Why fun writing can save lives: the case for it being high impact to make EA writing entertaining

by Kat Woods14 min read11th Nov 202169 comments

87

Effective altruism messaging
Frontpage

EA content is often dry, which leads to fewer people reading it, which leads to the content having less impact.

Dry writing → ↓ People reading → ↓ Impact

EA writing can’t have an impact if the right people don’t read it, and the right people are more likely to read it if it’s interesting. Therefore, if you want to maximize impact (which I imagine you do since you’re reading this), you shouldn’t make your writing dry.

In the rest of this essay I'll explain why it's a problem, potential objections, and practical tips for how to make writing more engaging.


Is this really a problem?

Of course, there’s a spectrum of how entertaining EA writing is and it’s a wide distribution, with some very engaging writing being produced. Joe Carlsmith’s “Against neutrality about creating happy lives” and Nate Soares’ Replacing Guilt series come to mind.

However, I think we can all agree that a large amount of the writing is a bit. . . well, mostly sticking to a dry, unobjectionable list of claims and arguments. The percentage of posts that have a single joke in them is probably less than half, perhaps as low as 10%.

The numbers are similarly bad for most other ways that an article can be spiced up, such as with clever turns of phrase, images, or anything that might cause you to feel any sort of emotion.

The focus is almost entirely on accuracy with little consideration to other possible metrics, such as being engaging or beautiful.

The writing is, in perhaps unsurprising news, rather utilitarian.


Why this matters: dry writing leads to less utility for the world on average

This is a problem because if nobody reads an article, it has no impact. Research and writing have an impact through other people, so other people need to have a way of being affected by the research, which is typically by reading or listening to the content. Here’s a quick excerpt from a previous post I wrote about why increasing (impact-adjusted) readership is important:

Here are some purely hypothetical numbers just to illustrate this way of thinking:
Imagine that you, a researcher, have spent 100 hours producing outstanding research that is relevant to 1,000 out of a total of 10,000 EAs.
Each relevant EA who reads your research will generate $1,000 of positive impact. So, if all 1,000 relevant EAs read your research, you will generate $1 million of impact.
You post it to the EA Forum, where posts receive 500 views on average. Let’s say, because your report is long, only 20% read the whole thing - that’s 100 readers. So you’ve created 100*1,000 = $100,000 of impact. Since you spent 100 hours and created $100,000 of impact, that’s $1,000 per hour - pretty good!
But if you were to spend, say 1 hour, promoting your report - for example, by posting links on EA-related Facebook groups - to generate another 100 readers, that would produce another $100,000 of impact. That’s $100,000 per marginal hour or ~$2,000 per hour taking into account the fixed cost of doing the original research.

Likewise, if you spend a bit of time while writing your essay to make it interesting and fun, you could potentially 2-100x the readership and thus impact of your research. In this example, that could lead to another tens of thousands to millions of dollars worth of value per marginal hour. This is an extremely good investment of your effort.

Perhaps the most compelling example of this effect is Eliezer Yudkowsky. I remember one day deciding that I would read decision theory books instead of relying on LessWrong. To my surprise, I realized that pretty much everything in the sequences is in the intro to decision theory textbooks. However, they present it in the most boring, theoretical, non-actionable, and uninspiring way possible. If this had been my only introduction to rational thinking, I would most likely have either: ignored it; thought I ought to read it but never managed to motivate myself to; or diligently read it and never applied a thing because there was no community around it.

There’s a reason why the decision theory didn’t inspire a movement of rationalists (or at least nearly to the same degree) whereas Eliezer’s writings inspired thousands to actually incorporate better decision making into their lives. Making important ideas interesting can be the difference between an obscure field and a thriving community.


Source


Objections and counterarguments

Won’t interesting writing lower the quality of the epistemics?

What do Eliezer Yudkowsky, Astral Codex Ten, Robert Miles, Brian Tomasik, and Wait But Why have in common? They all are epistemically rigorous and entertaining. They also, not at all incidentally, have large, intelligent audiences.

I bring these people up as examples illustrating an important fact: entertainment and truth are orthogonal. They are unrelated to each other. (1) You can have deeply entertaining truth and really boring falsehood. More commonly, the best epistemics are put forth in drab garb and the incorrect facts are dressed up in shiny outfits, but that’s not because one causes the other or vice versa.

I don’t know why this is the case, but I predict that school and academia play a large role in this:

  1. The way you’re taught to write at school bears only the most passing resemblance to how one ought to write in the real world. In school, you have a captive audience who’s paid to read your material (i.e. the teacher). In the real world, you face ruthless competition for people’s attention and if you bore them for even a sentence or two, they move on.
  2. Academia seems stuck in a local optimum of trying to convince others of their “seriousness” by writing in the driest, most emotionless, jargon-filled way. The result is that few outside their tiny academic niche read their work - even if their work would be valuable to a wider audience. I think this may have seeped over into EA writing since so many EAs are academics or are in school.

Regardless of the causes, hardly anybody would accuse the list of thinkers above of being epistemic lightweights. These people put a ton of work into figuring out the best conclusions and portraying it in interesting ways that people want to engage with. Clearly, we can have posts that are both epistemically rigorous and entertaining.


Not everybody can write interesting content and this will make people feel bad

I have definitely been self-conscious of this while writing this post. Unsurprisingly, writing a piece on why writing should be interesting makes you feel a lot of pressure to make it more interesting!

There are two main arguments against this line of reasoning though. Firstly, I’m not making the case that everybody should hold themselves to the standard of Eliezer. This would lead to practically nobody publishing anything and would be a clear downgrade.

Rather, it’s more of an aspirational value, focused on improvement and effort, not on consequences. Starting from wherever you’re at, try to make your writing a little more interesting. Perhaps a better phrasing of the title would be “it’s your ethical duty to try to make your writing more interesting”. Or maybe even, “don’t try to be taken more seriously by writing in a dry technical manner. Instead, try to have high epistemic standards while simultaneously writing in a way that your intended audience will find enjoyable.”

Secondly, if you follow this reasoning, we also shouldn’t encourage people to write posts with rigorous epistemics or with creative insights because not everybody can do so. Not everybody is intelligent and hardworking enough to investigate claims as thoroughly as Scott Alexander, but that doesn’t mean that only the most intellectually rigorous people should post. It just means that we all should continue the lifelong project of slowly but surely improving our rationality.


Reputation hazards - what if people don’t respect interesting writing?

Elon Musk reads Wait But Why and it’s mostly stick figure comics. Astral Codex Ten is one of the most respected people in the field and he averages at least three jokes per essay. Toby Ord wrote the most lyrical EA book, The Precipice, which is filled with beautiful turns of phrases and emotional appeals. And yet, it’s also still full of facts, figures, graphs, and compelling logic.

If anything, all of these writers improve the reputation of EA. The entertainment value of an article doesn’t necessarily worsen the respectability of the work.

To add some nuance, I do think that a non-negligible percentage of people in certain contexts will not respect something unless it’s a peer-reviewed PDF behind a paywall of a top journal. And sometimes it’s worth catering to this audience, such as when we’re trying to get the machine learning community to incorporate a particular technical solution. If you are explicitly trying to convince the academic world of something, it’s usually best to play by their rules. However, most of the time the EA community is not interacting with that audience. Those who only respect peer-reviewed PDFs aren’t reading this because this isn’t a peer-reviewed PDF.

Generally speaking, if you’re in the EA / rationalist community, you’ve already self-filtered to be the sort of person who can see that rigorous reasoning can be combined in entertaining ways. You most likely enjoy the writing of at least one of Eliezer Yudkowsky, Scott Alexander, Tim Urban, or Brian Tomasik. You judge essays by the strength of their arguments and supporting evidence, not based on whether it pattern matches to “serious” writing. If somebody engagingly makes good points, all the better.


Saying “boring writing is unethical” is a bit strong

Fair enough. But “If you buy the drowning child argument and are a utilitarian, then you ought to make your writing more interesting” wasn’t nearly as pithy. And the whole point of this essay is to convince people to be pithier!

Really, I think the sub-title of the post is closer to my true claim. It's not that it's bad to write dry essays. It's that it's higher impact to make them more engaging.


What about information hazards?

If you’ve written something that might be an info hazard, a way to make it less risky is to make it dry so fewer people will read it. This is a decent strategy for a lot of such situations. If you’re writing something that seems potentially hazardous, by all means, make it as lifeless as you like. For the rest of the time though, please, liven it up a little for us.


The highest impact people don’t care about it being interesting

As altruists, we’re not just trying to maximize general readership. If we had one million reads of a post but nobody acted on it, that would be less high value than having only one person reading it, but they’re a grantmaker and it improved their grantmaking decisions for millions of dollars. We want an “impact-adjusted audience” if you will.

One might make the case that the highest impact audience to target usually are those high achievers we all know and want to hate but can’t. Those terrible humans who seem to be in perfect control of their lives, who work 80 hours on a treadmill desk eating only the healthiest foods, whose idea of a vacation is a 10-day Vipassana retreat. Those sorts of people won’t care if it’s written in a dry style, and since it’s a power law of impact, then it mostly matters how these people respond.

The first argument against this is that even amongst the most conscientious people, they can only spend so much time in the day reading dry, dense articles. At the end of the day they’re tired and have limited energy to do hard things. If you’re a scientific paper, you don’t stand a chance of being read. If you’re an exciting new Wait But Why article though, that’s a different story. Even the highest performers are humans too and are more likely to do a thing if it’s easier.

The second argument is that a lot of the highest impact people are, in fact, human. EA leadership is disproportionately filled with incredibly disciplined people, sure, but there are also tons of high impact people who struggle with willpower and procrastination just like the rest of us. Being high impact does not make you a god.

The third argument is that a lot of the time people read articles because it was recommended to them by somebody else. So if you write something interesting, it’s more likely that it then gets shared with one of the highest impact people.


How to make writing more engaging

It’s all well and good to say that there should be less boring EA writing in the world, but how do you make it happen? Here’s a hodgepodge list of potential things to do:

  • Read Copyblogger. It’s the writing class written by people who actually write for a living in the real world (unlike your English teachers). Essential if you want to write for a cause. And, since they’re good at writing, it’s a joy to read of course. Their book on headlines is probably their highest value content. You have to give them your email address to get the free e-book, but it’s worth it. They also have a ton of free content there that I highly recommend. If you don’t want to read a whole book, here are the top three articles that I think cover the highest value ideas:
  • Add pictures. Tip: look up your idea, then add the word “funny”, and look through the images Google finds. You’ll often find some really good material that way.
  • Add jokes. Or just don’t remove them. Robert Miles describes his process here which I really like: “A single datapoint, but I don't think I really try to be engaging in my writing. Or like, it's one of the things I'm aiming for but it's not effort, it's not work. It's the default. I don't think I “add jokes”, or “add flourishes” or “add emotions”, I just leave in the ones that come up naturally while explaining the idea. And I don't think this is anything special about me; I think most people are pretty engaging when they talk about their ideas, and pretty boring when they write about them. So for most people I wouldn't say 'add jokes', I would say 'stop taking out the jokes'. My advice is more like ‘get out of your own way’, or ‘stop trying to be serious and respectable'."
  • Add flourishes. Add little flourishes or witty turns of phrases. Get creative!
  • Add emotion. Being rational doesn’t mean we have to be Spock. It’s OK and important to have writing that informs and inspires. Letter from Utopia is one of the reasons I’m interested in x-risks and this comic (content warning: extreme suffering) is one of the reasons why I’m motivated by s-risks. Using only emotional appeals is bad, but solely using rational ones is also suboptimal.
  • Praise good writing publicly. People do more of what’s socially approved of. Make it part of the culture to leave comments saying that the content was well written.
  • Win a prize. We at Nonlinear are considering launching a prize for the best-written essays each month. If you want to be notified if / when it’s launched, subscribe to our newsletter or to The Nonlinear Library.
  • Imagine someone is paying you $1000 for every word you remove. Brevity matters.
  • Imagine someone is paying you $1000 for every giant paragraph you break into two smaller paragraphs. Few things cause people to stop reading faster than seeing an intimidating wall of text.
  • Use the Hemmingway App to make your sentences shorter and easier to read.

These are just a few ideas I had on how to make writing more engaging. I’m sure there are more things that could be done. Please share ideas in the comments!

Let's make the EA Forum even better. Let's make it so that at the end of a really long day, instead of mindlessly scrolling through social media, you read the EA Forum. Because it's not only meaningful and true, but it's also fun, and a hell of a good time.

Footnotes

1 - They are not completely unrelated to each other in the sense that people have limited energy and time, and so time spent on one goal will usually come at the expense of another.

2 - David Moss made a point that didn’t make it into the body of the piece but that I think is worth bearing in mind: ‘For many...people 'the appearance of rigour' is more important than the article actually being engaging for them to read. For example, even if they don't read/understand all of it, if you give them a 300 page report full of technical details they will say, "This seems very rigorous" and act on its conclusions, which they wouldn't do with a shorter more informal doc, even if they read it all and found it very engaging.’

87

68 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:50 PM
New Comment

I don't fully agree with this article. The main issue is that a lot of good research (especially that done by Rethink Priorities) is not specifically aimed at impact through a broad audience but rather by changing the opinions of a few specifically interested people with a lot of resources and influence (e.g., Open Phil staff). You mention "impact weighting" audience numbers but this is actually a much bigger point than you're making it to be - an audience of ten people can very frequently be a lot more important than an audience of 10,000 if the audience of ten is carefully selected and targeted. For these audiences, I think the engagement tips you'd get from Copyblogger are much less important than being accurate, being well calibrated, choosing a useful question and answering it well, and practicing good reasoning transparency.

More generally, choosing the most impactful questions and answering them accurately and throughly is far more important than being engaging. Given that good research question selection and achieving strong accuracy and calibration are very difficult skills to find and no one is skilled at everything, I'd rather hire people who are better at choosing research questions and answering them - even if they do so in an unengaging way - than to hire people who are engaging (but less good at choosing research questions and answering them).

Some investments in engagement are pretty simple and easy to make. I think it's particularly important to make strong summaries and make work skimmable, for example. Also more useful and easy than making writing more engaging is to invest in distribution - for example, making sure to directly share your work with important people in your audience.

A last warning - while being engaging and being true are not particularly correlated, I do worry that people are more likely to believe falsehoods when they are presented in an engaging way.

That's not to say that being more engaging isn't important all else being equal. And obviously you need to at least meet a minimum bar of engagingness to make your research readable. And I do think it's good for some people to focus on broad outreach and these people really should focus on being as engaging as possible. I just that I don't think being engaging is particularly important for EA Research and I think it's overly sensational to call not focusing on engagement as unethical.

I’ve changed the title of this post.

I did this for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I think that it hurt my case more than helped it. It put people on the defensive right from the get go and was harsh if you didn’t have the whole context of my background to know I was joking, which of course, most readers wouldn’t. This is not the best way to be persuasive.

I think there are many ways to be engaging, and being controversial is just one way. However, I think being controversial is a risky and generally suboptimal way of getting people interested in something. It mostly just promotes polarization, which is counterproductive. I wouldn’t want EA to start doing more of this compared to all of the other ways you can be more engaging (like jokes, bullet points, smaller paragraphs, stories, pull quotes, pictures, etc).

In general, a lesson I pulled from this is to have more people look at my writing before I post. I had three people check it and one person expressed reservations about the title, but they didn’t push hard and it seemed like it was an idiosyncratic preference. In fact, some suggested even more controversial ones, like “Bad writing kills babies”.

If I’d had more people I would have been able to tell in advance that I should brainstorm more titles that were both interesting, accurate, and persuasive. In my little social bubble where everybody knew me, they just thought that the title was hilarious, which led me to be a bit blindsided by the reaction.

Fortunately, this is the EA movement, and one of my favorite things about this community is that people appreciate when you update based on evidence. So, despite a rather large part of my brain that is saying “You said this thing publicly! Defend it to the ends of the earth”, I’d rather the earth not end, so I’ll update the title, and hopefully we can have a more engaging EA blogosphere while also keeping sensationalism out of it.

Fortunately, this is the EA movement, and one of my favorite things about this community is that people appreciate when you update based on evidence. So, despite a rather large part of my brain that is saying “You said this thing publicly! Defend it to the ends of the earth”, I’d rather the earth not end, so I’ll update the title, and hopefully we can have a more engaging EA blogosphere while also keeping sensationalism out of it.

I think this should be applauded. Thanks so much for engaging with your critics and learning from your mistakes, as well as teaching the rest of us something important. It definitely makes you a good person, not a bad person.

I’ve changed the title of this post. [...] First and foremost, I think that it hurt my case more than helped it. It put people on the defensive right from the get go and was harsh if you didn’t have the whole context of my background to know I was joking [...] I think there are many ways to be engaging, and being controversial is just one way. However, I think being controversial is a risky and generally suboptimal way of getting people interested in something. It mostly just promotes polarization, which is counterproductive.

I think this is a really important lesson. Optimizing for clickthroughs is not the same as optimizing for impact, and the former can be dangerous.

In general, a lesson I pulled from this is to have more people look at my writing before I post. I had three people check it and one person expressed reservations about the title, but they didn’t push hard and it seemed like it was an idiosyncratic preference. [...] In my little social bubble where everybody knew me, they just thought that the title was hilarious, which led me to be a bit blindsided by the reaction.

Another important lesson seems to be to have the post read by one or two people who aren't that familiar with you.

In fact, some suggested even more controversial ones, like “Bad writing kills babies”.

For some reason, this title feels over the top to the point where it does make me know you are kidding. It's also memorable. But maybe it would backfire with other people - I don't know.

I agree with this comment, especially this part:

A last warning - while being engaging and being true are not particularly correlated, I do worry that people are more likely to believe falsehoods when they are presented in an engaging way.

I want to spend a large fraction of my reading time asking "wait, is this true, actually?" Many ways of making posts more engaging make it harder for me to maintain this vigilance. This includes humor, even when it is devoid of sarcasm and mockery.

Jokes, flourishes, and especially emotions often make a post's case seem stronger to me than it actually is, even when the substance of the post contains nuance, e.g. in the form of an epistemic status. I have noticed this in writing I otherwise often find useful and insightful, such as Eliezer Yudkowsky's, Zvi's, or Gregory Lewis'.

I completely agree that it depends on the intended audience.

I think for RP, you're often researching a particular question for a very particular small audience that is more or less guaranteed to read your results. It actually is far more similar to school than most EA Forum writing. In such (and all cases), definitely cater it to your audience.

One thing I think I should've made more clear in my comment was that I think it is, as far as I can tell and at least for right now, it is typically better for the marginal EA to invest in "find a small, powerful niche audience (i.e., writing for 10-100 people) and cater your content specifically to them" than to invest in broad outreach (i.e., writing for >5000 people). I think it is easier to do the former (at least within EA) and that, impact-weighted, you often achieve more impactful results.

Personal fit and interest, though, would be a very important consideration though and I definitely endorse those who are more interested and skilled at broad outreach to do that. I certainly wouldn't tell Robert Miles or Scott Alexander to quit their broad outreach work!

I agree with most of this (Note: Peter is my manager).  

You mention "impact weighting" audience numbers but this is actually a much bigger point than you're making it to be - an audience of ten people can very frequently be a lot more important than an audience of 10,000 if the audience of ten is carefully selected and targeted.

I think if anything this understates things. I think my most impactful reports at RP have most of their impact come from improving the decision quality of <5 people, and most of those <5 people are ones we've ex ante identified well in advance (ie, whoever commissioned the report). 

From the article:

One might make the case that the highest impact audience to target usually are those high achievers we all know and want to hate but can’t. Those terrible humans who seem to be in perfect control of their lives, who work 80 hours on a treadmill desk eating only the healthiest foods, whose idea of a vacation is a 10-day Vipassana retreat. Those sorts of people won’t care if it’s written in a dry style, and since it’s a power law of impact, then it mostly matters how these people respond.

The first argument against this is that even amongst the most conscientious people[...]

The second argument is that a lot of the highest impact people are, in fact, human

I understand that the article is exaggerating for comedic effect, but I think there's an important reasoning slip. Namely, people with lots of decision-making power in EA are both trained and selected heavily for their ability to read lots of dense arguments and coming to a reasoned conclusion, and only moderately selected for general conscientiousness. So I would expect e.g. the top ~100 EAs in decision-making power  to be much higher than average in revealed ability/inclination to read fairly dense arguments compared to eg the typical EAF reader, and only moderately or slightly higher in propensity to eat healthy foods or exercise regularly. 

So in that regard, being more engaging in the sense that willbradshaw defines it as "reducing mental effort per unit information transferred"[1] to the target audience is great, but broad engagement isn't as worthwhile.

That said, I think you (Peter) underestimate the value of broad (or relatively broad, e.g. "to highly educated Westerners") engagement in improving the value of our own thoughts via public feedback, particularly in fields where EA does not have many of the relevant domain experts. For example, some of the comments on Neil and my summary on cultured meat TEAs were mildly helpful for us, as non-experts wading into and attempting to come to a reasoned conclusion on a deeply technical field, and I imagine it would be moderately helpful in improving our judgement if we got 10x the comments drawn from the same distribution. 

In addition, I do think we are currently underutilizing resources on communicating ideas better/more efficiently to key stakeholders, though it appears that there are works in the plans for RP to be better at this in 2022

[1] Which is NOT, as I noted, how I would naturally define "interesting" or "engaging." 

FWIW I broadly agree with Peter here (more so than the original post).

I largely agree with your points, particularly the idea that certain audiences have different preferences than the 'general public' and that rigor is more key than engagement in research.

However, my main takeaway from your comment is that research is an extremely broad term and can be relevant in many different contexts, some of which would benefit from a more engaging communication style (e.g., lobbying). So, whether comms for EA research would benefit from being more engaging really depends on the context in which that research will be communicated.

On that note, I'd like clarification on the sentence below


"I'd rather hire people who are better at choosing research questions and answering them - even if they do so in an unengaging way - than to hire people who are engaging."

Are you referring specifically to research roles or to any role (including comms-specific roles)?

research is an extremely broad term and can be relevant in many different contexts, some of which would benefit from a more engaging communication style (e.g., lobbying). So, whether comms for EA research would benefit from being more engaging really depends on the context in which that research will be communicated.

I agree.

"I'd rather hire people who are better at choosing research questions and answering them - even if they do so in an unengaging way - than to hire people who are engaging."

Are you referring specifically to research roles or to any role (including comms-specific roles)?

I'm referring specifically to research roles (not comms roles) that are at Rethink Priorities, where we usually (though not always) aim to influence more insular EA-oriented actors and thus (typically) prioritize rigor over engagingness.

This comment I wrote is relevant to your comment too, as a follow-up to my other answer.

Yes! I strongly agree with your follow-up. I think that more EA orgs should invest in communications strategy, which typically looks very different from mass outreach (where engagingness is more important). Correspondingly, I think we need more EAs who understand comms as well as EAs who can do mass outreach.

I think I agree with like 80% of this. But I think it should be flagged more that when many people try "engaging writing", they do end up with stuff that's really bad.

For example the Copyblogger website seems full of encouraging classic clickbait headlines, like:

"Here’s why Netflix streaming quality has nosedived over the past few months"
"12 Of The Most Stunning Asian Landscapes. The Last One Blew Me Away."

I don't want to see stuff like that on the EA Forum. 

Similarly, I found the title of this post hyperbolic (you also call attention to this, but several paragraphs in). I don't want to encourage many more people to make titles like that. (Though I would encourage images, elegance, plain language, jokes, and so on). 

So I think EA writers can definitely improve on being engaging, but we should make sure to steer clear of the alarmist journalist techniques.

I likewise mostly agreed with+ appreciated the post, while also agreeing with Ozzie's caveat/pushback.

One additional counterpoint to this post that I'd add is "But engagingness is a symmetric weapon!" (I don't think that means we should avoid engagingness, but it feels worth noting.) To explain via a long Slate Star Codex quote:

Logical debate has one advantage over narrative, rhetoric, and violence: it’s an asymmetric weapon. That is, it’s a weapon which is stronger in the hands of the good guys than in the hands of the bad guys. In ideal conditions (which may or may not ever happen in real life) – the kind of conditions where everyone is charitable and intelligent and wise – the good guys will be able to present stronger evidence, cite more experts, and invoke more compelling moral principles. The whole point of logic is that, when done right, it can only prove things that are true.

Violence is a symmetric weapon; the bad guys’ punches hit just as hard as the good guys’ do. It’s true that hopefully the good guys will be more popular than the bad guys, and so able to gather more soldiers. But this doesn’t mean violence itself is asymmetric – the good guys will only be more popular than the bad guys insofar as their ideas have previously spread through some means other than violence. Right now antifascists outnumber fascists and so could probably beat them in a fight, but antifascists didn’t come to outnumber fascists by winning some kind of primordial fistfight between the two sides. They came to outnumber fascists because people rejected fascism on the merits. These merits might not have been “logical” in the sense of Aristotle dispassionately proving lemmas at a chalkboard, but “fascists kill people, killing people is wrong, therefore fascism is wrong” is a sort of folk logical conclusion which is both correct and compelling. Even “a fascist killed my brother, so fuck them” is a placeholder for a powerful philosophical argument making a probabilistic generalization from indexical evidence to global utility. So insofar as violence is asymmetric, it’s because it parasitizes on logic which allows the good guys to be more convincing and so field a bigger army. Violence itself doesn’t enhance that asymmetry; if anything, it decreases it by giving an advantage to whoever is more ruthless and power-hungry.

The same is true of documentaries. As I said before, Harford can produce as many anti-Trump documentaries as he wants, but Trump can fund documentaries of his own. He has the best documentaries. Nobody has ever seen documentaries like this. They’ll be absolutely huge.

And the same is true of rhetoric. Martin Luther King was able to make persuasive emotional appeals for good things. But Hitler was able to make persuasive emotional appeals for bad things. I’ve previously argued that Mohammed counts as the most successful persuader of all time. These three people pushed three very different ideologies, and rhetoric worked for them all. Robinson writes as if “use rhetoric and emotional appeals” is a novel idea for Democrats, but it seems to me like they were doing little else throughout the election (pieces attacking Trump’s character, pieces talking about how inspirational Hillary was, pieces appealing to various American principles like equality, et cetera). It’s just that they did a bad job, and Trump did a better one. The real takeaway here is “do rhetoric better than the other guy”. But “succeed” is not a primitive action.

Unless you use asymmetric weapons, the best you can hope for is to win by coincidence.

That is, there’s no reason to think that good guys are consistently better at rhetoric than bad guys. Some days the Left will have an Obama and win the rhetoric war. Other days the Right will have a Reagan and they’ll win the rhetoric war. Overall you should average out to a 50% success rate. When you win, it’ll be because you got lucky.

And there’s no reason to think that good guys are consistently better at documentaries than bad guys. Some days the NIH will spin a compelling narrative and people will smoke less. Other days the tobacco companies will spin a compelling narrative and people will smoke more. Overall smoking will stay the same. And again, if you win, it’s because you lucked out into having better videographers or something.

I’m not against winning by coincidence. If I stumbled across Stalin and I happened to have a gun, I would shoot him without worrying about how it’s “only by coincidence” that he didn’t have the gun instead of me. You should use your symmetric weapons if for no reason other than that the other side’s going to use theirs and so you’ll have a disadvantage if you don’t. But you shouldn’t confuse it with a long-term solution.

Improving the quality of debate, shifting people’s mindsets from transmission to collaborative truth-seeking, is a painful process. It has to be done one person at a time, it only works on people who are already almost ready for it, and you will pick up far fewer warm bodies per hour of work than with any of the other methods. But in an otherwise-random world, even a little purposeful action can make a difference. Convincing 2% of people would have flipped three of the last four US presidential elections. And this is a capacity to win-for-reasons-other-than-coincidence that you can’t build any other way.

(and my hope is that the people most willing to engage in debate, and the ones most likely to recognize truth when they see it, are disproportionately influential – scientists, writers, and community leaders who have influence beyond their number and can help others see reason in turn)

I worry that I’m not communicating how beautiful and inevitable all of this is. We’re surrounded by a a vast confusion, “a darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night”, with one side or another making a temporary advance and then falling back in turn. And in the middle of all of it, there’s this gradual capacity-building going on, where what starts off as a hopelessly weak signal gradually builds up strength, until one army starts winning a little more often than chance, then a lot more often, and finally takes the field entirely. Which seems strange, because surely you can’t build any complex signal-detection machinery in the middle of all the chaos, surely you’d be shot the moment you left the trenches, but – your enemies are helping you do it. Both sides are diverting their artillery from the relevant areas, pooling their resources, helping bring supplies to the engineers, because until the very end they think it’s going to ensure their final victory and not yours.

You’re doing it right under their noses. They might try to ban your documentaries, heckle your speeches, fight your violence Middlebury-student-for-Middlebury-student – but when it comes to the long-term solution to ensure your complete victory, they’ll roll down their sleeves, get out their hammers, and build it alongside you.

A parable: Sally is a psychiatrist. Her patient has a strange delusion: that Sally is the patient and he is the psychiatrist. She would like to commit him and force medication on him, but he is an important politician and if push comes to shove he might be able to commit her instead. In desperation, she proposes a bargain: they will both take a certain medication. He agrees; from within his delusion, it’s the best way for him-the-psychiatrist to cure her-the-patient. The two take their pills at the same time. The medication works, and the patient makes a full recovery.

(well, half the time. The other half, the medication works and Sally makes a full recovery.)

I've updated my title based on this feedback and others' reactions. You can read more here

I agree about clickbaity titles. I think CopyBlogger should be selectively applied. A lot of their advice isn't what I would promote. However, I do think overall most of their advice is quite good, such as spending a lot of time on headlines / first sentences, starting with why people should be interested, not burying the lead, etc.

To push back on this a bit, I genuinely dislike much of Eliezer Yudkowsky's and Scott Aexander's blogging for not being serious enough or intellectually rigorous enough. I would avoid sharing many non-serious articles with people, for example, Wait But Why's "The Artificial Revolution" or Scott Alexander's "Superintelligence FAQ" or Scott Alexander's "Beware Systemic Change" (especially the dialogue) because the posts' non-serious tone make it hard to take the content of the post seriously, and I wouldn't include them in a fellowship syllabus, for example. At the same time, I recognize that many more people have read Wait But Why's "The Artificial Revolution" or Eliezer Yudkowsky's posts because they are written in an interesting way, compared to if they were more serious.

In contrast, I'm a fan of other kinds of "engaging" writing such as Nate Soares' "On caring" and Joe Carlsmith's "Against neutrality about creating happy lives" or "Small animals have enormous brains for their size". There are different ways of being engaging, and some of them have a higher risk of sacrificing respectability.

(Writing in easy-to-read and brief sentences is a good recommendation, but I haven't done that here because I don't feel like taking the time to revise my comment.)

I think there is a place for dry writing on the EA Forum. (And by dry, I mean something like what Rethink Priorities currently writes.) I think "more engaging writing → more views" is a valuable reason to have more interesting writing, but I think we should still be mindful of whether trying to make your writing more interesting leads to poorer argumentation or respectability.

I also find a lot of the content in the LW/rationality space (especially Eliezer's and Scott's) long-winded for what it has to say, and frustrating that it lacks summaries (although this would be an easy fix). I find it doesn't respect my time, and it shouldn't take so long to be able to decide whether something is worth reading or not. I understand some people like that style, but I don't.

I don't find "dry" stuff boring. If the topic itself is interesting (and I'm interested in a lot of things!), it gets to the point, and the explanations/arguments are thorough and concise, then reading it will likely be interesting to me.

Obviously everyone is free to have their own stylistic preferences, but I think it's bad for Forum norms to put much weight on "respectability" or "seriousness" per se. Unlike some other factors some people here have listed as things to value above engagement, these factors actively and directly discourage engaging writing, while also encouraging credentialism & elitism – it takes significant training/practice to write in a respectable style.

Less confidently, I think trying to be respectable often pushes one against thinking certain kinds of thoughts or making certain kinds of arguments, even when they are true. And I'm much more confident that respectability prejudices debate towards certain groups of people, many of which have much worse epistemic norms than the less-respectable people you mention.

The best example of this at present is probably a lot of COVID debates (e.g. lab leak), where you have very respectable people making flagrantly bad arguments, that are getting taken very seriously because they come from respectable sources and are written in a respectable style.

I think there are quite a few topics where the relevant Alexander post, or some other non-respectable source, is the best available on the topic – partly because it is the most readable, but often also because it is better prioritised, thought-through and epistemically careful than most respectable reviews of the same topic.

If being more engaging requires you to make bad arguments, then I'm against being engaging, but if it merely leads to "poorer respectability", then I'm against being against it. If someone discounts what someone says because it doesn't come across as respectable/serious/academic, rather than because its arguments are bad, then I significantly lower my opinion of that person, and I think it's rational for me to do so. I don't think we should be deciding our community norms with those people in mind.

(P.S. It's possible I'm misunderstanding your definition of "respectability" here, or over-reacting to your specific choice of words. If so, I'd be happy to dig into this further.)

I mostly agree with this, and think it's on-net an important corrective to current Forum norms.

When writing on the Forum I definitely feel pressure to write like a Very Serious Thoughtful Person. Some of that is probably good but I think it causes me and others to produce less content, and to make what content we do produce harder to read. The best LessWrong content is usually much better-written than the best Forum content, and I think style norms are a big part of the reason why.

If we're doubling down on the "boring writing is unethical" take (which I actually like and find motivating!), it's also worth noting that boring/dense/otherwise hard-to-read writing takes much longer to read and understand. If you hope that what you're writing will be read by important people, making your writing more engaging will save those readers a substantial amount of highly valuable time → impact!

That said, it's important to note that what counts as "engaging" will vary a lot by context. You reference The Precipice as an example of engaging writing, but The Precipice is a very serious book with absolutely no jokes I can recall. And sometimes what some people find engaging others find off-putting – for example, for reasons I don't entirely understand I find virtually all multi-panel memes intensely annoying, which meant that I was negatively disposed towards this post for much of the time I spent reading it even though I basically agreed with the take. I'd be unhappy to see a lot more memes on the forum, but happy to see more microhumour, imagery, verbal flourishes, et cetera.

The best LessWrong content is usually much better-written than the best Forum content, and I think style norms are a big part of the reason why.

I so agree.

That said, it's important to note that what counts as "engaging" will vary a lot by context. I find virtually all multi-panel memes intensely annoying

Very true! Tastes definitely vary. In fact, this example is perfect, because I've also heard from some people that the meme was the only reason they read the post in the first place.

I wonder if this might actually be part of the mechanism by which people end up being incentivized to write dry things. It's like why houses are all boring colors. Because nobody doesn't buy a house because it's boring looking, but people do not buy a house if it's an interesting color. Of course, some people are also much more likely to buy it if it's a cool color.

Similarly with writing, nobody will leave a negative comment about how the article was boring (and I support this! That would be a terrible norm to have), but people will be more likely to leave a comment saying they don't like some more out there style, etc. Basically, you're exposing yourself to more potential criticism. Or a more bimodal distribution of reactions, and most people (including myself), feel negative feedback far more than positive.

Dry writing feels safe in a way that engaging writing doesn't.

I wonder if this might actually be part of the mechanism by which people end up being incentivized to write dry things. It's like why houses are all boring colors. Because nobody doesn't buy a house because it's boring looking, but people do not buy a house if it's an interesting color. Of course, some people are also much more likely to buy it if it's a cool color.

Similarly with writing, nobody will leave a negative comment about how the article was boring (and I support this! That would be a terrible norm to have), but people will be more likely to leave a comment saying they don't like some more out there style, etc. Basically, you're exposing yourself to more potential criticism. Or a more bimodal distribution of reactions, and most people (including myself), feel negative feedback far more than positive.

Dry writing feels safe in a way that engaging writing doesn't.

I basically agree with this!

My main reservation is that there are many ways to make writing less dull that I really don't want on the Forum (mockery, clickbait, aggression/combativeness, et cetera). I'd very happily take the current Forum (which isn't that dull) over one that was more entertaining but had significantly worse discourse norms.

For example, one of the reasons I don't read LessWrong all that much is because a number of prominent users write in a tendentious, combative, unqualified style that I think is bad for collective epistemics and the world, even though it's engaging. I wouldn't be excited about importing that onto the Forum.

I don't think the OP is arguing for any of these bad things – there are also various ways to make writing more engaging without doing bad stuff! But I do want to point out that "engaging" is a big place, and contains many areas that are worse than our current home in "dry".

I strongly agree with the framing of hard-to-read writing as imposing a burden on readers. I liken it to a time tax - and, in the case of government documents, can really have financial consequences.

So, to be fair to your reader, make your writing as clear and engaging as possible!

I find the framing of boring writing being "unethical" a bit odd. The argument seems to be that boring writing is ineffective. But if someone would write post with the title "Why ineffective giving is unethical" or "Why it's unethical to choose an ineffective career", then I think that many people would find that quite off-putting.

Personally, I share Ozzie’s concern about clickbait proliferation, but I didn’t think the title here was too bad: I think you can technically say (per utilitarianism) that sometimes being more boring is “unethical.” The point about ineffective giving and careers being off-putting is “correct,” but I don’t see that as really relevant to what Kat wrote here: those would be bad titles (in my view) primarily because they insult large personal choices that someone may have made in the past and which also tend to reflect/create a piece of someone’s identity (especially a career choice)—much more so than a writing style. Also, to me it reads a slight bit tongue-in-cheek (if only in that it feels somewhat self-referential, given the subject of the post).

It's just an example: I think it would also sound odd to say that minor decisions that reduce impact but are otherwise fine, e.g. from the perspective of common-sense morality, are "unethical".

I'll agree that some people may still find "boring writing is unethical" to be off-putting, and I'll also say that I personally find it to be "odd." However, I definitely don't see it as off-putting as saying/implying "your career choice to be a [position that society tends to hold up as good] was immoral," for reasons I described above. My initial (and current) reading of your original comment (especially after seeing MichaelChen's response) was "I think this is odd and could be very off-putting; here's an analogy/example of why I think that." I would certainly agree that people shouldn't title their posts "[X career that you know and society loves] is unethical [because it's not as effective as Y career]." However, if you're just saying it's odd and slightly off-putting, I would say "maybe, but I also think the benefits of being bold here might outweigh that." 

I'm torn about my title choice.

I agree that some people would (and did!) find it offputting. I also think that many people find EA and the drowning child argument offputting as well, for similar reasons.

To be clear, I wouldn't use this argument in a space where most people were a much larger inferential gap away from me. I would never try to get somebody excited about EA by telling them about how what they were currently doing was wrong.

However, I thought (and perhaps I was wrong) that EA Forum readers were close enough inferentially to just think it was funny.

I made my case more nuanced and clear in the post, and added a subtitle with a more positive spin, but perhaps that wasn't enough.

On the one hand, I think the drowning child argument is probably correct, and I think that the title is engaging. It's probably a huge part of the reason why there's so much discussion in the comment section and why it got so many people reading it, which exactly proves my point.

On the other hand, I think maybe more people are on the defensive because of it. Generally it's more persuasive to tell people about opportunities to do something cool vs telling them they're wrong for doing their current thing (opportunity vs obligation framework).

However, I'm also not an opportunities framing altruist. I'm here because children are drowning, and it's not an exciting thing to help, but a thing that I must do.

I digress.

Suffice to say, I'm uncertain about the title. Perhaps it was too strong, and explaining it more in the body of the work wasn't enough, and I should have spent more time at the drawing board, brainstorming possible titles. Perhaps it exactly exemplifies my point, where it said something true and entertaining, in a way that got a lot more people thinking about it, and thus, it will help change the norms of the EA Forum to me more interesting, leading to the community having more impact.

Either way, it definitely symbolizes the daily consequentialist problem of looking at an action, trying to weigh up its consequences, and in the end, after deep thought, thinking "Heck if I know. Prooobably net good? I need a nap."

Personally, I don't think this deserves that much discussion time. It's literally one word.

All that said, I'd note that I couldn't at all tell that it was humorous. The problem is that I just don't feel like I can model authors that well. I know that many,  particularly junior ones, do make such titles genuinely (not jokingly), so I just assumed it was that way.

It really, really, sucks, but I think public writing generally can't be subtle/clever in many ways we're used to with friends and colleagues.  Our friends would pick up on things like this, but random people online would often miss it. I've been trying to write with much less subtlety than I do in smaller communities; it's less nice, but I don't see another way.

To be clear, I wouldn't use this argument in a space where most people were a much larger inferential gap away from me. I would never try to get somebody excited about EA by telling them about how what they were currently doing was wrong.

However, I thought (and perhaps I was wrong) that EA Forum readers were close enough inferentially to just think it was funny.

For what it's worth, I think this was an entirely reasonable expectation to have, and this is how I read the title of your post. It's provocative without being "clickbaity." So I found the comments objecting to it pretty unrelatable and surprising.

In the end, I've dedided to update my title based on this feedback and others' reactions. You can read more here

FWIW I absolutely think ineffective giving is (frequently) unethical, so this doesn't seem weird to me.

I've updated my title based on this feedback and others' reactions. You can read more here

I agree, I think the title is overly clickbait-y. And the defense

But “If you buy the drowning child argument and are a utilitarian, then you ought to make your writing more interesting” wasn’t nearly as pithy.

is targeting a strawman. That's fine—it's funny—but it's not great when the strawman argument is the only defense given. There are other reasonable, succinct titles this post could have chosen instead which better represent the author's claim, such as "EA writing should be less boring".

There are other reasonable, succinct titles this post could have chosen instead which better represent the author's claim, such as "EA writing should be less boring".

I would make the case that this would be a more dry title, which would have got less readership, which would have triggered less discussion, and thus have had less impact.

I spent a lot of time brainstorming titles. Perhaps there's a better one out there, but I wasn't able to find one.

I just want to link this article on "Research Debt" and the distillation of ideas: https://distill.pub/2017/research-debt/

A couple of passages:

There’s a tradeoff between the energy put into explaining an idea, and the energy needed to understand it. On one extreme, the explainer can painstakingly craft a beautiful explanation, leading their audience to understanding without even realizing it could have been difficult. On the other extreme, the explainer can do the absolute minimum and abandon their audience to struggle. [...] Research debt is the accumulation of missing interpretive labor. It’s extremely natural for young ideas to go through a stage of debt, like early prototypes in engineering.

[...]

Research distillation is the opposite of research debt. It can be incredibly satisfying, combining deep scientific understanding, empathy, and design to do justice to our research and lay bare beautiful insights. [...] Why do researchers not work on distillation? One possibility is perverse incentives, like wanting your work to look difficult. [...]

(Disclaimer: I only skimmed the post, so this may be off-topic or redundant. In any case, thanks for writing this!)

Interesting! I feel like literature reviews are somewhat related to this - almost like, concept distillation or summarization. As far as I can tell, literature reviews are fairly in-demand within the EA community.

I think this content is well-written, so I am praising it publicly! (See what I did there?) 

Some thoughts/questions:

  1. Do you recommend any books/guides on writing [besides Copyblogger]? (e.g., Sense of Style or  On Writing)
  2. I wonder if it would be useful to have a section that describes under what circumstances this advice is most likely to be helpful. In my view, this advice is most important for writing that is intended for wide audiences. (Examples: Rationality skills that nearly everyone could benefit from; blogs that offer thought-provoking insights). I agree that engaging writing would make all writing better, but given that there are costs, it might be useful to emphasize situations/contexts in which this advice would be especially valuable.
  3. What do you think are the biggest reasons why (some) EA writing is dry? 
  4. What advice would you give to people who think that they're bad writers? Or people who are worried that their writing not being "good enough" for the forum?

Some strategies that I've heard about or found helpful:

  1. Omit needless words! Go back & delete all of the words you don't truly, really, fully, actually need! (See what I did there?)
  2. Find good writing, try to break it down into elements, and then copy those elements.
  3. Ask people for feedback! 
  4. Read writing out loud. (I agree that many people, myself included, are generally more engaging speakers than writers).
  5. Remove hedges (unless they are intentional).
  6. Remove nominalizations (instances in which you use nouns when you could have used verbs) unless they are intentional.

Just to jump in on "Do you recommend any books/guides on writing [besides Copyblogger]? (e.g., Sense of Style or  On Writing)": I made a collection of Readings and notes on how to write/communicate well that people might find helpful. (Though it's not focused on engagingness.)

What advice would you give to people who think that they're bad writers? Or people who are worried that their writing not being "good enough" for the forum?

Good question! That is one worry I have about this post, that it discourages people. On the other hand, there have been a bunch of comments saying that they find it motivating, because it makes it so that writing can be fun instead of a scary serious thing you ought to do.

I think if you’re capable of being interesting in conversation (which the vast majority of people are!), then you can write engagingly. Robert Miles’s quote really resonates with me:

“A single datapoint, but I don't think I really try to be engaging in my writing. Or like, it's one of the things I'm aiming for but it's not effort, it's not work. It's the default. I don't think I “add jokes”, or “add flourishes” or “add emotions”, I just leave in the ones that come up naturally while explaining the idea. And I don't think this is anything special about me; I think most people are pretty engaging when they talk about their ideas, and pretty boring when they write about them. So for most people I wouldn't say 'add jokes', I would say 'stop taking out the jokes'. My advice is more like ‘get out of your own way’, or ‘stop trying to be serious and respectable'."

Also, growth mindset is definitely good in this situation. If your writing isn't currently engaging, that doesn't mean you're a "boring writer". That just means you probably haven't put a lot of time into practicing getting better at it yet. And the only way to improve is to practice and get feedback.

Great recommendations for making it more interesting, btw.

Unfortunately don’t have the time to answer all the other questions, though they’re also good.

Building on your 'How to make writing more engaging' section, I wanted to add a few thoughts on how to use humor and tone to make writing more engaging without sacrificing other desirable qualities. 

When collaborating with academics and other experts to communicate complex ideas to a general audience, I've often encountered reluctance to use humor, or even a conversational tone, when discussing topics related to suffering or death. This reluctance isn't just about being taken seriously; it also stems from a concern that using humor or taking a lighter tone would be insensitive. It can be really difficult to convey empathy through writing! On the other hand, writing that uses humor and/or a casual tone doesn't necessarily lack empathy or rigor.

Personally, I avoid humor that punches down: no jokes at the expense of someone (whether a specific individual/group or an abstract one) who is suffering, disenfranchised, or in an otherwise powerless position. Sounds obvious once you say it, but turning this intuition into an explicit guideline makes it easier to apply. 

In terms of tone, I think sometimes people conflate "conversational" with "flippant"--dismissive of subject, field, or reader. I like "conversational" as a descriptor because it doesn't just imply "using more casual language, as you would in conversation," but also a deeper level of engagement that, done right, is the opposite of dismissiveness: your readers are depending on you to supply both sides of the conversation, so you have to put yourself in their shoes to do your subject justice. Are they encountering the idea you're trying to communicate for the first time? What might they find confusing, off-putting, or slightly goofy about it? Acknowledge these potential sticking points and address them explicitly.  

Combining self awareness and humor can also be effective, especially for a  general or non-expert audience. It's ok to acknowledge your quirks, explain them, even poke a little fun at yourself--by "you" I mean either you the author, or a group you/your writing is aligned with, or an institution you're part of.  

Though it's certainly possible to overdo this and veer into the territory of protesting too much, in moderation I've found that explicit self awareness can actually build credibility. And any technique that helps cast the reader as a co-pilot rather than a passenger should make the writing more engaging. 

And yeah, read your writing out loud. I started doing this because I had to for my job and I hated it because I'm shy. I found the practice so useful that I started reading almost everything I write aloud.

As I wrote in a separate comment, I did like this post overall. That being said, I would definitely push back on the idea that entertainment and truth are "unrelated." What you narrowly intended by that may or may not be true, but I can definitely say that there are many situations where truth requires nuance/complexity, and nuance/complexity can decrease entertainment and accessibility

On the one hand, there are many situations where people are already sufficiently familiar with the general ideas and/or those ideas are very easy to grasp such that writers don't have to hand-hold their audience through the nuances of every idea, yet the writers still try to do it to the point that it gets very boring and can actually confuse their readers even more in some ways (especially if they are using all sorts of needless jargon). I would say that this post is a good example of efficiently and energetically explaining a collage of concepts wherein each concept is generally pretty accessible on its own and you don't need an instruction manual on how to put them all together: just throw out the ideas and your audience can sufficiently understand the (intended) big picture.

In contrast, there are some posts/topics which are not as amenable to this "hands-off" and "entertainment-heavy" approach, which 1) makes emphasizing entertainment inherently difficult (e.g., it's just hard to make a dry or confusing topic easy to read) and 2) increases the nuance/accuracy to reading-ease tradeoff (e.g., increases in accuracy tend to come at higher costs to ease of reading).  Of course, I could just be a bad writer, but as an example from personal experience, I really struggled to write this post about a decision-making framework I've theorized and talked and written about for years. Throughout the process, I tried to keep reading accessibility and efficiency in mind while still preserving sufficient nuance to distinguish it from the life-hacky articles about gimmicky/half-baked decision making heuristics (i.e., to avoid overselling it). In review, I feel like I succeeded on the latter goal, but failed on the former, despite many hours of trying to narrow it down. Again, I may just be a bad writer, but I really felt like I hit major diminishing marginal returns when it came to clarifying concepts and otherwise making it more efficient/accessible for a reader, and I think a major reason for that was that it wasn't something where I could just throw out big ideas that people already have some understanding of, intersperse some jokes, and call it a day. Ultimately, I'd just say: don't underestimate the difficulty of making complex ideas accessible or entertaining (especially when one is trying to avoid being shallow/gimmicky).

 

On a not-really-related point, I am all for adding in comedic relief in the form of memes (which I thought you did fairly well in this post) when possible/appropriate, but it isn't always easy, and forcing humor can fall flat and/or take more time to create/include. (I do think a few other comments hit on similar points)

(Post-message disclaimer: I did not exhaustively read all the comments, so someone else may have made similar points)

I feel a mixture of excitement and frustration in reading this: on the one hand, I have long been interested in communication ethics and analyzing/optimizing communication, and it's nice to see some of the ideas I've had relating to this getting both articulation and attention; on the other hand, I still don't see it going as deep or theoretical as what I'd like to see attempted

For example, it's nice to see a few numbers and individual concepts thrown around regarding impact estimates (e.g., slightly influencing a wide range of people vs. heavily influencing a small range of people)--and to some extent I think it may be for the best given the intended vibe of the post. Still, I'd love to see a deeper post that really laid out in a dense/structured format considerations like the nuance to brevity tradeoff, sucking up the oxygen (attention), watering down a (broader) brand/ideology/message, clickbait proliferation, etc. 

Overall, I definitely am glad the article was written / that I read it, but I can't help wishing there were more.

I see several comments here expressing an idea like "Perhaps engaging writing is better, but is it worth the extra effort?", and I just don't think that that trade-off is actually real for most people. I think a more conversational and engaging style is quicker and easier to write than the slightly more formal and serious tone which is now the norm. Really good, polished, highly engaging writing may be more work, but on the margin I think there's a direction we can move that is downhill from here on both effort and boringness.

Your post is fine but I have a bit of an issue with the title.

Why boring writing is unethical

I think the desire to help people should come out a desire to do more good, not less evil. As in it shouldn't be motivated by shame. Shaming can isolate people on the margin (undecided about joining the community), and create polarisation - so you may end up with otherwise uncaring people now vocally against the EA community. And also shaming just generally doesn't feel to me like a "nice" thing to do, even if it is successful at getting desired outcome.

P.S. i just noticed your reply to another commentator on this exact topic. I'll say that a) this is a public forum, you cannot control who does or doesn't see it. You have to assume outsiders will see it. b) I don't think shame is the best motivator even for people deep into EA (weak opinion). c) Even if someone sees that it could be intended as a joke, it can still be offputting. Partly because it acts as cover for someone to say or believe it, not as a joke. (I personally saw it like this.)

a and b should probably be general guidelines for anyone posting on this website imo.

I've updated my title based on this feedback and others' reactions. You can read more here

Awesome! Hope I didn't come off too strong, just wanted to exhaustively list out reasons.

I love this post! It articulates a background assumption I often have, so I am very glad that this post exists, so I can point to it.

I also appreciate the discourse in the comments - which is why I think communication strategy (most of the advice in the final, recommendations section) must be tailored to the specific context of audience/organization/aims.

However, I am also quite cynical about the rationality of decisionmakers, such that I think it's less common than is typically assumed that decisionmakers rely on well-reasoned, 'boring' arguments. I also believe in more subtle narratives that infiltrate the news cycle and permeate throughout society, which are largely driven by what people engage with (i.e., more 'entertaining' content). By all means, stick to unengaging writing when it comes to pure research - but once you move into outreach and advocacy, it's worth switching up your strategy.

Could you give examples of boring writing vs unboring writing? This is all pretty abstract and it's hard for me to evaluate which (or all 😅) of my writing is boring vs unboring. 

(If it helps, you can use any of my writing on this forum as examples, in either direction).

Thanks for the post. I like Economical Writing by Deirdre McCloskey - entertaining as hell!

My semi-outsider perspective might be useful here: 
On the one hand I feel like I can barely absorb any content from the EA forums because the posts are so technical and dry that I can barely get through any one of the many painstakingly crafted masterpieces that are posted here every day. I would learn and engage so much more from an increase in conversational writing and a decrease in formality/careful wording. 

On the other hand I am deeply impressed that this forum exists at all. It is harboring so many high-quality, deep soliloquies and extensive rational discussions that I'm afraid to disturb whatever magic allowed this to place to grow. We so desperately need a place for this kind of dry discussion to be welcomed and where it can bear fruit. I don't know anywhere else that is like here. 

So my answer: The atmosphere would be risked with such a change, leading to bad odds. By all means write more engaging material, but put it everywhere else but here. =P 
Epistemic status: dubious

I'm curious to what extent people think of "boring writing" and "bad writing" as identical. Obviously those two things are not entirely orthogonal. But if we have a bad reaction to what we think of as "boring" writing when we actually just have a negative reaction to "bad" writing, the obvious/proposed fixes may just end up being bad writing with clickbait mixed in, which isn't great.

I am interested in whether trying to have interesting writing is valuable above having just clear communication plus interesting ideas.

I'm also interested in writing coaches in case people have recommendations.

I think there are many ways for writing not to be boring, not all of which involve clickbait or humour, but that writing that fails to take any of those paths and ends up boring is ipso facto bad. (Unless you're in one of the few contexts where you actively want your writing to be dull.)

I do think that trying to have interesting writing is valuable above and beyond being clear. I think of interestingness as a (negative) measure of "mental effort per unit information transferred" – in most cases, reducing that effort is a good thing.

I agree with this. I also think writing can only be "bad" with respect to a goal of some kind, whereas it can be "boring" regardless of its goal.

Very often, that goal is to engage the reader, communicate clearly and memorably, etc. -- for those things, boring -> bad.

A couple of random/extreme examples off the top of my head, assuming a generic purpose of "being useful to readers" (I haven't thought this through):

  • Legal texts are (probably) often boring writing but not bad writing.
  • Some Buzzfeed articles are (probably) bad writing but not boring writing.

(So I also appreciate the "Unless you're in one of the few contexts where you actively want your writing to be dull" disclaimer in Will's comment.)

Yeah, I should have said that a decent rate of info transfer is often only one of several desiderata, and sometimes a piece can score well enough on other dimensions that it can perform poorly on that (i.e. be relatively uninteresting) and still not be "bad".

(That said, even writing that needs to be fulfil other functions should generally try to be as interesting/readable as possible within those constraints. Some legal judgements are actually quite easy to read, while others are awful.)

I think of interestingness as a (negative) measure of "mental effort per unit information transferred" – in most cases, reducing that effort is a good thing.

FWIW this feels like an extremely surprising definition to me. I appreciate its clarity, but would not have gotten this definition from either Kat's post or if you just asked me for examples of interesting writing. 

Consider fiction. In fantasy for example, I think of eg China Mieville's writing as very interesting, but the amount of cognitive effort needed to understand his writing is somewhat higher than for writers with simpler styles (eg Brandon Sanderson). 

I do think it's harder for me to define what I mean for fiction, but this doesn't intuitively feel like a counterexample to me. I think part of what make's Mieville's fiction interesting is its unusually high level of idea density, which outweighs its somewhat higher effort level.

I was originally going to write something like "mental effort per number of words read" or something, but went with "information" instead, and I think this is a good example of why. ("novel information" or something might be even better.)

If China Mieville had the prose of Hemingway, would you consider his writing more or less interesting? 

To me, my intuitive conception of interestingness is that controlling for idea density, overwrought writing/poetry/complex metaphors (if done well) is usually more interesting writing than spartan, choppy sentences.

I don't know anything about the prose of Hemingway, so I can't answer your first paragraph.

How do you define the state of being interested in something? I think I would go with something like "it's easier and more pleasant to engage deeply with this". Which seems very closely linked to ease of information transfer to me.

How do you define the state of being interested in something? 

Something like a high degree of surprise and greater willingness to engage/share/remember. For writing this might be things like turns of phrase or template that I'd like to steal. For content I'm not sure, one simple model is "value of information" but it doesn't actually fully capture my internal senses of excitement. 

I think this is good advice for people whose posts regularly get over 100 karma.

I think that people who struggle to post don't need extra hoops to jump through. I find this forum hard enough to post on as it is.

I'm not saying you're wrong but I think it's good advice for a certain group.

Likewise I think different media require different tones. Twitter is much better for summaries. This is good for dense long form. Should articles here have more pictures? I don't know.

I think we have chosen to make this forum stark and dense. If we want content to be more charming, I suggest we should think about the colour scheme or profile pictures. Perhaps there should be a second forum optimised for friendlier more externally sharable content. Certainly the current style is a choice.

If you are struggling to post, maybe getting more upvotes and views would help motivate you?

I personally am more motivated to write things people will actually see and get value from.

If I write things that are more interesting, more people on average will see them.

I agree with both points. I think that we don't want to add more barriers to writing. There's a risk that this post could do this.

I agree also, though, that writing more engagingly can actually encourage people to write more. For two main reasons:

  • It's more fun to write fun things. When you write, you're also reading what you write. So if it's fun to read, it's fun to write it too! I find myself much more likely to write if I allow myself to have fun with it.
  • It's motivating for your post to have more engagement, see the point above. It feels way more exciting to write if you have more engagement from the community, which is more likely if it's . . . well, if it's engaging :P

Also totally agree with your point that this advice isn't for everybody. The law of equal and opposite advice definitely applies.

As someone with little writing experience, and a plan to write more - I found this post motivating and useful! The  "stop trying to be serious and respectable" point hit the nail on the head for me. I don't have a strong background in writing, and when I do write something I set a high internal bar for what is "serious and useful enough".

Personally, I don't see aiming to have engaging writing as an extra hoop. I find it decreases the resistance because I feel like I can write with a more authentic & natural tone. I'm more of a speaker than I am a writer, which I think tends to cause my writing to be overly verbose (as I just write what I would say). 

But this post had really useful tips for where I'm at - I'm sure I'll be referring to this several times in the near future. Thanks Kat!

I think making EA content more entertaining/engaging (or having content that achieves this e.g. submissions to the Creative Writing Contest) is a great way to spread EA ideas. The same goes for YouTube videos and other forms of media. Generally speaking, more entertaining = more engaging = more likely to spread. Not to mention that people are more likely to act when emotionally engaged rather than merely intellectually. 

I find I really like this comment. I don't really know exactly why and don't have time to spend figuring that out, but I figured I'd put that out there. (I suppose if you're looking for encouragement to write more, there it is. )

Also, +1 to "people are more likely to act when emotionally engaged rather than merely intellectually."

Don't you think there is a tradeoff between "writing well*" and "publishing at all"?

For me

I'm trying to write-at-all as a strategy for improving long term. If I'd have an imaginary bar such as "write at least 30% as well as Scott Alexander" which is also emotional (I'd feel posting otherwise is potentially "unethical", omg), I wouldn't publish anything. Many of us are already perfectionists beyond what is effective, don't you think?

Something that would help me is feedback on how my drafts could be better. Right now, I see no upvotes sometimes, 71 upvotes other times, and this isn't so actionable for me. For example, do you have feedback on this or this? Is it just that I commented late?

Other creative ways of resolving this tradeoff

  • The LW team is trying to tackle the "people are too hesitant to publish" problem by giving free reviews.
  • The Nonlinear library [edit: Oh, that's you!] is reaching more people by turning articles into audiobooks.
  • There was a post (I can't find) about how to write rigorously without spending too much time on research. That one really affected me personally.

My intuition is that going for some creative 3rd solution would be better than making an emotional barrier to posting.

Thanks for writing this! The "how to make writing more engaging" section seems useful to me, and so does the general pointer to at least consider putting more effort into being engaging with public writing.

I agree with the general sentiment in some of the other comments that's along the lines of "actually sometimes a relatively dry style makes sense".  I personally have pretty mixed feelings about the "Lesswrong style" (as a reader and a writer).

(For what it's worth, I didn't really have a problem with the previous title. I probably would have hesitated before using that title myself, but I often feel like I'm too conservative about these things)