Recently, I gave a few people some advice on how to write well. Below is that advice.
1. Have a thought.
2. Get that thought from your head to someone else’s.
In this community, a ‘thought’ tends to be some idea. But, thoughts are not synonymous with ideas. Some thoughts are vibes, forms of inspiration, emotions, etc.
You can write to think, but that kind of writing is profoundly different from the writing I discuss here: writing to clarify your own thought is not writing to get your thought to someone else.
It is outside the scope of this piece to teach you to have thoughts. But, until you do, you can’t write well. You really must have something to say.
1. Every word has a unique meaning or a unique set of connotations. Use words precisely. Don’t think about big words or small words—think about which particular word you mean.
2. This will generally lead to clear writing. Other things also tend to help. For example, clear writing usually entails good grammar. Often, I say things like “we can always break grammar rules if it sounds better”—and this is perfectly true. But, unless you genuinely understand the point of the grammatical rules and why they’re there, you’re probably better off nearly always following them. Grammar rules can be modelled well as Chesterton’s Fences.
3. There are several books excellent at teaching grammar. My own favourite is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (various editions exist, all do the job). I’ve heard other things are good, e.g. Pinker’s stuff (according to someone I like) but I haven’t read it.
4. A common issue I see in this community is something broadly called a reference problem. An example: “Alice ran a workshop, which Barbara attended. She really enjoyed the entire process and event.” Which person does ‘she’ refer to? Alice, or Barbara? I often see this kind of error, usually with words such as ‘it’ and ‘this’. Rationalists don’t usually overcomplicate, but an idea is only simple if I can figure out which specific nouns we’re talking about.
5. For good writing, clear writing is usually necessary but insufficient. Do not get so bogged down in clear writing that you forget good writing—warm writing, or inviting writing, or writing which evokes a specific feeling through non-specific imagery. Recall my earlier point about getting your thought into your reader’s mind. That thought might not always be propositional content. Getting your personality or emotion across can be important too.
6. A sentence is a particular kind of thing. It should contain one idea. Each idea should be encapsulated in its sentence. Connected sentences should be strung together, one after another, to build a broader idea. That single broader idea belongs in a single paragraph. Do not split ideas unnecessarily; and certainly do not combine them.
7. Each sentence should make sense in its place. You should be able to quickly and cleanly note why one sentence is where it is in its paragraph, and justify why it isn’t somewhere else.
8. A common tip, with some use, is to think of verbs as the driving force of sentences. Don’t think about a sentence in terms of merely its noun. I don’t think ‘I’m going to write a sentence about a cat’. I think ‘I’m going to write a sentence about a cat running’.
9. Another note on common rationalist and EA writing. One can write about X; and one can write about the activity of interacting with the idea X. Example: ‘X is great.’; or, ‘I’ve come to think that X is great’. Both are fine, but they are different, and you should think about which you would like to convey to your reader.
10. And another note on rationalist and EA writing. There is this thing where, like, we like to use little words because it seems like it helps us think clearly. This is not always, like, awful, but I’ve started to feel like it’s a bit overused. In particular, I think it mixes up the act of writing for oneself with the act of writing for others.
11. Signposting is very good. Think of phrases like ‘I mention this because’, ‘At first, this might seem irrelevant, but it is actually relevant, because…’. Similarly, structure is also good—sequence ideas in a logical way.
1. Read a lot—and, in particular, read those authors you’d like to write like. And try to avoid reading too much of those authors you wouldn’t like to write like.
2. When you write, think about both the genre and the audience. Good writing in one genre, or for one audience, looks very different than good writing in another genre or for another audience.
3. Get people around you to edit your work. Getting writers to edit your work is probably the fastest way to improve. It’s also a great way to build friendships and clarify your thinking. I’m relatively harsh. But, if you’re confident that I won’t make you hate me or make you miserable by being absurdly critical, then shoot me a message—I’d probably be delighted to edit. At the very least, it’d make me happy to read what you have to say.