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Ask HN: Can you give me some advice on writing essays?
50 points by rayalez on Sept 25, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 30 comments
I am trying to learn to write some interesting essays/blog post, and I need some advice, because I'm completely stuck.

I have had trouble coming up with things to talk about my whole life. I read a lot, and I feel like I know a lot of things, but when I sit down to write my mind goes completely blank, I have nothing to say, or rather I feel like there's nothing worth writing about.

I don't have anything to say to people who know less than me, because explaining obvious things seems boring, and I don't know what to say to people on HN/LessWrong, because I feel like they are smarter than me and already know everything I am about to say.

For example when I read Eliezer Yudkowsky's essays, I think that I already know a lot of the things he is talking about, so before I've read them I had this information in my head, information that could be turned into some interesting writing. I was supposed to be able to write at least something similar, but clearly I didn't. I assume I have some interesting information in my mind, it can't be completely empty, but when I try to come up with topics for essays I hit this weird roadblock, and end up with nothing.

Recently I'm making some progress at writing fiction, but with essays I'm completely stuck, I've got nothing. It's like I'm missing some key element necessary to just start writing things.

Can you help me out? Do you have any advice that could help me to get started?

The time to think of topics is not when you sit down to write--it's when you're busy interacting with the world.

There, you're going to have insights. You're going to encounter itches you need to scratch. You're going to find questions that pop up--why you're feeling out of sync with something, why you're annoyed by something.

With luck, you're going to create things that no one else has created. And even if someone else has created it, something led you to create it in the way you did.

All of these observations of self can be noted when they occur, and they can form the premise for an essay. Use a sticky, or carry a Field Notes notebook. Stop and capture them.

Maybe 95% of them will be garbage. File them away--maybe journal them. See if they come up again. If they do, then you're onto something.

The other 5% may write themselves.

For me, essays are about connecting ideas from disparate domains.

Short version: if you have nothing to say when you sit down at the keyboard, then get up from the keyboard and interact with the world around you, and observe. You'll be cured in no time.

I agree completely with firebones. Getting a pocket-sized Moleskine notebook last year and jotting down observations that arise when I interact with the world has been most helpful. One surprising point is that looking back on my notebook, many ideas I would've forgotten about completely if they hadn't been written down. I'm not saying these are $1M ideas, but it's nice to have a record of what you were thinking 6 months ago.

To borrow pg's analogy that we are the executable whose source code we've lost, by writing down our thoughts (even in point-form) we may at least hope to generate output logs of versions of ourselves compiled at different times.

Speaking as someone who has written many well-received essays on LessWrong, I feel like you're approaching the problem from the wrong angle. IMO writing a good essay shouldn't be a goal, it has to be a side effect of doing interesting intellectual work.

For example, there's someone on LW who wrote a chatbot that successfully hypnotizes people over IRC. Would you read an essay about that? You bet you would! There's also someone who sold drugs for bitcoin, and someone who doxxed drug lords, and someone who won AI-box experiments, and someone who independently invented cryptocurrency... My own most successful essays on LW came as as a side effect of my work on decision theory math, which had other nice effects as well (like being invited to speak at conferences). Even Eliezer's essays were a side effect of his attempts to figure out friendly AI, rather than "hmm I want to write something interesting today".

So, instead of mulling over which obvious thing you'd like to write about, try to do some novel work that interests you on its own terms! When you try to describe it afterward, I promise you the words will come much easier.

I'd put a slightly different twist on that. The key is having something to say. Maybe even having something that you have to say. If you don't have that, don't bother trying to write (unless it's a job requirement, or it's just for practice).

Yeah, that's certainly how the rest of the world puts it. Unfortunately it's not very actionable. "The key is to have something to say!" "Hmm, but what if I don't have anything to say right now?" And they're stuck again. It's kinda like "be attractive, don't be unattractive". Whereas my answer is "do interesting intellectual work, get results, write them up". A little more actionable, no?

I'd say that my action is this: If you don't have something to say, don't say it. If you don't have something to say right now, don't view yourself as being stuck. You don't have to have something to say right now (or ever, for that matter). Don't waste your time trying to have something to say. When you do, you'll know. In the meantime, go do something else, rather than trying to "find" something to say.

Your advice is on how to find something to say, and it's fine (though it's not the only way to get there). My advice is how to think/feel about your situation when you don't have something to say.

I said that your advice isn't the only way to find something to say, because the something to say doesn't have to be something intellectual. Go do some interesting intellectual work - that's fine. But also, go fall in love. Go start playing sports. Go on vacation. Go take up a hobby. In any of those, you can find something to say, not because you're desperately trying to find something to say, but because you're out living life instead of racking your brain looking for something to say.

Can't stress this enough. Every success is a side-effect.

This sounds less like a problem with writing essays and more with a fear of being judged - I know, because I have the same problem.

"I don't have anything to say to people who know less than me, because explaining obvious things seems boring [...] I feel like they are smarter than me and already know everything I am about to say"

I've suffered from this for years. 'That idea sounds stupid - it's far too simple', or 'if I write this / make this my peers will judge me'. When the reality, the people you look up to probably aren't looking at you, and there are far, far more people who, despite you thinking something is obvious, will find value in your work.

Reading HN (and similar) we're exposed to some incredible people - those at the top of their game. Because you or I am not that person doesn't mean that what we write doesn't have value to someone.

My friend has recently published his third novel. It's quite good. He started writing when we lived together at university 15 years. I used to read his short stories back then. It took him 13 years to publish his first book. But he wrote voraciously in the meantime. Most of us don't start great - it comes with practice.

Basically what I'm saying, is pick a topic - even one you consider too simple - and get started. Write 300 words. Then do the same tomorrow. Then the next day. Your writing will improve, you'll read more, research more, learn more - and new ideas will come to the point where you'll have more ideas than time. Like the writing itself, it comes with practice. And those 'obvious' topics you start with - they'll undoubtedly benefit someone in the long run.

> It's like I'm missing some key element necessary to just start writing things.

You're probably missing the value proposition of your writing in general (what is your set of essays giving to the people who read it), and the thesis of each post in particular.

For the VP I use: "My essays all about helping _________ learn/be/do/become ___________."

Once you've got that value prop, you can get specific ideas by thinking about the type of person you're serving (the first blank) and thinking about the sort of questions that person asks you over a beer when you're hanging out with them.

Or you can use trigger questions like:

* Mistakes you've made or seen in this industry * Most common bad advice in this industry

Etc etc. I made a little interactive version of this process at http://whattowrite.org (it's a free and unsupported old hobby project, but it works all right).

Good luck. In the early days, essays/blogging are more about refining what you think, so don't worry too much about whether or not people read it. Write for you first (but with a reader in mind so you don't wander all over the place).

Some advice, in no particular order:

1. Writing is a conversation. If you're ever stuck in front of the computer, try using a voice recorder instead (e.g. while going for a walk, or while sitting in the sun somewhere) and then transcribe what you said. I find it has magical effects of simplifying sentences and keeping writing interesting.

2. Write with a goal and a reader in mind. Do you want to inform/describe something or convince/sell something? Who are you writing to? When in doubt, write to inform, try to summarize and distill the essence of the topic.

3. Do not pervert the English language, e.g. if you say "utilize" instead of "use", I hate you. More on that front: https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

4. Keep it short: in each sentence you're either getting to a point or setting up some context that will allow you to make a point soon.

When I am stuck on writing essays for a deadline I start by reading one or two new articles on the particular topic I want to write about. Then I take relativly detailed notes on the best article I read. I then spin those notes out into exposition of the topic considered.

At that point there will be bits of the topic that I don't think any of the articles captured completly or parts where I agree with one and not others. An original point of view comes out of the synthesis.

If I am struggling at the stage where I spin the notes out into exposition I follow a relativly simple framework that forces me to keep writing. I learned it for exams but I think it is pretty versatile and adds clarty where otherwise you would be waffeling: DICE

>>Define: Define the view / theory / idea / term under consideration. Sometimes this will be pretty involved and amount to the meat of your exposition. If it is getting too long though then you should break the concept up and DICE individual parts as well as the bigger picture.

>>Ilustrate: Give an example of the thing under consideration in non abstract terms.

>>Contrast: Define the contrasting ways of understanding or a competing theory or an example of something that isn't covered by the theory.

>>Explain: Explain what motivates the theory you are considering and why it is different from alternatives.

After doing that for all the parts involved in the topic I usually have some areas that the original articles I considered didn't touch on. Then I get into evaluating.

People imagine that originality is blue sky thinking. Occasionally it is. But usually it is adding clarity or going further than someone already has on a particular topic or presenting old ideas in a new light. Often times a good reading of existing views adds light where a radical new approach just adds heat.

When I have a hard time writing, be it blog entries or fiction, I have found I have one of two problems.

#1 I don't know enough about the content. I love when I have this problem because it means I get to have unique (to me) experiences that will help me flesh out my idea. I also realize that I'm not in a position to write anything, which relieves some pressure.

Unfortunately, "not enough experience" is not one of my common hangups. Which leads me to....

#2 I have a mechanical problem. Uh, I hate these, because they come in all forms. It could be that I'm writing in a style that I'm not used to. Or that I'm trying to write about a topic in a blog post that is meant for a book. Or my first draft is a dumpster fire. Or I can't get through a first draft because I'm worried about said dumpster fire. Or my idea isn't organized. Or coherent. Or maybe I'm a terrible writer and should give up.

And on and on and on goes the spinning top if self loathing.

To combat it, I do a few things. First I make sure the idea and the medium align. You wouldn't want to write a blog post about the geo political tensions the Syrian refugee crisis has caused much like you wouldn't want to write a book about your mom's famous beef stroganoff recipe.

Once you feel they align, tell yourself you're not a genius. Really, do it. What you're about to write will be derivative and boring. It's going to be the steamy turd you wish you never wrote.

Then polish the turd. Revise your writing the best you can. And finally have someone (with some sort of credentials) critique it. Or if you're feeling daring, set it off in the wild. After you do all that, put that piece out of your head and start something else.

This advice, in and of itself, isn't novel. Hell, someone on this thread's handle is FailMore. But that's all it is. Reps, fucking up and learning from it.

And remember you're not the smartest guy in the room. So don't pretend to be. But you can be interesting to some people, so work on that.

My favorite quote on writing comes from James Ervin's AMA[0]:

>And if you're going to write, write what you want to write. The odds against any creator are insane. If you're going to devote months of your time, don't let it be for an idea you think will sell. Odds are it won't. Write something you want to write, or need to write. Write for yourself before anyone else. I'd rather read someone who is excited and passionate about what they want to say than someone who's obviously trying to say what they think I want to hear.

— James Erwin

I had the same issues with my writing recently (why should I even write anything when there are far better people writing about these things). It boiled down the following for me [1]:

1. Self Learning (Writing about it makes you understand it betteer)

2. Sharing knowledge (I want the knowledge to spread)

3. Network Effect (People I know are far more likely to read my post as they trust me)

4. I love writing

Coming up with topics is harder. I tend to read a lot, and whenever I read something I already knew, I put it in my "to-write-list". Essentially, the idea is to write things that you'd like to read yourself, but can't find anywhere. Another good idea is to take "auxiliary" topics instead of a core topic. This means finding things that are interesting enough only when taken together. For instance, don't write about Machine Learning, write about doing Machine Learning with a specific toolkit or language.

Specific topics are always better than vague ones, in my experience.

[0]: https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/2w72o7/so_i_sold_a_re...

[1]: https://captnemo.in/blog/2015/06/07/on-writing/

Take a look at the Pyramid Principle [pdf] http://www.consultingmethodology.com/wp-content/uploads/2014..., developed by Barbara Minto from Mckinsey Consulting. It provides a framework for structuring your thoughts and helping you identify the most important points for your essay, blog post, presentation. The journalism pyramid does similar but to my mind has less of a methodology.

Why do you want to write? Do you really want to write? To me it seems strange to want to write about something, anything, but not knowing what to write about. I have the opposite problem: too many things to write about and too little time to write about them. I don't want to write about them for the sake of writing something, but because I find the topic interesting. It's like the kid who is exploring a forest and found a cave, and is excited about the cave and wants to share that excitement.

So I think the first thing you need to evaluate is whether you really want to write and why. If the answer is you want to seem sophisticated and earn the intellectual respect of being a writer then I can't give you any advice except that maybe you should reconsider the decision to write. Write about topics that interest you. Where does your mind wander when you are in the shower? That's what you should write about. In most cases this is not a topic that you've already fully understood. Those topics aren't interesting any more because you already know the answers. Interesting topics are those for which you need to do additional thinking and additional research. Write about what you are learning now.

Other people's heads contain different information that yours!

There are smarter people out there but they might not have your insights into the challenges and rewards of hydroponic banana farming.

Two days ago you might not have known how to perform a particular task, and searching the internet was fruitless. You might not be the first person to have to work out how to do that from first principles -- but you can make sure you might be the last!

Come up with an outline: maybe it's a rant like me talking about Excel ( https://blog.scraperwiki.com/2015/07/eusprig/ ) -- ugh, this sucks because A, and then people do B to get around C, and can't even start to do D, E or F because they're stuck in this way of doing things. Use that to structure what you're writing, flesh out those bare bones.

The first idea, the first sentences are always the hardest. To get my fingers typing, I would talk to myself "What do I want to say?" I would type this sentence. Then I would answer myself out loud. "I want to talk about the dangers of unapproved GMO foods escaping outside controlled grow areas and into consumer farms." Then I type what I just said out loud. If I don't know what I want to say, I answer myself "I don't know. This GMO topic interests me because of the really interesting science behind the creation of these hybrid plant lines. But I don't trust the human bureaucratic framework around the scientists. I feel this way blah blah blah".

Verbal style obviously isn't written style. I edit things after I have a lot more words on the page. But that out-loud Q&A gets my juices typing.

I have at times made my living writing and developing presentations for audiences ranging from executives of major tech vendors to CIOs and their teams at fortune 500 companies. My twenty-something daughter has just completed a BA in Scientific and Technical Communication and has simultaneously finished writing a suspense/horror novel. Both of us refer to early drafts of our writing with the same phrase, "word vomit."

It is a gross and yet liberating label to what we do. By just getting the ideas out there in a very loose, non-judgmental manner you get past your own inner censor.

You can always decide later whether it is worth the effort of the second and third draft to get it publication ready, but at least the ideas are out of your head and you've made a start.

I hope this little phrase helps you get past your inner judge.

I don't know exactly what you want to do, but creativity plays and large role.Many years ago when I was younger I wanted to write screenplays for Hollywood, used this book as a way to explore my creativity. Also reading as much as you call and watching classic movies would help as well. The book is called the Artists Way.


Hey Rayalez,

Some friends and I run a project which could be relevant. It is called Taaalk (http://taaalk.co) and is an online platform for conversations. So if you don't know what to write but have a friend that would happily discuss a subject with you, or know someone you'd like to learn something from by asking them questions then it works well.

We've found that people discover they know a lot of valuable information which they didn't consider valuable until someone started asking them about it. Sounds like this could apply to you. Drop me a line at josh[at]taaalk.co if you want to get involved.

I have a blog; a very unpopular blog that is probably read by two or three people. I write essays and "blog posts" on there.

I also majored in literature and philosophy and had to write essays a lot. I got a lot of As.

The first thing to learn is that every group of writers follows different rules.

Think about why you want to publish your writings. Learn that context matters -- that is, your target audience matters. People reading my blog posts don't want the same thing as the people reading my essays at university. My university essays have a different tone and style. To be sure, the essays on my blog are the least popular, because they are very academic. That's okay. I like to write that way sometimes.

Often the things that others find interesting in our writings are things the writer would have never guessed. Because of this, it's all right to swallow your pride and just hit "Publish." Some of it will be horrible, some of it will be great. And there is always the stuff in between.

From a strictly academic perspective, the easiest type of essay to write is a comparative essay. Compare books, ideas, or topics that are similar enough to warrant a comparison; e.g., sexual parallels in Fifty Shades of Grey and Marquis de Sade's literary oeuvre, if you're going for a wide appeal. I just made that up. It's all experimentation.

Another academic "lesson" is when you're stuck writing an essay, it's time to bring in another example.

These are standard techniques that possibly engender a style that is stale and stiff. The more you cater to your reader, the more entertaining it'll be, because you'll speak her or his vernacular.

Having said all that, I have only published my poetry in very small publications. Nobody is interested in my short stories or essays (outside of academia), and I am by no stretch of the imagination a blogger who others read assiduously.

I am read by a very small circle of writer friends.

We have a joke.

We're good at things that don't have much value in modern culture.

It's a big joke.

And we're the punch line.

The best essays start with a story or metaphor. Finding these stories and connecting them to your topic can be hard. I wrote a book that shows you how to do this. You can get it for free at Leanpub - it's called Hooked On You (http://www.leanpub.com/hookedonyou). It comes with a few stories you can use to get you started. Hope it helps.

This is pretty good from the ex-maintainer of Planner mode, Emacswiki mode and Remember mode:


You can start by summarizing somebody's ideas (like Yudkowsky's), then compared them to other authors you know. You can focus on one aspect and add your own thoughts.

i think if you have trouble coming up with things to write about, your problem is not on the writing portion. i don't know how other people do it but for me, im constantly thinking and questioning things everyday (obviously the best times is outside of work but even work springs ideas into my head). even as you read books and other interesting content, you should be consistently thinking and not sucking it in. hopefully that helps.

Figure out what really makes you excited and reach out to people doing those things. You'd be amazed as to who will respond to an unsolicited e-mail.

pg wrote an essay on what an essay is and how you can write one. [1]

The most important take away from it was to not to write an essay to defend a position, but to write one so you can express your idea that leads to something interesting which is unknown to your audience, so you can share it!

[1] http://www.paulgraham.com/essay.html

Tell a good story, if you and some people where sitting around a campfire what would you say?

I'm afraid I don't really write enough to comment on how you should get started. Or rather how you should get finished. The idea of noting down ideas, snippets in a book (or digitally) is good. I have a couple of rats nests of small items, and todos, ideas -- 2/3s in various ColorNote[c]s on my Android -- the rest in text files in a mercurial repo).

If the idea you note down is any good today, it'll be a good idea tomorrow too. And a year from now.

If you have enough good starting points, actually spending some time writing out an essay from them becomes easier. Remember you'll probably want to do at least three re-writes if you're hoping the result is going to be any good. Lots of people don't do that -- and it shows. Most half-decent blog posts would've been a lot better if the authors took the time to rework them a bit more. Or, according to Hemmingway: "“The first draft of anything is shit.”

So with the caveat that I don't actually write much (yet?), the best book I've read on writing is: William Zinsser's "On Writing Well": http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Edition/...

Highly recommended for anyone that have to communicate in writing (ie: everyone).

> I don't have anything to say to people who know less than me, because explaining obvious things seems boring, and I don't know what to say to people on HN/LessWrong, because I feel like they are smarter than me and already know everything I am about to say.

For essays, it can be good to write for yourself. To yourself, or someone much like yourself, but someone who's perhaps not yet encountered one particular idea, one particular technique -- one particular subject.

That usually gives a good framework for avoid "talking down". Write to yourself of one, two or five years ago. There will be many that don't have that last year, years of experience and circumstance that led you down the path to were you are now. Perhaps such a perspective makes it easier for you to share something?

[c] http://www.colornote.com/download.html

I mostly use Colornote to keep track of ideas, such as app/application/project ideas along with a couple of bulletpoints (eg: Reinvent email: look into alternative client/server sync such as jmap; store email in normalized sql db?; document db?; store attachments based on content hash? (free de-dup); Store email body as same? (Good for multi-user server support for mailinglists ... etc))

Study Butterick's Practical Typography for tips on how to use typographic elements well, for example using hyphens and dashes properly[0]. Once you read a few of these tips you'll start seeing them everywhere in professional writing.

[0] http://practicaltypography.com/hyphens-and-dashes.html

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