On writing

There are many ways of saying the same thing, both in writing and in speech. Here I will try to type down some examples of what I think are good practises. Note that I am not a native English writer, but the tips here are valid, in principle, for any language.

  1. A duty to make sense is implicit in the act of writing itself. This is why you should care about it. When you write, except when you are taking notes, you write for others to read. In order for you to be successful, you need to put complex concepts you have in mind into their heads via words. In turn, to do that you must pick your words carefully. If you don’t put effort into it, you are contradicting yourself: you are trying to do something using poor means. Writing something you’d understand is trivial. Not so when writing for others. Don’t be a linguistic solipsist, or a postmodern.
  2. Use commas. You can use commas in two main ways. One is, for example, this one. Here I inserted two words inside the commas. This is done to add something to the main phrase without making it difficult for the reader to understand it. If you are doing it right, you can suppress the inserted words, and the phrase still makes sense (One is this one). Avoid doing this operation, and by operation here we mean an addition of some words into a phrase with the objective of clarifying something or adding meaning to it in such a way as not to bother the reader, using long inserted sentences like I just did. You forget what came before the initial comma and this becomes a hard to digest linguistic sausage. The other use of commas is to give some breathing to the reader, like I am doing here. A useful heuristic to properly place them is to imagine yourself reading your text aloud, and figuring out where would you introduce pauses.
  3. Parenthesis and brackets can be useful (to clarify some concept when the inserted words inside the parenthesis don’t sound nice to substitute using commas) or destructive (If they are overly long, although they can be longer than comma-sandwiched phrases [Hmmm…. sandwiches…]). Brackets can be used to introduce parentheses-like insertions inside parenthetical insertions themselves, changing the enclosing signs to make it easier to read. You can also use more parentheses, but this way is undoubtedly clearer. Also note that with parentheses you can include whole sentences with commas inside them, something that is harder to do with comma-sandwiching. Not many people use two levels of parenthesising, anyways.
  4. Don’t do sudden thematic changes. Let one theme flow into the other. If you want to discuss, say, economics and philosophy and at some point you are talking about the Solow growth function, don’t just begin in the next paragraph by presenting Friedman’s view on methodology. In that case, you should have a (or many) transition paragraphs in which you hint what you will say in what follows. And by all means avoid doing this mid-paragraph. Pinker has a book called the Sense of Style in which he talks about some of these things. He also has some other books related to mind, language, evolutionary psychology, and the evolution of violence. Oh, and he also has a totally cool hair. What I just did here is an example of something you should not do. Even if I didn’t mention anything about Pinker’s books, the first sentence still feels like it appeared out of nowhere, and it also presents us with problem five:
  5. Keep track of references. When you use words like ‘these’,’as we said before’,’ keep in mind that you perfectly know what you mean. Your readers may not. In the previous tip there is a ‘some of these things’. That can refer either to what was commented in the same paragraph (thematic changes), or to what has come before in general. In this second case, it adds to the weirdness, because you’d guess that Pinker talks about most things in the enumeration that is this post, so saying ‘these things’ referring to all this post should come right at the end. If you are not sure whether to use a reference word or not, use the word itself. ‘When you use these, you can tell stories’ vs ‘When you use words, you can tell stories’.
  6. The Oxford comma. USE IT!. It’s not the same to say “I went to see my parents, a cow and a horse” than “I went to see my parents, a cow, and a horse”. In the first sentence, the comma gets confused with the explanatory type of comma, and so the reader may get confused (Woah, how can your parents be a cow and a horse??). In the second sentence, this is much clearer. Using the comma is easy: when you write the final ‘and’ in an enumeration, use a comma in the word that goes before the ‘and’.
  7. On sentence length, just try to avoid being repetitive. Avoid using short sentences all the time, and avoid constructing absurdly long sausages. Shorter sentences may also be used to explain things, sometimes in a shocking way. Suppose someone makes a highfalutin claim. You then write ‘This person said such and such, and this and that, and has these premises. However, most of that is wrong.’ Here you go from long-ish explanation of something in a friendly way to a short-in-your-face rejection of what was presented with the short sentence punchline.
  8. On playfulness, you can play with words to add some sense of fun to your text. You can do this with creative metaphors or comparisons (Institutions are like Soylent Green. Both are made of people. [Note that tip 7 was also applied here]).
  9. On argumentation, you must have what you want to say clear in your head when you write it, or hope it will be by the time it you make it public, as extra insight can occur during writing itself. Your arguments should be writeable in syllogistic form, stating clearly what premises you are relying on, and what follows from what. Note that for all interesting purposes, you won’t be able to find totally general premises, and so your arguments in syllogistic form either will be modest in scope, or they will present lots of ‘It is plausible that’, ‘Given X, it is reasonable to infer that Y’ and so on. Make sure your premises are strong enough for that kind of deductions (actually, extra premises) are valid. Also, being able to identify premises and links between them help you find out what could be wrong with an argument, and this helps for thinking of counterexamples.
  10. When you are arguing something, consider what the counterarguments can be. Probably there are smart people out there who have used arguments to oppose what you are arguing for. Read them and either change your mind, or find out why they are wrong and tell your readers why. Try to be charitable and present your counterarguments in their strongest form (this is sometimes called steelmaning as opposed to strawmaning).
  11. Distance yourself from what you are writing. Don’t let your arguments become yourself. Don’t let the people who defend arguments you argue against become your enemies. When you write in my recommended way, everyone is a friendly partner in a truth-seeking enterprise. You will encounter trolls, bullshitters, stupid people in general and so on. You should ignore and pity them, for they are stupid and don’t understand their predicament. Don’t hate them or get angry. One benefit of this is that you will be able to read through a generally idiotic argument without stopping at the first sight of nonsense, and be able to find some nugget of truth under the bullshit. Or perhaps, you will also be able to understand the person who wrote that, and see what drove them to argue that way. Remember that when you argue forcefully for or against something, that affirmation or negation will become part of your self-image, and getting rid of that something in the future may be harder, hence the detachment from the arguments. To achieve this, reflect upon all the wrong and stupid things you probably used to defend in the past. You can still think someone is an idiot, but avoid it when you are writing. Focus on arguments, not people. Remember that if you start feeling anything when writing, you can stop, and come back later.
  12. Cite. You don’t get all your ideas just by thinking in the armchair, you pick them from others. Acknowledge it, especially if you are going to paraphrase or quote them. Try also to include links to the work you are citing.
  13. Be efficient. If you can say something with fewer words, do it. People have limited amounts of time, be grateful they devote some to reading you and make it easier for them. Maybe you can write lengthy and enjoyable essays, but then you are also pursuing the pure pleasure of crafting a nice read, not just finding out the truth about something. Figure out what’s the appropiate length for each of your writings.
  14. Use -but don’t abuse- charts, graphics and images wherever necessary. Sometimes it is the case that an image is worth a thousand words. Visual information helps to make a point clearer. It’s not the same to say ‘there is a positive relationship between the specific heat of air and temperature (above room temperature), but that the relationship changes with pressure’ than linking to this graph, which clarifies the relationship, how it varies, and importantly, the magnitude of it. Many interesting relationships are nonlinear, and these are hard to explain without charts. And even in linear relations, a chart conveys also the measurement dispersion, so as to give an account of the robustness of the relation.
  15. Separate your points in paragraphs. Each paragraph should focus in one or two main ideas. Don’t break paragraphs for the sake of breaking them. This may be hard because another tip is to avoid excessively long or excessively short paragraphs.
  16. Enumeration and bullet points: If you are listing stuff, and the order does not mater, use bullet points. If the order does matter (Because you are presenting an argument, or you are cross-referencing points like I’ve done in this enumeration) then go with enumerations.
  17. The composition of the text itsef should be varied: alternate simple with complex sentences, and alternate they ways they are linked to each other.
  18. Read. This will help you see what works and what doesn’t, as you’ll be able to see what forms are more readable, what sounds fun, etc.

That’s it for now. If you have more useful tips, please leave me a comment.

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1 Response to On writing

  1. David Walker says:

    “Extra insight can occur during the writing itself.” Yep. See Paul Graham’s writing on essays for a great expansion on this:

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