[ Question ]

What has helped you write better?

by Nathan Young1 min read12th Nov 20216 comments

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What content or processes have helped you improve your writing? 

I read Kat Wood's article (below) and it made me wonder what resources people would recommend.

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/dAbs7w4J4iNm89DjP/why-boring-writing-is-unethical-the-case-for-it-being-high

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I previously collected some Readings and notes on how to write/communicate well. I'll copy the whole thing below (as it stands atm, and without the footnotes or comments; see the doc for the complete version).


Preamble

How to use this doc

  • I strongly suggest reading everything in bold
  • Other than that, you can skim or skip around as much as you want
  • Feel very free to add comments/suggestions, including regarding which resources/tips seem particularly useful to you, which seem not useful, and what other things it might be worth adding

What this doc focuses on

  • How to communicate more clearly, engagingly, concisely, memorably, etc.
  • Especially but not only in writing
  • Especially but not only for researchers
  • Maybe also how to achieve those goals more efficiently (e.g., become a faster writer or get faster at preparing presentations) 

Some things this doc doesn’t focus on are listed in the following footnote.

Purpose & epistemic status

There are probably literally thousands of existing resources (and collections of resources) covering the topics covered here, and I’ve engaged with a very small fraction of them. So in some ways it feels silly to make my own one. 

But I don’t know of a resource or collection that covers everything I’d want covered. And writing/communication is an important skill, I think I’m pretty good at it, and I very often give feedback on people’s writing. So I thought this doc might be useful for me, for people I give feedback to, and for other people. Also, this doc will itself link to all relevant things that I know of, think are potentially useful, and remembered to add.

Readings and notes

Books on writing

Other resources - misc

Notes - misc

Tips/suggestions I often find myself giving:

  • You should usually include an actual tl;dr/summary/key takeaways section right near the start - even in most cases where you feel it’s unimportant or inappropriate
    • (At least when writing for e.g. EAs. Sometimes when writing for mass audiences, you’ll better engage people by deliberately not making it clear what you’re writing about or what you’ll ultimately claim.)
    • See Reasoning Transparency 
    • Usually don’t skip this section
    • Usually don’t just have a section with that sort of name but where you actually just say “This post will cover x, y, and z”
      • I don’t just want to know you say something about x, y, z; I want to know the core of what you actually say!
    • There’s a good chance you - whoever you are - think “The key takeaways are too complex to be explained briefly before someone has actually read my introduction, how I explain the terms, etc.” You’re probably wrong. 
      • I kept thinking this for ~8 months, till finally the many many times I was advised to add summaries got to me and I started really trying to do that, at which point I realised it really was typically possible.
      • Have you actually spent 5 minutes, by the clock, really trying to summarise the key takeaways in a way that will make sense to a reader who hasn’t read the whole thing? 
    • (There are some exceptions, e.g. for extremely short posts)
  • Beware the curse of knowledge 
  • You’re probably using jargon a bit too often, should more often provide a brief explanation, and/or should more often provide a hyperlink
    • One reason this is probably happening is the curse of knowledge
      • (Which is a bit of jargon I hyperlinked above because most readers probably aren't familiar with it)
    • You’re probably also often using jargon a bit incorrectly, when simpler language or different jargon would be more appropriate
    • See also 3 suggestions about jargon in EA 
  • You’re probably saying things like “this”, “they”, and “he” too often
    • You know what you’re referring to, but your reader may have forgotten, or there may be multiple candidates such that it’s ambiguous
      •  This is partly due to the curse of knowledge
  • You should probably more often use examples
    • You’re probably being less clear than you think, and examples can help
    • In any case, providing concrete examples is an effective way to elucidate abstract concepts
    • See point 2 in Teaching Graduate Students How to Write Clearly 
    • (Though people do sometimes use examples even when they’re not worth the extra words they cost; hopefully a reviewer can point out if you’ve done that)
  • Often try to be really clear about what you’re not claiming, what’s not in-scope, what debates you don’t settle, etc.
    • E.g., if you’re just writing that one particular type of AI existential risk seems extremely unlikely, there’s a decent chance some readers will take away the message that all AI existential risk is extremely unlikely and/or will think that you think that (while perhaps also thinking you’re wrong and stupid for thinking that)
      • So consider explicitly saying near the start and near the end that you’re not talking about x, y, z  
  • You should often/usually ask someone to review your work
    • I don’t always do this, because: 
      • I write a lot
      • Some things I write aren’t especially important and are taking me away from my main work such that I should just get it out the door fast or not bother writing it at all
      • Relatively clear writing is probably one of my strong points
    • But I do often ask at least one person to review something before I post it, and I do this for most/all things I’ve written that I think are relatively important
  • Many of your sentences should probably be split into multiple sentences; at the least, some of them should probably be broken up with a semicolon
  • Much of what you’ve said can probably be cut, moved into footnotes, or moved into an appendix
  • Generally try to keep the order in which the same items are mentioned consistent
    • As per Teaching Graduate Students How to Write Clearly: “Add structure through consistent constructions. First example: When you state in the abstract that you will discuss topics A, B, and C, retain this order throughout the entire paper. Second example: When you start a paragraph with the statement “Our first hypothesis was confirmed…”, the reader expects a future paragraph to start with “Our second hypothesis was [not] confirmed…” In general, academic writing is clear when it delivers information in accordance with what the readers expect. Do not set up false expectations.”
  • Save the longest part of the sentence/phrase for the end
    • E.g., “ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night”
    • E.g., “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”
    • Why? Because you don’t want to hold a big heavy phrase in memory while you are reading the rest of the sentence. 
    • This advice is given in The Sense of Style
      • And my description is adapted from someone’s notes on the book (though unfortunately that notes post itself doesn’t seem very clear or useful)
  • [something about (sub)sections and/or signposting]
  • [something about introducing and motivating your work, indicating its purpose or target audience, and/or indicating directions for further work]

Sending posts to Aaron Gertler and other EAs.

Aaron is very willing to give advice on posts. I've always found it useful.

Writing a lot! Also, analyze what you like about other people’s writing. I also think it’s good to find a substantial source as a point of reference. Try to connect your ideas with established literature, even if that isn’t directly where they sprang from.

Aggressive editing, with an eye to intention, is the single biggest tool I use for improving my own writing. After I write a first draft, I review my draft with an eye for whether different stylistic choices would strengthen my argument. 

First, I consider the flow of my argument. Does it follow a logical structure, where each step is adequately justified? Is supporting evidence provided at the most advantageous moments? 

Then, I consider my stylistic choices on a number of levels: namely, word choice, sentence type, paragraph-level flow, and work-level flow. My goal is to express my argument in the most concise and persuasive way possible, and I review my stylistic aspects to see if they are supporting that goal. For example, I may have a paragraph where every sentence has the same structure (e.g., they're all only one clause). In that case, I would try to vary the sentence structure in order to make the reading experience more engaging. 

Finally, I review the text with an eye to removing extraneous words or sentences. I often begin that process feeling like there's nothing I can remove, but inevitably end up removing a substantial amount of unnecessary words and phrases. The more concise you are, the more persuasive your writing will be. It's that simple.

In terms of resources, I'd recommend Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. It's a classic for a reason. "Elementary Principles of Composition" and "An Approach to Style" are particularly valuable sections of the text.

Write under the assumption that other people will base important life or spending decisions on your output, or offer you jobs or money contingent on the quality of your writing. Not as a source of pressure, but as an honesty check. I find that I apply more rigor and think more clearly when I consider writing for an audience of people who are smarter than me, but don’t have time to produce the document I’m producing for them.

Twitter. 

Twitter makes me focus on distilling my ideas. Also it's very easy to write stuff so I write a lot more words than on other platforms.