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.
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:
- 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.
- 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:
- The most important thing in writing - the headline
- The second most important thing in writing - the first sentence
- Lead with benefits, not features
- 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.
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.’