Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield is my favorite book of writing advice. Its core insight is expressed in the title. The best thing you can do for your writing is to internalize this deep truth.
Pressfield did it by writing ad copy. You can’t avoid internalizing that nobody wants to read your shit when you’re writing ads, which everybody hates and nobody ever wants to read. Maybe you don’t have to go write ad copy to understand this; maybe you can just read the book, or just this post.
When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. You begin to understand that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction. The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer must give him something worthy of his gift to you.
When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, you develop empathy. [...] You learn to ask yourself with every sentence and every phrase: Is this interesting? Is it fun or challenging or inventive? Am I giving the reader enough? Is she bored? Is she following where I want to lead her?
What should you do about the fact that nobody wants to read your shit?
- Streamline your message. Be as clear, simple, and easy to understand as you possibly can.
- Make it fun. Or sexy or interesting or scary or informative. Fun writing saves lives.
- Apply this insight to all forms of communication.
Pressfield wrote this book primarily for fiction writers, who are at the most serious risk of forgetting that nobody wants to read their shit (source: am fiction writer). But the art of empathy applies to all communication, and so do many other elements of fiction:
Nonfiction is fiction. If you want your factual history or memoir, your grant proposal or dissertation or TED talk to be powerful and engaging and to hold the reader and audience's attention, you must organize your material as if it were a story and as if it were fiction. [...]
What are the universal structural elements of all stories? Hook. Build. Payoff. This is the shape any story must take. A beginning that grabs the listener. A middle that escalates in tension, suspense, and excitement. And an ending that brings it all home with a bang. That's a novel, that's a play, that's a movie. That's a joke, that's a seduction, that's a military campaign. It's also your TED talk, your sales pitch, your Master's thesis, and the 890-page true saga of your great-great-grandmother's life.
And your whitepaper, and your grant proposal, and your EA forum post. For this reason, I do recommend going out and grabbing this book, even though much of it concerns fiction. It only takes about an hour to read, because Pressfield knows we don’t want to read his shit. Finally:
All clients have one thing in common. They're in love with their product/company/service. In the ad biz, this is called Client's Disease. [...]
What the ad person understands that the client does not is that nobody gives a damn about the client or his product. [...]
The pros understand that nobody wants to read their shit. They will start from that premise and employ all their arts and all their skills to come up with some brilliant stroke that will cut through that indifference.
The relevance of this quote to EA writing is left as an exercise to the reader.
jvb -- good post; I agree with the central message: if you're a writer, no reader owes you anything - not their attention, not their sympathy, not their cognitive effort, not their patience, not their money, not their world-view. You have to earn all of it, word by word, line by line, chapter by chapter.
More general point: there's a huge ecosystem of advice out there on writing, outreach, marketing, advertising, public relations, etc. Much of it has dubious content, but a large proportion of it exemplifies good, direct, actionable writing.
In other words, popular books on topics like advertising (e.g. by marketing guru Seth Godin) don't always deliver useful 'object-level' advice, but they are usually written in an extremely effective and compelling way that's worth studying at a meta-level.
Students who write essays are trained in a very strange environment - they have someone who will read their work no matter what. Try writing a blog - if it's bad, I don't get an F, I get 10 views on something that took me a day to write.
The forum is honestly pretty good training for this. I've written several posts that took me ~10 hours each that got like 40 karma. Pretty galling, but that's the real world.
It's actually quite remarkable--the way we teach writing to students is anti-useful. You could possibly do a worse job than we're currently doing but I don't immediately see how.
Well Nathan, you know that I want to say "why are you paying attention to karma, you know karma is a bad proxy for what you care about", and believe me I've done way worse than 10 hours for 40 points multiple times. But maybe the point is that karma is awarded on writing style more than anything else?
does important EA have a crisis on its hands, that researchers who need engagement to thrive aren't getting the comments they need? Number of comments and karma are sorta correlated, right.
I think karma is awarded more by generality of subject matter than writing style per se? This post I spent a few hours on (including the hour I spent rereading the book) has x3 the karma of another post I put up around the same time that represents the outcome of about a year of part-time research.
And this is perfectly natural! Everyone on the EA forum has some reason to care about good writing, only some small subset of people on the EA forum have some reason to care about genetic engineering detection.
Yeah. I'll add:
There are more but I'm not finished reading them. I can't say that I've learned what I should from all those books, but I got the right idea, more than once, from them.
I'd also add 'The sense of style: The thinking person's guide to writing in the 21st century' (2015) by Steven Pinker (Harvard Psychologist who focuses on language) -- an excellent book.
Thank you for the recommendation. I also found Clear and Simple as the Truth by Thomas and Turner a great philosophical investigation into producing streamlined, simple writing.
I've come across advice similar to this (David Perell for instance) and something that comes to mind is - What if Proust followed this advice? Or William James. Erik Davis. Or hell even Haruki Marukami. They're a whole bunch of authors whose writing I love that go pretty hard against -"Streamline your message. Be as clear, simple, and easy to understand as you possibly can."
Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the general thrust of this post and clear writing is usually great and something to aspire to. I also like the quote on non-fiction as fiction. I think the main problem I have with any 'rules' on how to write is that to me, the best authors break the language.
There's something of a pepperoni airplane effect here. Everyone wants to think they're Proust. I analogize it to the Picasso thing--you need to "learn the rules" before you can usefully take the training wheels off and start "breaking" them. Scare quotes intentional.
I disagree re: Murakami (haven't read the others). I find him to be communicating extremely clearly. The actual book is full of specific examples of things that we think of as artful and indirect but that are actually bending the full force of themselves into conveying a very bright and specific concept.
Thanks for this post, a ton of good insights! I think this has quite a bit of relevance to internal EA community communication, aswell as pitching EA concepts to the general public
I've wondered quite a bit about how we can improve the broadcasting of EA Cause Areas to reach more potential researchers. I think the people who are pretty killer at this are scientific communicators on Youtube (Veritasium, Tom Scott, Physics Girl, etc..). I wonder if it'd be worth trying to get a few people working on reaching out to the top 50 science channels on Youtube to pitch different cause areas in EA as video concepts (Alignment research, novel approaches to Animal Welfare, BioRisk tech, etc...)?