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Ask HN: How can I become more eloquent?
170 points by curiousgal on June 21, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 81 comments
I was taught four languages growing up and despite me being fluent in speaking almost of them, when I try to present or argue a point in writing, I find it hard to come up with a clear structure that conveys that point well. I tried reading a lot, especially in English, but I can't seem to remember the structures prolific writers use.

My English teacher used to say “when you have to write an essay, write a first version. Then throw away everything but your conclusion and use that as the introduction of your real essay”

In other words, start writing and don’t be afraid to throw away. If your issue is structure, writing a first version will help you clarify your arguments, how they fit together and how to present them effectively.

If your issue is formulation (i.e. the idea you want to convey is clear in your head but you can’t manage to express it clearly) I find that an iterative writing / waiting a few hours / re-reading what I wrote / reformulating approach gradually makes my writing better: less grammatical errors, clearer phrases, and usually a more concise result.

Edit: one of my favorite quotes when it comes to writing is “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

>My English teacher used to say “when you have to write an essay, write a first version. Then throw away everything but your conclusion and use that as the introduction of your real essay”

When you replace "conclusion" with "top level functions", this seems to work equally well, at least for myself, when writing (new) code.

The quote from Saint-Exupery also applies to good code I think :D

All code could be constructed as a Perl one-liner. Or minified.

There is a point where reduction = obfuscation.

AFAIK, it's harder to hit that point using IRL organic languages, but TBH people abuse acronyms while coding. IANAL and YMMV, but just my 2 cents FYI - TMYK!

Doesn’t even need to be a full essay. Just write down every thought about the topic in an unstructured list. The key is to just start getting stuff down and out of your head, and it doesn’t need to come out of your head as fully structured perfect paragraphs, and it doesn’t even need to start from the beginning. Get the ideas out so you don’t forget the points you want to make, then you can wordsmith them later.

My anthropology professor in college had the following advice: write a first version. Then cut down the first and last paragraph since they were only there to help you.

You just reminded me to read the little prince! Thank you.

My advice is to learn as we humans learn best, through imitation.

Find some speakers that you admire, with online content, or videos. Next take a ~5 minute segment, which has a start and finish.

Turn off the video and formulate the same argument on your own, either in writing, or by recording yourself, depending on your goals. Now go back and compare to the original.

Whilst tedious this will highlight your own shortcomings, and the genius of those you are emulating far quicker than any passive approach, imo.

this is similar to an exercise David Foster Wallace would do — take a longish piece of prose, read it once, then try to replicate it exactly without looking.

Assuming it’s long enough that you can’t hold it in working memory, you’ll end up with something that shows you the difference between your own instinctive writing style and whatever you are copying.

Side note, but this is quite similar to how Raymond Chandler taught himself to write (around age 40 IIRC). He'd take a short story he liked, make a detailed outline of the plot, then write a story from the outline and compare it to the original.

Where did you read that? (I'm curious.) Ben Franklin did basically the same thing.

Ben Franklin imitated John Bunyan from Pilgrim's Progress if I am not wrong.

i didn't remember, but searching around it looks like it was something he mentioned in an interview with Bryan A. Garner.

Remember that writing is very different to speaking, and those prolific writers often spent vast amounts of time tweaking their words until the have the perfect narrative.

When it comes to verbal communication people respond well to stories. As with any story:

  - Start With A Hook.
  - Have A Point To The Story.
  - Choose The Right Time To Tell The Story.
  - Show, Don't Tell.
  - Use Vivid Details, Not Lots Of Facts.
  - Practice Related Skills.
  - Tell Personal Stories, But Cautiously.
  - Share Firsthand Thoughts & Feelings.

They are looking for writing tips not speaking tips.

Fair point, though in my creative writing class most of the same points were taught and emphasized.

Especially "show, don't tell".

For example:

- don't say "He's really good at distributed databases."

- say "He pondered over how to handle multi-master write conflicts. The answer came to him in the shower: CRDTs"

OP said “([present] or [argue) a point in writing]”.

I naturally group that using the square brackets above, not the parens. If you use parens, it’s writing only. With the square bracket grouping, it includes speaking tips.

Fair enough.

APEC - Assert thesis, Present evidence, Explain relevance, Conclude. Should include the counterargument in the explanation paragraph.

Source: my tyrant of an English professor.

Add a personal/colorful story paragraph before the A and you get the format another professor used while a professionally prolific writer.

One thing that I recognize in people that sound more eloquent is that they pick the most accurate words when possible, having in consideration when to abstract out or when to be more specific to do not distract you, from the main point.

Sort of not generating ambiguities in the listeners head by using very specific terms. At the same time use more abstract words for the aspects that are no so relevant in the conversation. This is one observation I made, because I’d like to become more eloquent but as you can see I’m not quite there yet hahaha. Thanks for posting this interesting question.

Most people don't:

- Consider their audience

- Make use of structure

- Repeatedly edit what they have written before hitting send

The first and third items are things you can just decide to do: think of your audience, and spend time to read and adjust the content and format until it's great.

For the second item, consider this book: https://www.amazon.com/Pyramid-Principle-Logic-Writing-Think...

Benjamin Franklin, in his autobiography, writes about how he wanted to develop his ability to craft persuasive arguments. I've always admired his approach to solving that problem.

Here's a short article on that excerpt: https://excellence-in-literature.com/copywork-how-benjamin-f...

I read thousands of books, but never learned to write eloquently until I was 18 and was taught to write by someone very experienced at teaching writing. He went through dozens of essays with a red pen, tightening constructions and arguments. I'm convinced that doing is the only way to learn writing, and if you can get 1-on-1 guidance and detailed feedback, it can hugely accelerate the process.

That said, also read

* William Zinsser "How to write well". It's a very practical classic that improved my writing by a factor of two or more after one reading, and I found it enjoyable enough to read it more than once.

* Mark Forsyth "The Elements of Eloquence". Also highly enjoyable while remaining very practical (it also took several readings to remember a lot of the points he made, but it's reasonably short and each of the many sections are independent, so it's easy to open it up and learn something in 2-3 minutes).

If anyone is interested in the intersection of technology and writing eloquently, pull requests to https://github.com/sixhobbits/technical-writing/blob/master/... are very welcome

1) To learn effective structure, start with the Pyramid principle [1]. Some people have a natural sense of flow, others don't. I'm in the latter category. I find I need some kind of mental scaffolding, which the Pyramid Principle provides.

2) Jot down any interesting witticisms, jokes or turns-of-phrase that you come across. (I have Google Docs document that I've been stashing phrases in for years). Do not use this to embellish your writing -- that would be plagiarism -- but instead, use it as a archive of the writing style(s) you are partial to and as an aid to developing your own style.

3) Take a creative writing class and workshop your pieces. Real-life critique from peers can often help you discover strengths and weaknesses. Good feedback loops are key to getting better at any endeavor.

4) Edit edit edit. Compose a draft and let it sit. Read it out loud. Repeat until you are happy with it.

Eloquence is a outcome, not a skill. You cannot learn it directly. You can however learn the skills that lead to it.

It's a little bit like discipline. You can't set out to learn "discipline", but you can do things like dedicating yourself to practicing say, a musical instrument. Along the way, discipline emerges. It's a meta-skill.

Writing is an open-domain skill, and not everyone can be a great writer. However, most people can be decent technicians at writing. Some technicians may eventually become great writers.

[1] https://medium.com/lessons-from-mckinsey/the-pyramid-princip...

As strange as it may sound, I often write on HN (and other places) simply to practice writing. I've noticed that good writing often gets upvotes, while good ideas (at least in my opinion) are controversial. If people can follow your train of thought, there will be people who agree and will upvote you. If they can't, it doesn't matter how brilliant the idea, people will ignore it.

As for mimicking other writers, I would avoid that. You have a style, but you haven't discovered it yet. Just keep writing. Get feedback. Write some more. Over time, your style will come forward. Once you recognise it, it will be easier to refine it.

I often find that if I'm having trouble conveying a point in writing, it's because I don't understand the needs of my audience and the story arc of the information I'm conveying in the context of that audience.

You want to create an urgent need in the reader for whatever it is you're trying to convey. What problem are they facing? How can you position them as the hero that will solve that problem, and how will they use your product, information, or point of view to become the hero of their own story.

It seems that you're feeling that your points are being understood or acknowledged, despite the fact that you know you have important information to convey.

We all want to be heard and to be valuable contributors, and I'll share that I've personally found the best way to be heard is to listen. By framing the presentation of your information in terms of your audience's problems and needs, you allow them relax. You haven't just heard their point, you're addressing it.

Now you can use the shared momentum of their attention and needs to guide them towards the solution you're proposing.

When done well, you'll make people feel profoundly heard and that you are empowering them solve their own problems, using ideas or suggestions they might have otherwise rejected if presented as simple fact or advice.

If you'd like to learn more, I'd recommend two fantastic books on the topic:



Despite their titles (and apparent focus on marketing), these books are both about empathy, listening, and finding ways to convey information that resonate deeply with your listeners.

How to Win Friends and Influence People should be required reading, and studied prior to graduating high school. I reread it once every year, and I still dig out gems that help in day to day life.

Join a nearby Toastmasters club. It'll give you tons of practice in speaking, and you'll quickly see how it affects your speech, not just in speaking contexts, but in any context where you have to speak to, communicate with, or lead people.

2 years into a Toastmasters club in Shanghai China and I have seen remarkable transformations among my fellow members. So many introverts have flourished under the program and gone on to be officers in the club and speech contest winners at various levels all the way up to nationals. Its really wild to see personal growth happening right in front of your eyes over the many months. Give it a try!

I have been planning to join Toastmasters but for my procrastination :(

The funny thing about reading is that we can do it for decades, picking up vocabulary and appreciating a polished sense of style.

And yet when we sit down to write, we have not consciously prepared ourselves with the tools to create and refine our own words.

So my advice would be to re-read parts of a favorite work or two that you consider to be eloquent. This time, as a student of technique, not content ... noting how the authors convey ideas clearly and convincingly, how your admiration is earned.

I've always found it helpful to outline my argument and logic. I then write almost all work documents and personal non-technical writing in this format:

Hook/Lead - What's the point and it's importance? Context - What surrounds the point making it important? Point of Action - What am I arguing for us to do... Body of the Argument - Format varies Suggested Action/Action Steps - List what needs to be done ~~ Collaboration Section (if needed) Request for Comments - "I realize this might cause problems for x, y, z. Could you please provide input on the resolution of the #{point of the matter}?"

If it's technical, I learned to use the Toulmin Method for arguments. I first learned about it from Purdue's Online Writing Lab in high school.

Obviously, I don't follow it to the letter but that's how I try to "flow" my writing. If you're speaking, the most important thing is your hook and letting people know where you are in your speech as you guide the listener's attention through your presentation. Edit: The guiding can also be visual, if you've got a visual aid; however, you've still got to point it out at least once.

From Scott Adams blog, Post is titled 'The Day You Became a Better Writer': "Business writing is about clarity and persuasion. The main technique is keeping things simple. Simple writing is persuasive. A good argument in five sentences will sway more people than a brilliant argument in a hundred sentences. Don’t fight it." Great article, 2 minute read, master the basics first.

Practice more writing. The key is to do it in a way where embarrassment of both the style and substance is totally removed: anonymously!

Create a new account on any service where you feel you can have substantive conversations and write, write, write! You’ll quickly find your written voice.

I agree: read more, write more. There’s no substitute for practice here.

This is my system:

1. Take your time. Everything matters. If it feels wrong, it's not done.

2. Always finish a writing session with a complete version of what you set out to write (section, chapter, blog post, email to your landlord.)

3. Don't be afraid to start from scratch whenever you feel like it. Never keep around something you don't like "just in case." Throw it away.

You'll feel some contradiction between these. If (1) everything is important and I should sweat every detail, how do I (2) make myself produce a complete version when so much about it will feel wrong and (3) it's probably going to get thrown out the next day?

They're partly contradictory because they work together. (1) encourages you to pay attention to details, but keeping an eye on (2) keeps you in touch with the big picture and forces you to think about how the details contribute to the whole. (1) and (2) force you to work hard; (3) reminds you not to overvalue something because of the work you put into it. (1) and (3) pressure you to maintain high standards; (2) pushes you towards completion. They work together well enough that I feel justified in calling it a system.

One thing I don't find myself doing, but which others might have a problem with, is rewriting the same section/chapter/email over and over again instead of moving on. At some point I reach a sufficient combination of bored and satisfied that I want to move on to the next thing. If you have a problem with that then you might need to add something to this system or create a new one.

Demonstrating evidence and being persuasive are very different things.

Convey evidence by plugging it into a model, usually a visual one, like a matrix, using a socratic, catagorical approach.

Hint: if your visual model lacks clear symmetry, I guarantee it also lacks coherence. Looking at you, class diagram modellers and bad architects. The model requires visual symmetry to determine information completeness.

If you would like to be persuasive, start by being funny, then refine that skill into becoming insightful.

Your post is well written to begin with, so it seems that you already can write consice and convey your point well. While I’m not known almost family and friends as being exceptionally articulate, I’ve found bother reading philosophy and poetry combined with practice to be helpful. You must practice for example, in front of a mirror, or write down some creative thought in a personal journal or even a blog. Reading along won’t help.

Lots of people gave great writing advice in this thread, so I'm going to throw out something different that may or may not resonate with you: Watch seasons 1-4 of the West Wing on Netflix. If you come across an episode that sticks with you, watch it a couple more times, maybe even put it on like background music (Sorkin's dialog often feels melodic).

Could you provide an explanation for your proposal? Why the west wing? Why repeat the episode? What is it about Sorkin's dialog that drew you in?

Paraphrased advice: To speak better, write more. To write better, read more.

Since you're struggling with writing I'd highly recommend 'Elements of style' by William Strunk. I'm surprised nobody recommended this yet.


Quite a few practical tips in there in terms of sentence structure and style.

Just as a reference point, from the wikipedia page, "Time named in 2011 as one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923"

Also as an aside, this book also inspired the name of the programming tome 'Elements of Programming Style' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Elements_of_Programming_St...

As an engineer the first thing to look at is verbosity. We tend to try and convey as much information as possible. And that too in a single sentence. The end result is that our sentences tend to have 2-3 thoughts all at once. These sentences are easy for an engineer to read. But normal people will be confused.

A good example is the question you have asked. It is overcrowded. You need to decide which piece of information is necessary and what is the sequence which makes the most sense. It might be that "you are fluent in speaking four languages" and "but you have difficult to come up with a clear structure" etc. You get the drift.

If it is possible try and get a copy of "Brilliance Breakthrough" by Eugene Schwartz. I have learned a lot from the book.

Do you mean eloquent, or do you mean persuasive?

There's a difference between writing clearly, and using rhetorical and psychological tricks to write persuasively.

For persuasion see books by Cialdini, Bernays (Propaganda), and Schopenhauer's list of stratagems.


It's worth reading all of these to see how these tricks can be used against you, even if you never use them yourself.

For clear writing I'd recommend Paul Graham's essays (I don't often agree with his ideas, but I think his essay style is gold standard), George Orwell, Carl Sagan, and the first few books by Richard Dawkins.

And it's easy to find tips online.

If I were to do a first-pass re-write your original question, it might go something like this:

Ask HN: How can I improve my written communication?

When I try to present or argue a point in writing, I find it hard to come up with a clear structure that conveys that point well. I have tried reading a lot. What else can I try?

Why did I make those changes?

- eloquent -> written communication: makes the title match the body, and is more specific

- 'I was taught four languages...' isn't relevant or useful. Everything you write either makes the point, or distracts from the point. Cut the latter.

- "can't seem to remember structures..." is kind of irrelevant, as you're asking for different solutions from the ones you've tried

- 'What else can I try?': End on a call to action.

This is quite valuable, thank you!

Steven Pinker is helpful: https://youtu.be/OV5J6BfToSw

Also, google the rules Fred Rogers used to talk to children. Those combined are a good foundation for developing an eloquent style.

Reading http://www.treesmapsandtheorems.com/ helped a lot in terms of structuring my thoughts and arguments

Aristotle wrote "On Rhetoric." It can be a hard slog for the modern reader because it has an unfamiliar structure. Still, it's worth the effort: it is a helpful guide to you when you work to convince people.

Good rhetoric--according to Aristotle--starts with the concepts of ethose, pathos, and logos.

Ethos: who you are and why people should pay attention to you.

Pathos: who your audience is, and how you understand them.

Logos: your message; the facts, your proposal.

Go for excellence in all three when you're speaking or writing formally.

To get the hang of this, watch some TED talks and score the speakers on these three things.

1. Write frequently.

2. When you hear a word you don't know (or know but don't use often) write it down or at the very least attempt to use it in speech and writing more frequently until it sticks.

3. Get the precise definitions of words from Merriam-Webster or similar.

4. Listen to the Word of the Day Podcast from MW.

5. Read The Economist's style guide.

6. Part of being eloquent in text is mastering punctuation. Read Practical Typography and take the time to choose the right character.

7. When you read something you're not sure you fully understand stop and investigate it.

8. Edit your work with multiple passes.

9. Hire an editor to weed out the words you use as a crutch. I struggle with overusing "do" and "just" (both of which usually just pollute the sentence with either unnecessary sincerity or condescension[1]) but find yours. I have a good recommendation if you're looking.

[1] Compare the below:

When push comes to shove, I really do believe in liberalism over practical realities.

When push comes to shove, I believe in liberalism over practical realities.

He should just put the book down.

He should put the book down.

Take a look at a GMAT critical reasoning workbook. Practice the exercises within them. There are online communities for test prep. In them, you will find people sharing in similar experiences.

The term you're looking for is Critical Thinking. There's a very good book about it from Oxford press[0]. My wife used it when going through her MSc at Oxford and I've read it a couple of times to understand exactly what you're asking.

[0]: Oxford Guide to Effective Argument and Critical Thinking https://www.amazon.com/dp/0199671729

I learned the most by reading and writing about great speeches in high school English. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, Marc Antony's speech in Julius Caesar, and JFK's moon speech all come to mind. Understanding why these were effective is like drilling the fundamentals in sports or music. Once you have internalized the rhetorical devices that the greats deployed, you can start to use them in your own writing.

Churchill is good too. It would be cool to see a website that takes apart great speeches and annotates their meaning and what the author was trying to get across, perhaps utilizing collaborators. Apart from the myriad of academic work which would likely just serve to confuse.

If you think about it you can probably come up with 10 points that you can use over and over again in different situations. Write them down, then do a second draft and then a third. Memorize them and then start using them during conversation. Your presentation and flow will improve when you are not searching for one word out of a possible four different languages.

Read a variety of styles critically.

Don't just blow through a bunch of novels for the sake of reading. Read poetry, short stories, novels, a variety of genres, etc. Spend time re-reading and analyzing particular passages that stand out to you. Keep a dictionary handy and look up words that don't completely make sense to you.

Develop the 'talk' part of your writing first: try to express your conclusion and supporting evidence verbally in a way that's engaging and easy to understand. Maybe even find someone to explain your idea to. Once you can do that, write your talk down and flesh it out with necessary detail, citations, etc.

"On Writing Well"by William Zinsser is not a bad start. One of the takeaways from the book is, that much like everything else, writing is a skill that you have to practice in order to get better at it. Do not try to create your own style, first learn how to write only what is essential, without embellishments.

Zinnser's "On Writing Well" comes up as a recommendation from time to time, especially in tech circles.

I don't want to gainsay those who have benefited from it. It does contain a few good tips. For me though, it was a bit of a slog and the payoff wasn't great

It could just be a characteristic of the genre. My creative writing teacher tells me that most general interest books about the process of writing aren't worth reading, and having purchased a few of them, I would tend to agree. There are a few exceptions, but these tend to address specific topics within writing like memoir writing.

Practice your message in different media - everything from tweets through short blog posts and longer articles. Better still, iterate between those and speaking (platform speaking and regular conversation). Through the experimentation and repetition, sharper messages emerge and you find out what resonates with people.

When writing, read your work out loud to find phrases that are awkward to speak, and think of ways to be more succinct. Most people process spoken and written language differently, and this technique allows you to use the strengths of language you've obtained for both forms of communication.

Simplicity is eloquence.

Boil it down to simple language. Emulating other authors will not help you discover your own voice.

Take some philosophy classes at the college or graduate level. You will learn to make arguments, and if you have good teachers/TA's, your writing will vastly improve, as they will provide incisive critiques of your writing from structure to word choice & punctuation

Hey faced a similar problem when I moved to the US first time. It takes time and with practice you will definitely become better. Just hang out with people who converse in the language you want to gain eloquence in. I would take it language by language.

I am able to present myself in writing just about right. Would love to hear tips on how can I be more eloquent while speaking. I am comfortable with public speaking, am just to awkward at dinner table / coffee table gossip.

Re dinner table / coffee table: ask a lot of questions of other the people. Most people love to talk about themselves. Then try to make a comment that is relevant to their answer/story.

Ask questions to find something unique and interesting about the person you're talking to and get them to talk more about that. You walk a fine line between small talk and prying but it usually works for me.

Yeah, it can also be way for you to learn something of interest about them. This is particularly relevant in a business networking situation.

Try to speak slower. This will give you more time to think, while also making you sound more authoritative.

More than one person in replies believes the OP is looking to improve their speaking. Perhaps this is a clue to where the OP can improve.

My tip is to always start with a clear indication of where you are going.

In this case, mention writing in the title, or very soon into the first sentence. For example, you could start with "Eloquent writing eludes me, I'm looking for strategies, tips, or advice." Nobody would read that and then give you advice on public speaking!

Ah yes the word "present" through me off.

If it is about writing - I always find that re-reading what you wrote the next day helps with refactoring the text.

Case in point, I suppose! Thank you!


This might be overkill for what you're trying to do, but...


contains some food for thought

Have you tried copyworking yet?

Listen more

make everything 50% shorter.

"Omit needless words." -- William Strunk (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Elements_of_Style#Content)

Be brief?


Ah, but that gets you in trouble with non-native speakers fast. There are advantages and disadvantages to using a broad and precise vocabulary.

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