deliberate practice.
Why writing skills matter
Here are three reasons why writing skills matter:
The main point of writing is to get your ideas into other people’s heads. Far more people will internalize your ideas if you write them up well. Good writing signals a piece is worth reading, reduces the effort needed to process it, guards against misunderstandings, and helps key ideas stick.
Writing and thinking are intertwined. If you work to improve your writing on some topic, then your thinking on it will normally improve too. Writing concisely forces you to identify your most important points. Writing clearly forces you to be clear about what you believe. And structuring your piece in a logical way forces you to understand how your ideas relate to each other.
People will judge you on your writing. If you want people to take you seriously, then you should try to write well. Good writing is a signal of clear thinking, conscientiousness, and genuine interest in producing useful work.
For all these reasons, most organizations give a lot of weight to writing skills when they hire researchers. If you ask DC think tank staffers what they look for in candidates, they apparently mention “writing skills” more than anything else. "Writing skills" was also the first item mentioned when I recently asked the same question to someone on a lab policy team. GovAI certainly pays attention to writing when we hire. Even if you just want to impress potential employers, then, you should care a great deal about your own writing.
How to get better at writing
If you want to get better at writing, here are four things you can do:
Read up on guidelines: There are a lot of pieces on how good writing works. The footnote at the end of this sentence lists some short essays. The best book I know is Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. It’s an easy-to-read textbook that offers recipe-like guidance. I would recommend this book over anything else.
Engage with model pieces: You can pick out a handful of well-written pieces and read them with a critical mindset. (See the next footnote for some suggestions.) You might ask: What exactly is good about the pieces? How do they work? Where do they obey or violate the guidelines recommended by others?
Get feedback: Flaws in your writing—especially flaws that limit comprehension—will normally be more evident to people who are coming in cold. Also, sometimes other people will simply be better than you at diagnosing and correcting certain flaws. Comments and suggest-edits can draw your attention to recurring issues in your writing and offer models for how you can correct them.
Do focused rewriting: The way you’ll ultimately get better is by doing focused rewriting. Pick some imperfect pieces—ideally, pieces you’re actually working on—and simply try to make them as good as possible. You can consciously draw on writing guidelines, models, and previous feedback to help you diagnose and correct their flaws. The more time you spend rewriting, the better the pieces will become. Crucially, you’ll also start to internalize the techniques you use to improve them. This means that each new piece you write will be better from the start and need less rewriting to become excellent.
Becoming a very good writer is not all that different from becoming a very good cook. Simply cooking a lot won’t make you very good; many people cook every day and don't rise past a low-ish plateau. But if you seek out guidelines, notice what high-skilled people do, receive honest feedback, and consciously work to diagnose and fix issues with the things you make, then you should expect to surpass the vast majority of people.
You don’t need to have a rare gift. You mainly need to set aside time to learn and practice.
A case study
A colleague of mine, Anne, significantly improved her writing over a few months. She did this by reading up on guidelines—in her case, a handful of essays and book summaries—and then dedicating about thirty hours to deliberate practice. She practiced mainly by rewriting e-mails and google docs. During this period, she also paid special attention to well-written pieces she encountered. See her summary here.
Caveat: Language models
As language models get better, writing skills will become less useful. It’s already possible to use language models to improve poorly written pieces or turn rough notes into good prose. Next-generation models will be even better.
However, I wouldn’t count on writing skills becoming obsolete soon. Even if their expected value falls by 20% every year, I think they would still be among the most worthwhile skills a researcher can develop.
Also probably if you’re not a researcher. ↩︎
Paul Graham’s essays on writing (here, here, here, here) have useful thoughts on writing simply and developing your ideas through the process of writing. This classic essay by George Orwell has useful thoughts on writing clearly and concretely. This google doc, this post and this post have useful thoughts on writing for audiences who may only skim your work. This post by Scott Alexander has useful thoughts on keeping readers engaged. This post has useful thoughts on choosing a structure for a short piece of writing. Finally, this EAG talk on writing well is good. ↩︎
A nice supplement to this book is The Elements of Style, which covers less ground but is famously excellent and can be read in an hour. ↩︎
If no model pieces immediately come to mind, then here are some recommendations: Paul Graham’s blog post “The Top Idea in Your Mind,” Chad Jones’s paper “The Facts of Economic Growth,” the classic political science book The Essence of Decision, and this speech by the chair of the Federal Reserve. ↩︎
Some specific dimensions along which you can try to improve a piece: clarity, concision, flow, tone, emphasis, grammar, skim-friendliness, and structure. ↩︎
Of course, differences in natural writing talent are real. These differences lead some people to have significicantly steeper learning curves than others. For example: If two people start at the same baseline and then both work on their writing for twenty hours, they may end up in fairly different places. Nonetheless, I do think that nearly everyone reading this post could become much better and that most people could become very good. Writing well—meaning, here, writing usefully and professionally rather than writing beautifully or hilariously or anything like that—mostly comes down to applying a common set of standards and procedures. It's a learnable craft. ↩︎
A key way I improved my own writing was by doing news, comedy, and fiction editing in high school and college. Editing hundreds of comedy pieces, when I ran a humor magazine, was probably my most useful experience. I also used to write short stories and would edit them over and over. I read a lot of literary fiction and half-consciously tried to emulate writers with great prose styles, like Kurt Vonnegut. I think this all amounted to a kind of training regime, which transferred reasonably well to academic and professional writing. If you're looking for a path to retrace, though, then Anne's would probably be a bit more efficient than mine. ↩︎
We should expect some writing skills to lose their value more quickly than others. For example, the value of knowing how to avoid grammatical mistakes is already fairly low (although still non-zero).
For some stretch of time, as language models keep getting better, the people who produce the best writing will probably treat these models as “co-authors” that do most of the work – but that still have weaknesses these people can help compensate for. Of course, though, language models will eventually stop needing people. ↩︎
To improve writing, I'd also recommend the book 'The sense of style' (2015) by Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker -- a real expert on both language research, and on writing clearly in his own books.
This is great! Also, I very much hope that the series on skill-building happens.
Does anyone have any advice on how I can use language models to write nonfiction text better? For making a specific piece of text better, but also for learning how to write better in the long term. Maybe a tool like Grammarly but more advanced? It would give critiques of the writing I have so far, ask questions, give wording suggestions, point out which sentences are especially well-written, et cetera.
Have you already done some searching for articles on the subject? There’s a ton of content on this subject already. What have you tried already? What are you struggling with?