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How to Write Usefully (paulgraham.com)
821 points by r_singh 39 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 285 comments



Interestingly, I saw an example of the phenomenon of people getting mad at the certainty of an essay in this very site, a few days ago.

Someone was telling the author that he would achieve more if he phrased his point in a more "polite" way, just because the certainty of the writing made the critic mad. Thankfully, the author was here in the comments responding, and he didn't budge.

That interaction was very refreshing for that very reason: The author was right, knew he was right, someone didn't like that the author knew he was right, but the author remained steadfast.


Drop us a link my man.



That was a straightforward observation that the writer of the original article was being pointlessly condescending and that they were alienating the people they were ostensibly trying to help.

In general, personally attacking your audience is not an effective writing technique.


He isn't talking to the people who already use encrypted email. He's talking to those who haven't made up their mind, yet, and since his goal is not to help anyone, but to increase adoption of his favorite solution, portraying the "competition" as hopeless nerds who lost contact with reality, might be an effective strategy.

> personally attacking your audience is not an effective writing technique

Absolutely true. So whenever a writer appears to be attacking their audience, you may have misidentified the audience.


Disagree with pointless. I'm just some guy but I've noticed encrypted email booming in popularity the last few years. Seems like every second nerd I know uses proton now.

Assuming these guys have been fighting the good fight the whole time, I can see why a hail mary switch in tone could be warranted. They're losing. Just staying the path and being agreeable and conciliatory would be what is pointless.


Even if there actually was some sort of ongoing email encryption crisis the snark was still pointless. That is not how you convince anyone of anything. That just expresses your anger.

In general, encrypting email is a good thing in the same way enabling TLS is a good thing. One can quibble about the details, but it is absurd and harmful to suggest it should not be done at all. So the snark seemed fairly unreasonable in this article as it doesn't addressing the root issue.


Exactly, I can agree with email being difficult to secure but for most of humanity that has to use it, any security improvements should be taken.


I personally think the viewpoint of the author was not only incorrecr but dangerous. Being condescending leads many to believe the author has such an authority over the subject that they can get away with it (which is never the case, being smart never gives you a right to look down on others,not that I am accusing the author of that).

To me, the condescending tone of the writing is masking inherent flaws in the argument being made. It's hard for anyone to challenge someone who obviously knows more than them when they appear to be obviously wrong, the condescending tone discourages discourse that would otherwise have lead all involves parties to a better understanding of the technical subject.


Good call. That's an excellent example of Paul's idea in action.

In calling that OP's style rude, respondents are really equivocating on the OP's central point. The OP is demonstrating Paul's 'Strength' concept by boldly asserting "all encrypted email is not fit for purpose" in an unequivocal way. The respondents seem to agree in part but disagree at the edges and want the OP to accept qualifiers.


It's just setting the tone of the discussion. Emotionally charged writing can be fun to read but can also be tiresome especially at length.


This is how I read it too. The problem was not the to-the-point critique, it's the author's emotions leaking into the writing.


This is not politics, it is a technical matter. Being correct is important not being loud or bold! The authors argument is infuriantingly wrong and dangerous even. If you disagree show me which part of the post describes any specific risk, any specific threat or a comparison showing the marvelous benefits of not encrypting email? I mean until this post I didn't think anyone hated email more than myself, but emotions should not triumph logic. I have seen first hand unencrypted email being used against users. The tone of the writing distracted from a calm technical discussion. A missed opportunity!


That essay was confusing because it says "encrypted email" without defining it, and the arguments are too strong; they could be used to argue that you shouldn't use email at all.


The essay isn't confusing in general just because you were confused when you read it. There isn't a single argument in that essay that depends on which flavor of encrypted email is used, so being specific about that would only weaken the points being made. The essay is also pretty clear in saying that email can be used for stuff that doesn't need to be kept secret, and that it's not fit for anything that does.


So is it saying that big email providers like GMail shouldn't opportunistically encrypt email in transit or at rest? Or that we should avoid email services that do?

Clearly not as there is no harm in it, the UI is unchanged, and it prevents certain attacks. You have to know that by "encrypted email" means "end-to-end encrypted email" to make any sense of the essay, otherwise the claim is too broad. It states the claim being defended poorly.


The article is clearly discussing E2E encryption between consumers of email and quite clearly uses PGP as a relevant example.

It even mentions hop-to-hop TLS of email as an obviously good idea (and presumably would likewise say at rest encryption is a good idea). None of this matters to the author's fundamental point. End to end encryption in email is silly and can't work because it isn't enforced at the protocol level.

You either haven't read the article or haven't understood it.

Edit: or disagree with its fundamental claim, but are talking about irrelevant issues instead for some reason.


It makes the following claims:

* encryption of email in transit is good because it does provide some security against things like dragnets.

* attempts to bolt end-to-end encryption on email, regardless of what tools you use, are insufficient to provide any real security against the kinds of threats you generally use end-to-end encryption against.

* If you need secure messaging, use Signal

* If you need to send documents securely, use Magic Wormhole or age

EDIT: and if you don't need secure messaging, then continue to use email


Not that I want to perpetuate a discussion about my post on this thread, but "use Signal" isn't the claim we make; "use any modern secure messenger, they are all better than email" is the claim we made.


Fair enough. I was attempting to be succinct, but the correction is appropriate (I believe you did say that Signal was "standard" and "best").

Btw, I did find your essay persuasive. In my search for a paid email provider (as an alternative to Gmail) I've decided not to go for one that uses E2E encrypted email. If I need secure messaging, I'll use Signal (or something similar) but for email I would rather go for features and ease of use than E2E encryption.


If you read the essay, the scenarios being considered and the type of security desired are pretty clear from the examples.

And then you realize that things like "providers opportunistically encrypting in transit or at rest" are largely irrelevant to having truly secure communications. You could have a conversation about "is Gmail less bad than Outlook.com" or whatever, but the whole point of the essay is that neither are meaningfully different if you have important secrets.


"Truly secure communications" isn't all that matters when discussing email security.

There are meaningful differences in the scale of access. It matters whether the NSA (or China or whoever) can just read everyone's email off the network, versus law enforcement sending requests to email providers where they are verified to be legal. It's the difference between lawful access and espionage.


Gmail.com uses HTTPS. Already encrypted. /s


I believe people arguing "politeness" are missing the point, though. What I most value is "dialectics" (not sure if that term is commonly used in English).

I. e. the willingness to entertain the best argument against your position in good faith. Two people who are excellent in doing so (and familiar to HN) would be Scott Alexander of slatestarcodex, and Matt Levine at Bloomberg.

(Someone rather bad at it, usually arguing against some caricature of what he imagines his opposition to be, and generally tending towards the "either unactionable, obvious, or wrong" end of the spectrum is, well, Paul Graham.)


Could you highlight a piece of writing by Matt that appealed to the part you alluded to:

  the willingness to entertain the best argument against
  your position in good faith.
For example someone quoted this article on Goldman Sachs in previous HN posts off late

https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-09-05/goldma...

A clear and even-keeled accommodating of an argument - one very discordant from your own argument - is a rare find these days. People feign even-handedness but what seems a fair shake to them doesnt to others who happen to sit a little further, in the spectrum of opinions.

I want to see if Matt measures up.


There's a fine line. PG's essay is about usefulness. An essay is probably more useful if a point can be made just as strongly but in a way that a greater number of readers will receive it well.


To be very clear here (I missed this thread when it came up, sadly): I don't care that he's right (and I'm willing to buy that he's right!), I just believe he went about positioning his argument in the wrong way.

There is a very serious problem in any privacy/security discussion right now where, like it or not, the average person is poking their head in and wanting to learn more. There's a wealth of misinformation and paranoia strewn all over, and a tone like this is needlessly rude and condescending... which doesn't help provide a place where people can learn.

His entire point is that people ("technologists") need to stop recommending encrypted email, but the tone with which the article is written will drive away anybody who's actually recommending it. It's (IMO) effectively shouting into the void.

People seem to have this idea that I'm personally offended by what he wrote, when I couldn't care less (as I don't LARP, myself) - I genuinely (usually) like reading stuff from him, whether it's comments on here or elsewhere. ;P


It's one thing to argue exactly how much politeness is necessary and whether a specific article meets the standard or not, but it seems ridiculous to write off the entire concept of politeness. If someone wrote an article arguing a point and included tons of expletives at anyone who believed otherwise -- even if they're fully right and it's about an important safety issue -- then the article probably isn't going to be good at convincing anyone who came in already believing otherwise. The article will just be cheerleading and a pat on the back for people that believed the article's point to begin with. (Sometimes that's useful to energize people who already believed the article's point, but in that case people should be clear that's the point of the article, and not delude themselves into thinking the article is something they can send to people to win them over.)


I'm having trouble seeing how anything you said in this comment is relevant to anything I wrote in mine. So much so I am tempted to ask if you accidentally replied to the wrong person.

Among other things, I never "wrote off the entire concept of politeness", the article I was talking about didn't include a ton of expletives, I never commented on how convincing or not the article was and I don't remember the article itself doing so either.

That's actually what made the comments on politeness, and reaching more people that way, even weirder in context (which is why they stuck with me, funny how that works).


Your original comment is talking about how the politeness of some post didn't matter at all because it was right, and that critics were wrong to consider the politeness level because it was right. That's what I was arguing against. I mentioned a hypothetical post with a bunch of expletives as just a more extreme example of where it would be more obviously right to consider the politeness of a post.

I had actually previously read the post you linked to, and while I agreed with its point, I also agreed with the critics of its tone. I don't think that post would be convincing to people who didn't already agree with it. I think your original post here is overly dismissive to that criticism.


You are doing exactly the thing pg talks about in this essay -- making up a fictional version of what the other person said so that you can argue with it.


Am I really going wrong in interpreting this text as saying "it's wrong to criticize impoliteness if the author happens to be right"?

>Someone was telling the author that he would achieve more if he phrased his point in a more "polite" way, just because the certainty of the writing made the critic mad. Thankfully, the author was here in the comments responding, and he didn't budge.

>That interaction was very refreshing for that very reason: The author was right, knew he was right, someone didn't like that the author knew he was right, but the author remained steadfast.


I interpret that quote differently. To me, it says, “some people mistake being right for being impolite; don’t listen to those people.” I can imagine that someone could confuse being right for impoliteness would happen if the other person were right about an inconvenient truth.

I don’t think the quote says anything about ways of being impolite that don’t consist solely of being right, such as being impolite by swearing at someone.


I read it all again with your interpretation in mind and it looks like that one was intended.

I think I missed or skipped past that interpretation to another because I think luord's original framing was a very misleading/unuseful way of looking at a situation. The post he linked to (elsewhere in the thread, that prompted his original post) wasn't complaining just about someone's certainty, but their impoliteness while being so certain. It seems very misleading to reduce this down to being a complaint about being "too certain", rather than being about tone/politeness:

>Y'know, you can have all the valid points in the world and still come on a _bit_ too strong.

>I get the point the author is making re: LARPing, but this kind of attitude and tone is bordering (or, bluntly: is) condescending to anyone who doesn't know as much as you.

Sure, they phrase it as "coming on too strong" at first, but then they get specific and talk about the tone/attitude problems. They suggest things that could be changed other than the certainty level.


Policing tone is passive aggressive censorship & bias. It's as hideous a concept as 'culture appropriation' or the cult of positivity.

https://gawker.com/on-smarm-1476594977


"Tone policing" is a term made up by rude people in an attempt to excuse themselves for being rude. If someone in your group is yelling "fuck you" at another group, it's never going to help, and it's okay to point that out.


Someone likened the cult of positivity, to a trend in Silicon Valley employers that emerged over the past decade or so.

The trend of offering employees, unlimited & unrestricted vacation time.

Some people argued - and I fully agree with them - that while on paper the offered vacation time is unlimited, what it really meant in action was that your vacation time was unlimited,

* contingent on your readiness to accept any work load, shoved to your plate, equivalent or more in volume, that was displaced from the time you were gone.

* contingent on your willingness to accept blame for any "fires" that they had to put out in your absence, emerging from you not being there in your full working capacity.

and other stuff that went without saying and is implied in such matters.

So not even close to unlimited vacation in that sense.

This also meant employees feared taking anytime off because of all the implied risk.

Sometimes not even the amount of vacation they would take if they had clearly defined paid time off.

So it was a practice that was thoroughly hollow and false, even in intent.

Goes without saying, we need a lot less of this kind of faux positivity, masquerading in our lives.


I don’t get how that’s related to the OP’s comment.


The grand OP referred to concept of "cult of positivity."

  Policing tone is passive aggressive censorship & bias. 
  It's as hideous a concept as 'culture appropriation' or
  the cult of positivity.
It may have been voted down and dead at the time of your writing. Now its back alive.


The contrast between your argument and your tone is amusing.


Can't you call it microcensorship or something? Actual censorship is still very much a thing.


Censorship is a small subset of the techniques for shutting down discussion, and tone policing isn't in that subset at all. A diminutive doesn't help here.


Censorship doesn't always mean government censorship, or restriction of rights. Spam filters are censorship, for example.


While the internet is full of garbage writing, I don't feel like telling people that they shouldn't say anything wrong or potentially unimportant is the right way to go. That's a perfectionist attitude that stifles people's ability to explore, experiment, be wrong, learn, improve, and act. Like learning a language, if you never speak it because you're afraid to say something wrong, you'll never learn.

And separately, being enlightened with novel pithy facts isn't the only reason people write things. There's a lot that can't be transmitted in that form, and while I appreciate that style of writing for startup advice or a how-to guide, it's definitely not universally applicable.


I think an otherwise interesting point is obscured by your construing of a strawman argument:

>I don't feel like telling people that they shouldn't say anything wrong or potentially unimportant is the right way to go. That's a perfectionist attitude that stifles people's ability to explore, experiment, be wrong, learn, improve, and act.

It is dubious to imply that the author is trying to police what people can say and consequently how they can act: he's explicitly talking about _essays_, a literary form typically used for advancing arguments. By reframing his argument as an attempt at "telling people that they shouldn't say anything wrong," you're arguing against a much less interesting argument and sidestepping the central theme of _essays_ altogether.

In other words, I think the claim that good essays must not necessarilly show novelty, correctness, strength, and importance is a much more interesting argument, and, against correctness at least, one can probably find intellectual companionship among early 20th century futurists, dadaists, and later on fascists.


Agree.

Also ironic how this is the top-voted comment on an essay that, itself, spends so much time talking about the inevitability of misrepresentation.

I could write an essay on that myself.


>... I don't feel like telling people that they shouldn't say anything wrong or potentially unimportant is the right way to go.

I think you're putting words in his mouth. You seem to be reading it as "only write useful things" rather than "how to write usefully." You laid out a number of reasons that writing doesn't need to be useful to others, which is great, but doesn't contradict the essay how you seem to think it does.


" if you never speak it because you're afraid to say something wrong, you'll never learn"

If you're afraid to say your idea because you know (or suspect) that it's wrong, then you have already learned the hardest part of the lesson. Of course, it still remains to find out what the right idea is, but voicing one that you know to be wrong is hardly going to help with that.


Robert Morris's solution is wrong for most of us about casual conversation because it's valuable to be wrong sometimes. But in terms of deciding which essays you publish it seems quite valuable. Out of all the media I produce from conversation, to video, to casual writing, to essays, essays are the ones I least want to be wrong in. Also, the process of refining an idea is a valid one. Barring topics on which you are an ideologue, seldom are you so wrong about an idea that you think it's perfectly correct and nothing bothers you or makes you question it through many edits.


"Robert Morris's solution is wrong for most of us about casual conversation because it's valuable to be wrong sometimes".

I don't think this is quite right. Of course I don't know RM, but given PG's characterization of him, there's nothing to indicate that he never asks when he's unsure about something. PG only says that he never offers an opinion when he's unsure. I doubt that this interferes with learning. Saying something that's wrong to provoke a correction is not the only way to get the right answer. In fact I doubt that it's the best way, or even a good way . Many of us have learned the hard way that when someone says something wrong, they're not always interested in being corrected. Instead, if you want the right answer, you can always just ask, which doesn't involve being wrong, and makes it clear that you are ready to be instructed.


Hitting the ball wrong in tennis can be answered by the high school kid with one technique, and by Novak Djokovic with another technique. Novak will have a far more complete, in depth and transcendent answer than someone else, but both are "correct" in that they solve the problem of hitting the ball wrong.

Knowing you're wrong is the threshold guardian to the adventure of hitting the mark correctly. I don't know how you embark on that journey without voicing it multiple times to multiple people.


This isn't always true, though. History of full of examples of people returning to "wrong" ideas only to find them not wrong at all.


Best way to learn on the internet is to give the wrong answer and get corrected


That's the best way if you don't know that you're wrong, sure. If you do know, why not just ask what the right answer is?


> why not just ask what the right answer is?

“RTFM”

“Nobody’s going to do your homework for you”

“whathaveyoutried.com”


Writing is hard. for many people, writing anything at all is a struggle. That struggle also can go away with practice. Eventually you get to the point where expressing yourself with the written word becomes very natural.

Of the criteria that Paul suggested (true, important, novel, clear) I would say that novice writers should strive to write with just one of those qualities (which can vary from one piece of writing to another).

As you achieve fluency and words just flow from the pen (or keyboard) and the focus shifts away from being able to express yourself, you add the other criteria to improve the quality of the ideas you express.


"I don't feel like telling people that they shouldn't say anything wrong or potentially unimportant is the right way to go."

The problem is far too many people err in the opposite direction. I don't see an Internet only consisting of perfectly reasoned and argued content, with everyone else fearfully staying quiet. I see countless comments suggesting the writer didn't take a second to consider contrary viewpoints, or facts that might undermine their argument, or stating things with certainty without regard to whether or not they have a factual basis.


It's the sort of advice you get from either a worrier or someone who has already perfected their craft.

And in an era where people talk a lot about how others achieve something and then 'close the door behind them', well, this is closing the door behind you, Paul.


Your comment is useful, bold, and correct.


The feeling I am left with after reading the essay is that the author is more interested in being right in an "I've won the debate" kind of way, than he is interested in being useful. And that the author admires his own writing.

The most useful writing shows more of a willingness to be vulnerable and to share the human condition. As opposed to reaching for a filter that makes one always correct, motivated by "a horror of saying anything dumb". Ironically, a detailed essay around that horror - so strong it often silences you - might contain more useful truths than this essay.

And useful essays are not limited to the novel ideas the author focuses on. Considering the author's background, it's predictable but also understandable to see a focus on novel ideas. But that's an unnecessarily restrictive focus. The art of writing essays has already demonstrated much wider possibilities.

That's not to say the simplistic formula the author gives won't improve your writing. It's reasonable to briefly consider. Just that it has limitations, and a peculiar and very specific motivation when compared to writing that is more useful and lasting. So also consider less flex, less patting one's self on the back, and perhaps even saying something dumb. If you want inspiration, two concrete examples off the top of my head are David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers.


This reminds me of the saying "don't speak unless you can improve upon the silence" (apparently attributed to many sources, but most commonly Jorge Luis Borges). The world would certainly be less noisy if we all followed that one.

I've always found this idea helpful when anxious or unsure of myself in social situations. A lot of the nervousness comes from the pressure to "say the right thing" and make a good impression, but that very pressure tends to ensure that I won't say anything of value (often quite to the contrary!), so I'm better off keeping my mouth shut, or speaking very little, until I relax and start thinking of truly 'useful' things to say naturally. And if it doesn't happen, that's ok--I'm fine with being the quiet guy.

It can be applied in many other areas as well. It's amazing how much you can usually improve a visual design, a piece of writing, or probably any other creative work just by repeatedly going through and removing or revising anything that you have even the slightest doubt about.


> "don't speak unless you can improve upon the silence"

Sounds like one of those things that is meant to keep people in their place and/or make them feel less worthy or as a put down.

> A lot of the nervousness comes from the pressure to "say the right thing"

I can tell from your bio you are much younger than I am so I will offer this advice to you as 'an older guy' (note I did not say 'dude' either). Not only will you care less about that when you get older but you will find that people very generally will be drawn to you more if you don't appear to be concerned about what comes out of your mouth (within reason of course and depending on the precise circumstances meaning sure there are cases where you don't want to just say or do anything).


people very generally will be drawn to you more if you don't appear to be concerned about what comes out of your mouth

32yo here. In my experience, the opposite seems to be true. (I've been dragged to that conclusion despite wanting to believe otherwise.)

More precisely, it might be true that people will be drawn to you more if you don't appear to be concerned with what comes out of your mouth. But the climate in 2020 is night-and-day difference from 2009-era. I think the shift was so subtle that we might not have noticed.

It's true that as one gets older, one generally cares less about such things though. It was just an interesting and surprising change. Five or so years ago, I'd wholeheartedly agree with you.


The problem with the 'game' of worrying about what comes out of your mouth is that you find over time that if it's not on target all the time and every time people will still have a problem and hate on you (friends or strangers). So you might as well just accept (I have found) that fact and be what you want to be. You are only as good as the last thing that didn't matter. Like if you go to 5 social functions but miss 1 people will focus on the 1 and the 5 that you did will not count. (Hence if you go to a funeral of a friend's parents you go to the 2nd parent's when they die not the first as an extreme example of the thinking).

Also noting that the person elected President won by being himself in a super extreme way and saying all sorts of things that traditionally would have sunk a political candidate. Now sure with certain age groups that won't go over as well but people I think hate phony more than they hate real which is objectionable in some way.


I agree with you in general. Unfortunately, that only applies to people who are in some sort of position of power. (This is the main crux of what I meant by "things changed from 2009 until now." Previously, it seemed like what you were saying mattered more than who you were.) If you are a regular Joe and try saying everything you want to, you'll find your life gets much harder, possibly for no benefit.

If there is a benefit, though, I'd be interested to know what it is.


“Sounds like one of those things that is meant to keep people in their place and/or make them feel less worthy or as a put down.”

I suppose it could be used that way, but I think of it more as something people should apply to themselves, not as a judgment against others. What “improves the silence” is obviously subjective and reasonable people will disagree about what does or doesn’t, but I imagine most of us have experienced the feeling that we should say something despite not really having anything to say in that particular moment. My point is just that it can be liberating to ignore that impulse to speak for the sake of speaking and wait until you have something you really want to say.

“ I can tell from your bio you are much younger than I am so I will offer this advice to you as 'an older guy' (note I did not say 'dude' either). Not only will you care less about that when you get older but you will find that people very generally will be drawn to you more if you don't appear to be concerned about what comes out of your mouth (within reason of course and depending on the precise circumstances meaning sure there are cases where you don't want to just say or do anything).”

I’m pretty old in internet years (34) and definitely care less what anyone thinks than I used to. And from what I can tell, a lot less that the average person. But I think almost everyone cares about approval to some extent and can feel uncomfortable socially if they go outside their comfort zone. So while I agree that people are of course attracted to confidence, sometimes you just don’t feel it, no matter who you are, and that’s fine. Trying to force it tends to be counterproductive.


My English teachers rewarded flowery, verbose writing. Over time I found this unwieldy and now I find myself re-reading my sentences to see what I can delete.

It's satisfying, like deleting unused code in a messy codebase. I envy writers who manage to densely pack information in sentences that are beautiful to read.


I experienced the same thing with English teachers. But I had a friend point out that Hemingway (whom we both adored) wrote sentences that were 7 words shorter than normal. Writing short punchy sentences without a single spare word.

Steinbeck wrote that way and so did Elmore Leonard. Leonard said he'd get down a first draft and then go back a second time taking words out that weren't necessary.

https://www.litcharts.com/blog/analitics/what-makes-hemingwa...


One can idolize Hemingway to a fault. Removing the unnecessary is largely what a second draft is for, no matter who's doing the work; concision is a virtue, but to pursue concision above all else risks erring into insufficiency and rendering oneself unable to write in one's own style and voice, rather than in an emulation of someone else's.

Voice elevates an informative essay from a dry recitation of facts, offering the reader little of genuine interest, into a conversation in which the reader is able and welcome to participate. Voice also offers interest of its own, which can help sustain a reader through what might otherwise prove intolerable complexities or difficulties in the subject matter of the work.

You may, of course, consider this, and consider the virtues of the Hemingwayesque ultimacy of concision, and decide that the latter outweigh the former. I don't agree, but we all ideally write in our own ways. I would, though, ask that you do consider those virtues - and their contrary vices - rather than partake of the blind veneration of Hemingway so common among the rather dim luminaries of modern literature.


As someone who admired and aspired to Hemingway's parsimononius style of writing in my youth, nowadays I'm starting to back away from it and am growing to be more inclusive other (less concise) styles of writing.

I aspired to concision because I believed I wasn't an interesting person and didn't deserve any attention outside of the little I'm able to grab, so I kept my writing pithy in the hopes that I wouldn't have to "take up too much of anyone's time/attention".

Unfortunately, too much concision can lead to short pieces that are tiring to read -- your brain has to work harder to fill in the gaps. Sometimes "unnecessary" words are needed to help the reader feel more comfortable. Not everyone is an engineer or a technocrat. Parsimony isn't always a virtue.

There's is a place for concision, but I now believe concision is the wrong goal to aim for. Often the real goal is to create an emotional connection, and if it takes a few more words to achieve it (without belaboring the subject), so be it.

People -- often teachers -- think good writing is solely about effective communication -- to me, there has never been a wronger conclusion than this.


Essayists may believe that what they're writing is true, but they're not best placed to judge that. Truth requires objective testing and replication, and essays aren't the right tool for that.

So it's useful to remember that the point of an essay is persuasion, not truth.

Short sentences and clear points are more persuasive even if they're nonsense.

The longer your sentences, the more you'll filter out readers with short attentions spans and limited literacy.

Which is why terse novels about dramatic situations sell better than florid novels with academic subtexts.

It's also why political campaigns like to reduce slogans to soundbites.


> Short sentences and clear points are more persuasive even if they're nonsense.

What you're describing is propaganda -- an emotional appeal that solicits mindless reaction. That's the basest form of communication -- hardly something to espouse as the paradigm for a good essay.

As Graham points out, the best essays often are not intended to persuade as much as inform. The essentials of writing that's useful to the reader are facts and logic, leading intuitively to a conclusion that is meaningful and important to the audience. HOW you achieve these ends matters less, be they short sentences or emotional appeals.

But illogic has no place in an informative essay. That's the bailiwick of provocateurs, politicians, and propaganda.


When you get to the root of it, there's not much to differentiate between something written to inform versus something written to persuade.


Is there not? I think a big part of the difference might be how defensive one is against a hostile audience. For example, let’s consider that we’re writing about something like the Monty Hall problem. A piece of writing that explains and informs the reader about the Monty Hall problem will describe and work through all of the counter-intuitive logic involved, but it will do so from a position of (a) absolute certainty about the conclusion and (b) a good-faith assumption that disagreeing with that conclusion is due to an innocent mistake in reasoning, which the writer will want to anticipate and patiently address. And this is probably the right approach for the Monty Hall problem, but most of the time you’re writing persuasively, projecting absolute certainty that you are right and anyone who disagrees with you is confused or mistaken isn’t always the best decision, especially when it’s a disagreement over subjective preferences and value judgments. If I was writing an endorsement of a political candidate, I would approach that much differently than I would approach an explanation of the Monty Hall problem. In both cases you do similar things (in terms of presenting clear and explicit reasoning) but there are more differences than similarities.


> The longer your sentences, the more you'll filter out readers with short attentions spans and limited literacy.

And readers who have not yet been persuaded that your writing is worth their time. If long sentences are essential to a point you're making in a persuasive essay for a non-captive audience, use inverted pyramid style and push the long sentences down.


packing a lot into sentences is entirely different from writing short sentences. for instance, pynchon packs a ton into his sentences, yet they're long and winding at the same time (confusingly so, sometimes).

hemingway's sentences are just short, like playing every note in staccato, which in itself can become tiring (i like, but don't love, hemingway).


> My English teachers rewarded flowery, verbose writing.

Same here, and I suspect the same for most people: "due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature" --- http://www.paulgraham.com/essay.html Toward the end of high school I found The Elements of Style by accident and it changed my life. Yes, it changed my life!

I was always more interested in art than science. So I didn't become a programmer until I was almost 30. What struck me was how similar it was to prose.

1. There are many ways to write a program

2. Your first draft of a program is usually bad, but you can steadily improve it by rewriting it over and over and over. This unglamourous technique is the secret behind good prose too, as Graham points out.

3. As you rewrite it, you find you can do the same thing in half the space.

4. The programs that are most pleasant to use are ones where the programmer first wrote it for himself. Likewise, as Graham said here, a good strategy for useful essays is to write it first for yourself.


I completely agree. And there are definitely some programmers whose code and prose are both eloquent and beautiful:

https://norvig.com/sudoku.html

This is my all time favorite programming book, both for the prose and the code within it:

https://github.com/norvig/paip-lisp

Interestingly, I find that the set of Lisp programmers also contains many of the best writers about programming: Norvig, Graham, Stallman, McCarthy, Steele, Abelson, Sussman, etc.


This is how I do it as well. I usually find inspiration that makes my code much better. My secret sauce is telling others I am debugging it instead of making a new draft. This keeps someone from insisting that my first draft is "good enough."

In addition, I design my programs such that I can confidently rewrite important sections. This is OOP encapsulation's main purpose. In practice, everyone writes getters and setters until every object is an ugly struct.


Professionally this was described to me as: 1. you write like a salesperson 2. you write like a scientist

It's hard to please everyone. The vast majority of writing tilts in one direction or another. Very few writers (in any setting) strike the right balance. Very few readers take off their own lenses to attempt to understand the writer's angle.

One tool I like using: Grammarly. It's not fool-proof by any means. But it helps point out verbosity and write more clearly by helping me learn when my writing isn't as clear as it can be.


I tend to be too terse.


> Can you elaborate?

> Yes.


I tend to terse also.


Tersing proliferates.


Somewhat


?


STOP!


They're English teachers, they view language through the lens of literature. If you read Faulkner, you'll find extremely long and verbose sentences. If you read Hemingway or McCarthy, you'll find much more economic and sparing use of words.

The problem is outside of literature, readers want knowledge, not pretty language. I think many teachers lead their students astray, as the vast majority of us write for knowledge and not for prettiness.


I experienced this too. I'm trying my best to unlearn it because I'm writing a novel. I'm not so adept with flowery prose as to write literary fiction, so I want to have more practical sentences that have better pacing.


Purple prose is not a requirement for literary fiction.


Given the entirely performative nature of the genre, purple prose well executed almost certainly cannot hurt.


It's satisfying because it's also surprisingly hard!

Like Mark Twain once said "I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one."


> Like Mark Twain once said

No he didn’t. It was Blaise Pascal:

https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/04/28/shorter-letter/


While the Internet provides a platform for Essays, as he says, I think maybe a bigger point is it allowing the rise of 'Video Essays'.

Where now content creators are turning out 30+ minute videos on a single subject. While in the past it used to be more 'dry' things like History and the like it seems more mainstream subjects are being covered. Movies, cars, current social issues, etc.

And just how much you actually get from them. They're often spoken from positions of authority on a subject. And slick editing and video may reinforce their credibility to the viewer. But often they just feel like empty stitched together wikipedia clippings with nice effects and humor sprinkled in to keep the viewer interested.

Compared to crafting words and language like this Author tried to convey, you just rely on balance between entertainment & information.


Like TV before it, it's the dumbing down the internet.


A very small portion of video's are video essays even if content creators are turning out 30m on a single topic. The organization and structure of the argument is completely different. Usually the goal of videos are primarily entertainment and occasionally a secondary goal of being informative. Usually the goal of an essay is primarily being informative with an occasional secondary goal of being entertaining.


Niven's First Law of Writing: Writers who write for other writers should write letters. - Larry Niven, science fiction author (1989)

Blind monkey at the typewriter. - Robert Burnham Jr., Astronomer (1983)

We'll need writers who can remember freedom - poets, visionaries - realists of a larger reality. - Ursula K. Le Guin

The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do. - Donald Barthelme

There can be no reliable biography of a writer, 'because a writer is too many people if he is any good'. - Andrew O'Hagan

Summary of advice from writers: Advice from writers is useful, and not only about naming. Writers have been at it for centuries; programming is merely decades old. Also, their advice is better written. And funnier. - Peter Hilton

... from https://github.com/globalcitizen/taoup

(Edit: One of PG's main points here is succinctly summarized by this other pithy taoup quote: Lest men suspect your tale untrue, keep probability in view. - John Gay (1727))


Aren't these quotes about fiction writing? Do you think they apply to essay writing as well?

I don't think I got your point with this selection of quotes, if you don't mind explaining.


The article, nominally on 'good (essay format) writing', was an example of #1. We here illustrate #2 wonderfully (a quip on both communicative fallacy and the human condition). #3 is aspirational, but also puts purely functional writing (without art) in its place. #4 concerns perhaps pathfinding as purpose, in creative intellectual work. #5 suggests monodimensionality as a defining quality of poor writers. #6 ties all of the above in its application to programming.


Thanks for taking the time to explain. I think I do understand it now, but I do disagree. I don't think #1 is talking about the same type of writing that the OP, I don't think it applies at all actually. #3 seems to imply that there functional and art are competing types of writing, which I also disagree. They are different things, for different purposes, for different reading experiences, created differently. The same with the general idea of your comment.


As a counterpoint, I'd argue that the "mathematical" approach to good writing is inherently flawed. That is, trying to arrive at the formula for the "best" essay via dialectic (argument) is to miss the forest for the trees. Writing is an art, not a science. Formal logic was developed to display arguments, so if you are trying to be as precise and mathematical as possible, use that instead.

Instead, I'd suggest reading the great writers of the past and present (but focus more on the past). Study what works, what speaks to you, what stylistic approach you favor, and so on. As a bonus, you'll learn more about what has been said by other intelligent people and subsequently avoid writing over-confident, ill-informed essays...

If you're looking for stellar examples of essay-writing, I personally recommend Jorge Luis Borges and David Foster Wallace. Both manage to write in a manner both erudite and coherent, without seeming too florid or too simplistic. Here are a few samples:

- A New Refutation of Time, Borges: https://www.gwern.net/docs/borges/1947-borges-anewrefutation...

- The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, Borges: http://www.alamut.com/subj/artiface/language/johnWilkins.htm...

- David Lynch and Lost Highway, Wallace: http://www.lynchnet.com/lh/lhpremiere.html

- Laughing with Kafka, Wallace: https://harpers.org/wp-content/uploads/HarpersMagazine-1998-...

- Consider the Lobster, Wallace: http://www.columbia.edu/~col8/lobsterarticle.pdf

Edit: added some more essay links.


I think the fallacy is in the premise: "An essay should be useful."

Well, useful is always in the eye of the beholder. There is no such thing as an absolute truth, after all. And pretending there is, and it's even attainable, is intellectually dishonest.

Sure, an essay could be a formal piece that approaches an almost "mathematical" approach. After all, an essay a first and foremost an argument presented by the author. Even a flawed argument is still an argument. And a flawed essay is still an essay.

The fallacy here is being implicitly reductionist. If your premise states "an essay should be useful" then you're basically reducing the definition of what an essay is to a formal argument based on logic and falsifiable facts, and rejecting any other text as "not an essay" or, worse, "not useful" - whatever that might mean - or, worse, "nonsenses" or "a dumb thing to say".

A quick glance on Wikipedia dispenses such reductionism rather swiftly:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essay

Not-withstanding, I think PG's essay does contain some excellent personal advice on writing style and technique itself. No more, no less. His sin is confounding form and function. The former always follows the latter, never the inverse.


> There is no such thing as an absolute truth, after all.

In a relative sense, it's true that there's no such thing as an absolute truth, but it's also true that there is such a thing as an absolute truth. However, in an absolute sense — the sense in which, for example, real-number multiplication is commutative — it is only true that there is such a thing as an absolute truth, and the assertion that "there's no such thing as an absolute truth" is simply an error of reasoning.

> And pretending there is, and it's even attainable, is intellectually dishonest.

No. You know what's intellectually dishonest? Asserting that your viewpoint is so obviously correct that nobody could possibly disagree with it sincerely, and that if they claim to disagree, they are simply being dishonest.

Given the self-referential and self-refuting nature of your comment, I'm guessing that it's merely an elaborate joke, intended to expose the moral relativism it ostensibly espouses to ridicule.


Entire libraries, fields of study and lives have been dedicated to the topic with no formal conclusion.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truth

With great minds such as https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truth#Baudrillard_(1929%E2%80%... and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truth#Foucault_(1926%E2%80%931...

I'm not interested in discussing various epistemic theories of truth as such. That's entirely besides the point I'm trying to make.

It's that the word "useful" used by PG hides a potential tyranny of truth. The notion that one can refute any argument or claim with the criticism "not useful" because it was "not novel, not important, too florid" and so on. As if there is some universal definition or bar that describes what "useful" is outside of our experience. A false presumption. "useful" in this context risks being used as a crutch to dismiss any opinion without having to critically consider your own thoughts and feelings.

An essay geared towards making a formal argument based on falsifiable facts may be "useful" to a specific audience, or may enshrine a particular genre - academic publishing - but how PG constructs his article may - erroneously - be applied to any form of essay writing. Which would be quite a reductionist take.


> Entire libraries, fields of study and lives have been dedicated to the topic with no formal conclusion.

On the contrary, many formal conclusions have been reached. One of them is that it is self-contradictory to say that it is an absolute truth that there is no absolute truth, which is what you seemed to be saying, and that it is meaningless to say that it is a relative truth that all truth is relative. These are ontological propositions, not epistemological propositions.

I don't think the reductionism/wholism axis is really relevant here. I don't read Paul as making any reductionist claims; I think they're much more easily read as wholist claims.

It's true that Paul is making objectivist normative claims about essays, which is to say, claims about what is good or bad in an essay — what kinds of essays people should or shouldn't write. That seems to be what you object to; you're a subjectivist. The same self-contradiction objection applies: you're implicitly claiming that it's objectively bad to make claims about what is objectively bad. (So it is not in fact entirely beside the point you were trying to make.) If you really believed that, you wouldn't be doing it.


Generally, I agree with what you are saying about essays and stating that "they should be useful."

But I was surprised by your comments about truth:

> There is no such thing as an absolute truth, after all. And pretending there is, and it's even attainable, is intellectually dishonest.

Could you expand on what you mean by "an absolute truth?"

I may be misunderstanding you, but I suspect you mean that we can never know anything with absolute certainty. For example, it may _seem_ that I typing on a keyboard, but in actual fact, I am dreaming.

In this example, there _is_ an absolute truth. I am typing on my keyboard, or I am not. But that truth is not knowable without any doubt.

If we use "truth" as high as knowing without any possible doubt, then nothing is "true." Thus, the word true is useless during everyday communication. For this reason I don't think it is appropriate to qualify everything we say with, "we don't know with absolute certainty this is true, but here is my best guess." Rather, we just say it is true.


>There is no such thing as an absolute truth, after all. And pretending there is, and it's even attainable, is intellectually dishonest.

You seem to be stating this as an absolute truth.


I like David Foster Wallace as a writer and he’s as much an authority as anyone when it comes to writing well, but I think there’s a pretty major difference in terms of goals and priorities. PG is writing about writing as a means of processing ideas. He’s taking the perspective of a structural engineer, not an architect. While Wallace wrote beautifully, PG is writing about writing usefully, even if that writing is bare and unornamented. And while that may not be your preferred style, I wouldn’t dismiss it as something that someone would want to do.


Have you read Consider the Lobster? It is absolutely a clear, informative, educational essay that also happens to be beautifully written.


I have. And to my analogy, some architects can also design buildings that are structurally sound ;)


> While Wallace wrote beautifully

Beautiful writing is useful.


> Writing is an art, not a science.

Writing fiction may be an art, but writing nonfiction is a craft. And essays are nonfiction.

The creator of art seeks somehow to offer fresh insight, often employing some form of novelty, be it technique, medium, context, perspective, etc.

Craft, however, isn't about novelty; it's about engineering a clear convincing message effectively, efficiently, and ideally... memorably and with elan.

I admit the line between art and craft is often blurry (probably because the craftsman has taken too much artistic license). Unlike art, the techniques employed in an essay should never impede its purpose. There, it's only the message that matters, not the medium.


I'm not sure I quite share your view of what art aims to do. Iris Murdoch had a line that tyrants fear art because art forces them to confront the truth.

If one believes, as Murdoch suggests, that art aims to express a truth as clearly as possible then the qualities of good technical writing and good fiction are entirely compatible. I'd suggest the distinction lies more in the extent to which the sensibilities of the author are present in the writing.

For instance, Vonnegut's guidelines on good writing (summarised here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/01/14/how-to-write-with-s...) could equally be applied to technical writing as fiction, I think.


>Unlike art, the techniques employed in an essay should never impede its purpose. There, it's only the message that matters, not the medium.

On the other hand, it's very possible for the techniques employed to work in service of its purpose. Many of Adorno's essays are arguing for a point of view both aesthetically, in form, and argumentatively, in content.


> Writing is an art, not a science.

I agree with this, but avoiding writing nonsense is science, and not art. So there definitely is a scientific aspect to writing.


First of all: interesting post!

But since you mentioned Borges let me offer a counter-counterpoint: Borges was obsessive about his writings and can be considered "mathematical" about them. He chopped away anything that didn't fit and was very careful about the construction of sentences. He was so obsessed that he recalled -- or so I read somewhere -- something that was already printed in order to make corrections to it.

Poe claimed he was quite "mathematical" (or maybe the word is "methodical", or "analytical") about the construction of his famous poem The Raven. While this claim is disputed, or maybe he exaggerated, at least it's something he liked to claim about some of his work.


Sorry if I was unclear. By “mathematical” I meant looking for an underlying rule, a universal applicable to all particulars - which is essentially what the original essay is looking for.

Borges absolutely was extremely specific and analytical, but that’s not what I meant.


Oh. I misunderstood. In that case, we agree.


there is a difference between a literary essay and the kind PG is talking about here. PG's essays are more like maybe business commentary than literary essays. Some of these insights apply anyway, to all essays - but don't confuse different types of essays.


The topic of useful writing is important. The ideas in this essay may not be surprising or unexpected, but the author does lay out a clear formula (importance + novelty + correctness + strength) that probably isn't obvious to most. It seems to be correct and the concrete list of usefulness criteria is strong. Everything seems to check out.

The focus on correctness in this style of essay writing seems like a function of an engineer's thought process. If I write an essay about a vacation at the beach there isn't much of a requirement to be correct about the details. The goal could be to share my perspective or observations, which is more about being honest than being right.

I like the formula above, I think it clarifies this style of writing well. I plan to pay attention to it in the future.


The formula is wrong though. To provide a counter-example - Cunningham's Law

>the best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question; it's to post the wrong answer.

Sometimes saying something wrong, may actually be more useful. Either because you're clarifying a problem or making a connection or drawing a contrast or showing someone else the path by letting them see your chain of logic.


I agree that inviting contrarianism can be a useful way to communicate (though it probably isn't the best way to present a convincing / 'useful' argument).

But the medium for many essays lacks an interactive forum. Reactive comments from the audience is only a recent phenomenon. Before the net/web (~1990), the essay lived strictly in a broadcast-style medium. Then, the message had to live or die on its own merits. Careless or provocateur authors risked quick dismissal by an annoyed readership or eventual decline into insignificance.

And the degenerate devolved form of contrarians, media trolls, didn't yet exist. Halcyon days they were.


Ah, but useful to the writer, or the reader?


>How can you ensure that the things you say are true and novel and important? Believe it or not, there is a trick for doing this. I learned it from my friend Robert Morris, who has a horror of saying anything dumb. His trick is not to say anything unless he's sure it's worth hearing. This makes it hard to get opinions out of him, but when you do, they're usually right.

How is this useful? How do I say things that are true,novel,important. Oh well, only say things that you're sure they're 'worth hearing' - where presumably, worth hearing is defined as being true, novel and important.

This seems like quite a solipsistic view of essay writing. If everyone knew how useful their writing was before anyone else read it then the problem he's describing wouldn't exist. No one would choose to publish bad things - the problem is people publish bad things because they don't know they're bad until other people have pointed out why.

All this is really doing is arguing for a bias against publishing - have a high threshold, as a result lots of good ideas will go unpublished, but the few that do get published will make you look good. Is that actually a good solution to provide the most value to the people reading, or is that a good solution to maintain your reputation?


I know several people who keep silent until they can say something clever, and frankly, in most group situations they stand out as being slightly weird. Keeping your intellectual powder dry is just not a socially 'giving' behaviour. What's wrong with saying something that's not clever? Within a group, it might send the conversation off in a delightfully unanticipated direction. There's more to it all than always being right. Or clever.


There’s a difference between interpersonal social behavior and publishing written work, though.


Yes, that's why the paragraph after the one under discussion starts out, "Translated into essay writing...". So the paragraph discussed in this thread is about interpersonal social behavior.


Ah, yes, thank you. Though as far as I can tell, it’s brought up, not in the context of saying that it’s a successful strategy for having engaging dinner parties, but in the context of saying it’s a good strategy for writing essays.


> Within a group, it might send the conversation off in a delightfully unanticipated direction.

Or a not so delightfully unanticipated direction. Too many times I've realized too late that I was in a "hostile" group, so I say something stupid thinking I'm among friends and it's like switching a button on the group mood.


Then you've discovered something extremely valuable about that group


Eh, I think it depends. I wouldn’t go out of my way to socialize with people who are uptight and easily offended or upset by dumb shit that I might say in a casual social setting, but most of us get roped into those situations from time to time, and being able to manage them without causing offense is worthwhile, even if you can only do that by being quiet.


Sure, but as a result I've grown more and more cautious about relaxing my guard which has made me more and more quiet in social situations.


Hopefully it helps to recognize the beneficial outcome of your action (which I pointed out). I've been there, so I'm trying to help.


That's something I learned in my 20s that I wish I'd learned as a child.


i do this. it's not because i want to sound clever but because i have nothing of importance to say about the subject. and i can usually see if you don't either but won't tell you.

i't did not served me great in social circles but honestly as im aging am more ok with that. i don't have to have an opinion about everything or hang out with everybody.


PG never justifies this, and just claims that "with essay writing, publication bias is the way to go." There are a huge number of essayists that I have the option to read. I would prefer to read each of their best thoughts, rather than read more of their thoughts.

In my life, Twitter is for hot takes, and Feedly is for deep thoughts.


You actually agree with him then. He's referring to publication bias coming from only publishing your best essays.


I've interpreted this as to hold back on publishing your thoughts until you actually are confident in what your thoughts are.

I have a habit of forming my ideas in emails before I know the conclusion. It's important to edit that work and remove the dead ends and keep it concise. It's important to keep it useful.

I guess what he's saying is if you still don't know the conclusion of your writing, maybe you shouldn't publish it.

This of course is writing for the benefit of the reader. There is plenty of writing which is beneficial to the writer.


I assume Mr Morris would have kept that gem to himself.


I challenge you to ignore previous history and reputation, and evaluate this essay in isolation and according to the very principles it lays out. Do we agree with the apparent presupposition that this person has valuable instruction to give us on writing?

Ditto for correctness, importance, and strength. In effect the four components are like numbers you can multiply together to get a score for usefulness. Which I realize is almost awkwardly reductive, but nonetheless true.


Noting also that from my quick reading (note the qualifier there btw) I am not seeing the issue of having people review the essay mentioned. Most people not only don't have this luxury but we also don't know the contributions that those reviews have made (or corrections) to the essay.

To me (note the qualifier to lessen the impact there) writing is immediate and driven by emotion. To much time lessens the ability to say what you really think and having others review what you wrote even more so.


The first time I read Zero to One by Peter Thiel, I was a bit miffed. Stupid shit stated poorly. The second time, inartful puffery stated overly plainly. The third time, individual brilliance stated clearly.

Many replies here would do well to read, re-read, and re-re-read with an introspective mindset. This is perhaps the best quality material I have seen from pg for quite some time. Its clarity is brilliant and the thing I liked most was the second, and to me unexpected section, full of the reasons haters gonna hate.

I speak only for myself, and this is a throwaway, so nothing personal is at stake. This is a very lucid and precise examination of the fine controls at stake in writing. Their natural tension, the details of qualification. In my opinion, which may be trash, who knows, this will be cited for years to come because it is, in fact, true.


The ideas in Zero to One are not new and can be summarized in a few paragraphs. As with basically every other book/essay/speech written by a financially-successful person, it is over-valued simply because its author is good at making money.

That said, it is certainly better than your typical business book - but that isn't saying much.


All self improvement books (and by self improvement i mean books that claim to tell you some secret of value, i.e. i'm including business advice or drivel like the black swan) have at most 2-3 good ideas, mostly common sense, that they repeat in different forms until the book is thick enough to get sold as a book.

That's the market. You wouldn't pay for a short essay that tells you the same ideas in 2000 words but never repeats itself would you?

And that's before considering whether those 2-3 ideas are even worth the trouble.


Sure, I agree, but Thiel hardly needs the money from a self-help book. He seems to have chosen the book format in order to access the market that you described, though I feel like he’s smart enough to have put out a more significant product. IIRC he went on an interview tour promoting the book, so I think it was mostly to get his ideas out there.

In any case, it’s actually just an edited collection of lecture notes from his class on startups. Thus the length and repetitiveness. That’s fine and I wouldn’t expect an undergraduate course to deliver some radical new brilliant theory, but some people have certainly received it that way...


Thiel may just be educating his next batch of products (he produces startups, right?) and charging for the book because he's after all a business man and why not do it at zero cost or a small positive.


Zero to One was very contrarian at the time it was published. The majority of the start-up world was obsessed with lean and thought ideas were so cheap that you should try giving them away.


We will agree to disagree, I suppose. For you things are simple, and for me they are not. For me, some thinking in Thiel’s book was absolute heresy hiding in plain sight. I suppose we could argue over your concept of over-valued, but I have no interest in doing so.


It is brilliant because it is brilliant and if you read 3 times and can’t see the brilliance, then....

Just stating that something is good doesn’t make it good, even though people might believe it.

We have a book, which was written quite a long time ago, filled with just utter nonsense. According to PG it is useful writing. It hits on all his points. It is much easier to be persuasive/useful when only you have the light, but when sun is out, you just one of em.


You would do well to follow pg’s advice. Your post doesn’t make sense to me and isn’t very coherent.


Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.


Sometimes a banal reply is just a banal reply.


Before I make some caustic remarks, I’d like to say that I think pg is a curious, genuine, and beneficent person. I am not trying to troll or to be cruel, but rather to give a negative but sincere response, as contrast, in a community that tends to adulate pg.

Reading this essay was like kissing a person you didn’t know died six hours ago—you expect warmth, but instead, your vivid lips collide with a cold, bloodless, unresponsive substance.

This is tedious stuff. Not one hint of humor, no detectable pulse. Pedestrian truths expressed in the dullest possible language. Lifeless.

For an essay that starts with the question “What should an essay be?”, I hope not to read many more essays like this.

The fact that this boring essay is so popular here lowers my opinion of HN.


Convey a singular point with intent. Below is first paragraph rewritten. Just my 2¢.

---

Essays should be persuasive. But we can aim for something more ambitious: that an essay should be useful.

Useful writing makes a strong claim without resorting to falsehoods.

It is more useful to say that Pike's Peak is in the center of Colorado than somewhere within.

Precision and correctness are like opposing forces. Useful writing is bold and true. It tells people something important, that they might not have known, without resorting to manufactured surprise or equivocality. This is formative of fundamental insights.

Any idea will not be novel to all, but may still have impact for the many.

In argument: be correct, be important, be strong. This will ensure usefulness.


I think this deletes an important sentence. The comment about saying Pike's peak is in the centre of Colorado being inaccurate and that you can only say it's near the centre is showing an example of precision and correctness being opposites. You've lost the point of the example in your paragraph and the sentence suddenly seems like a completely random insertion.


It is more useful to say that Pike's Peak is in the center of Colorado than somewhere within.

This kind of thing is taking terseness too far, I think. If I’m not immediately familiar with Pike’s Peak it takes me a moment to unpack your meaning, but I immediately understood the more verbose explanation in the original.


Yep. People often confuse understanding audience with verbosity. Waffling and context both add word count.

edit: I could reduce this to "Waffling and context both add word count." but then:

1: It's not clear I agree with you

and

2: Triplets--like the three sentences I wrote there--are an artistic device that improve clarity and help prose flow.


There's a large international audience here. So, slang like "yep" should probably be avoided if one is keen to carefully tailor their writing?

(I debated whether to use 'one' or 'someone' here, for similar reasons.)


It never occurred to me that it was American slang. That's a new thing to think about.


Something I tend to see in online arguments, here and elsewhere, is the tendency to throw everything at the other person and see what sticks. I've been guilty of it myself.

The result is a wall of text that few will read and will contain many points that are easy to knock down, poorly worded, or irrelevant.

Now, I try to stick to one point, if possible, that I feel I can articulate well and defend.


This remind me of a quote: "if you're saying ten things, you're not saying anything."


The other day I was helping friend with an essay and i realized how 12 years in software programming has changed my writing style. Now it seems very awkward to think and write in long paragraphs. It feels more natural to use bullet points for everything.


I know the feeling; when preparing to write a blog post or a presentation I tend to start off with bullet points.

Mind you once I have that down I can churn out improbable amounts of text in a relatively short amount of time. The main challenge for me is to stop writing and remove unnecessary text, which is kinda hard to do given how much nuance is in code.

I mean I've been thinking of writing a post (and a knowledge sharing session with my mostly C writing, older generation developer colleagues) about modern development and I was already thinking of painting a picture of how things were 10+ years ago.


> I mean I've been thinking of writing a post (and a knowledge sharing session with my mostly C writing, older generation developer colleagues) about modern development [...]

There's a (generally) younger cohort at Handmade Network[0] that might be interested in your essay. I'd encourage you to make an account and post it on a new thread :-)

[0] https://handmade.network


I think this is a very modern thing... because internet.

"The medium is the message" applies to writing more than anything. The medium has been rapidly evolving.

Average people wrote very little pre-PC, and the contexts are totally different. Much higher rates of output, frequency, etc. Bullet point style is good for information dense messages, provided they are short enough. We do a lot of this now, it's how we "talk" at work.

The style isn't new, it's just that many more of us have a use for it today. In the past, it was common in a military context, for example..


I was thinking about the same thing yesterday. I noticed I had a bunch of unconscious processes when writing things that are meant to be read publicly, so I started writing down the reasons. Eventually, I wrote this sentence.

"It seems that because many people are raised with the imperative to 'stand up for themselves,' it turns into a need to become argumentive when faced with an opposing viewpoint."

The "briars" that pg mentions happened to me when I reread this sentence. I was essentially assuming too many things about the general population, and also trying to contrast this assumption that people are raised to be argumentive with my own mindset where I try very hard not to argue about anything.

Every time I write something like this, I picture the first thing an HN commenter would say in response. "Well, what about X?" or "You assert X, but here's evidence that disproves this," or especially "What are the alternatives?" Reading lots of HN comments helps with this. The issue is trying not to seem overly assertive like pg suggests: putting in quantifiers like "maybe" or "perhaps" to give room for error instead of coming off universally saying "X is Y." When I imagine the fictional HN commenter's response, if the statement itself still seems fine, that response is usually the first thing I add to end of the comment prefixed by "On the other hand".

I feel like for me this is because I can't take criticism too well so I try to imagine all the reasonable criticisms people might come up with first and then criticize myself with them preemptively. Or, writing about personal experiences - facts, of which my personal telling is unique - instead of writing about how thing X or Y ought to be in the world. Especially with personal experiences I believe they can be useful without having to use them as evidence of a larger argument, which opens me up to the risk of being flat-out wrong.


An unpersuasive essay is never useful.

While I don’t think PG’s logical mindset would dispute this fact, I do wish his essay explored more pointedly the tension between persuasiveness and usefulness. His essay has a hint of despair: that it is impossible to persuade most people, and that the minority of humanity that are open to being persuaded (i.e., to learning something novel) are precisely the kind of people who are too intellectually rigorous to be influenced by rhetoric. Thus, persuasive writing is a waste of time?

Not a week goes by where I am persuaded of something that is true, that I had not previously accepted as true because... well... because I had not yet been persuaded.

PG isn’t really arguing that persuasion is unimportant. He is trying to persuade us that persuasion, as a rhetorical art, is a fools errand. And to give him credit, he uses the very method of persuasion in his essay that he promotes: unvarnished condensed truth.

“People believe whatever they want to believe, so you might as well tell them the truth bluntly, accurately, and simply. Even though they won’t listen to you, you’ll be better off for it. And who knows, if you reach 10 other people it will have been worth it. See the single starfish thrown back into the ocean? It mattered to her.”

Having said all that, I’m inclined to agree with PG, because almost no one will change a belief they already hold because of an essay. There’s a good book called “Changing Minds” that explores why people change their beliefs, and very low on a long list is intellectual insight. High on the list is what your peers believe and what beliefs serve your self-interest. It takes a heart of a hero to believe something no one else believes, especially when such a belief requires you to act against your own welfare.

The most useful essays are those that change lives. The sweet spot is to attack those areas of life that people tend to not have a formed opinion about. And this is where PG’s genius lives: at the edge of technology, where few live, let alone believe. That’s where he is at his best. I for one would devour and re-devour an essay about privacy, or AGI, or VR, or even about Twitter. Here’s hoping that this is PG’s opening salvo in more essays that are as powerful as this one, but as relevant to startups as his earlier writings. As he wrote: there is still much left unwritten and undiscovered!


I've always found PG's essays to be incredibly intriguing.

I'm working in a startup, and everything he says is just very insightful about running one. I hope that PG shares more about growing a company that's running on an experimental business model.

This is one of his other masterpieces. There is a certain art of communicating and he's sharing that with the world for everyone to learn. Not many people share their experiences and miscellaneous things in detail.

I for one am thankful that PG still writes and I hope that he continues.


Masterpeice?


Publication bias has the nasty effect of changing what you think. You start writing something because you had something you wanted to say, and then you start proofreading and editing and moving things around, and eventually you realize you're cutting entire paragraphs because your entire position has changed. You're not saying what you intended to say, and you're not sure if it's because what you were going to say was wrong, or you just edited yourself into a completely different essay.

I sometimes visualize this by writing one rough draft as fast as I can and save it as "v1". Then I create a "v2" and begin my edits, and I can create more versions as I go if I want. When I feel like I'm finally done (hours/days later) I compare it to v1, and try to figure out how the hell the entire thing became so different.

On the "novelty+strength pisses people off" part: you don't have to piss people off to write a good essay. One example of a convincing essay argument is to make it depend on the beliefs of the people you're trying to convince, such that Y can only exist if X is right, and they already believe X is right. They won't immediately run to your new idea with open arms, but they'll have a much more open mind about it. Anyway, there's an entire universe of rhetoric you can employ to break down the barriers to new ideas. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhetoric


> You start writing something because you had something you wanted to say, and then you start proofreading and editing and moving things around, and eventually you realize you're cutting entire paragraphs because your entire position has changed. You're not saying what you intended to say, and you're not sure if it's because what you were going to say was wrong, or you just edited yourself into a completely different essay.

That’s kind of the point. Writing isn’t just a way to communicate ideas to other people, it’s also a structured way to work through those ideas yourself.


I've also noticed that effect. When you are motivated to sit down and write something, you have a strong point you want to put to words and elaborate. The more effort you put in, the more thinking you do and more related threads to go down, qualifications to elaborate and so on.

You say this is a 'nasty effect', but I'm not convinced it is a negative thing. You started off with a black & white idea and ended up with better grasp of matter. Maybe the edited text isn't edgy and pointed, but it is more mature. Do you consider your v1s better than your v2s?


> Confidence and humility are often seen as opposites, but in this case, as in many others, confidence helps you to be humble. If you know you're an expert on some topic, you can freely admit when you learn something you didn't know, because you can be confident that most other people wouldn't know it either

This is an excellent point. I'd much rather work with (and aspire to be) someone that knows when they don't know, than someone that has all the answers.


,,It's easy to make a statement correct by making it vague. ''

What's funny is that the last dataset that Google built for evaluating dialogues has exactly these 2 metrics: correctness and specificity.


    Ditto for correctness, importance, and strength.
    In effect the four components are like numbers you
    can multiply together to get a score for
    usefulness. Which I realize is almost awkwardly
    reductive, but nonetheless true.
Cue the page ripping scene from Dead Poets Society...

    PERRY: Understanding Poetry, by Dr. J. Evans
    Pritchard, Ph.D. To fully understand poetry, we
    must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme, and
    figures of speech. Then ask two questions: One,
    how artfully has the objective of the poem been 
    rendered, and two, how important is that objective. 
    Question one rates the poem's perfection, question
    two rates its importance. And once these questions
    have been answered, determining a poem's greatness
    becomes a relatively simple matter.
   
    Keating gets up from his desk and prepares to draw on
    the chalk board.
   
    PERRY: If the poem's score for perfection is
    plotted along the horizontal of a graph, and its
    importance is plotted on the vertical, then
    calculating the total area of the poem yields the
    measure of its greatness.
   
    Keating draws a corresponding graph on the board and
    the students dutifully copy it down.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjHORRHXtyI

:)


PG speaks of writing usefully while not writing well. Many of his sentences are phrases. The subject of his sentence is often unclear. He begins sentences with the preposition, "But". Yet, his writing remains useful. I'd rather the latter than the former if I had to choose, but considering the volume that he writes, it's surprising that he hasn't put effort into writing well. He just doesn't care to improve his work.


>He just doesn't care to improve his work.

Alternatively, you may overestimate how objective these rules are and how much they must correlate with some universal metric for good writing.


Agreed. In my opinion, great writing has to be within the context of the time. A lot of us speak in a manner similar to how PG writes. You wouldn't consider great writing from 1890 with the same set of rules as you would something written in 2020.


Roald Dahl's work is some of the most delightfully readable and engaging writing out there in my humble opinion and that was written nearly one hundred years ago in the 1930s and 1940s.

Good writing is timeless, I may suggest that adding hyperlinks under a new word you introduced inside your essay that requires clicking on and reading a wholly different story to understand the current story you are reading, is a terribly under-performant way of communicating information inside an essay to the reader.

When did using "+" instead of "&" become acceptable in proper English? I understand this is a tech blog and I have no problem with "+" used in a tech context, the use in a virtue signalling piece on the rules of writing a good essay seems misplaced.


I think there is plenty of good and great writing that isn't timeless. Especially when it comes to essays, where the nature of what we know and care about changes so dramatically. An essay written to convince a slaver of the moral errors of slavery may seem so obvious to the modern reader as to be condescending, but, effective in it's time period, it was great writing.


True the content of the stories fade in and out of relevance and greatness.

The structuring of essays improves and dips in transcendent quality over time depending on the behaviour of authors at large and human understanding of communication through essay. The virtue and successful execution of well structured essays is timeless. RD's work is well structured. It's possible to learn and execute on structures that are proven to work across time and speak for themselves in the results.


> When did using "+" instead of "&" become acceptable in proper English? I understand this is a tech blog and I have no problem with "+" used in a tech context, the use in a virtue signalling piece on the rules of writing a good essay seems misplaced.

Could be that tech bias. I've been coding awhile, and '+' reads as 'ADD', for inclusion, while '&' reads as 'logical AND', for restrictive subsetting. The '&' no longer sits right. (Plus, it's a shell and HTML metacharacter, thus it's a potential potent piece of trouble in casual typing and so something to be avoided.)


I had to go back and search for the "+"es, but I think they're well suited to the context.

> I believe the formula I've given you, importance + novelty + correctness + strength, is the recipe for a good essay.

I wouldn't say he's really using "+" instead of "&". "importance & novelty & correctness & strength" doesn't provide the same feeling of adding, of mixing, to get a formula.



> A lot of us speak in a manner similar to how PG writes.

No one speaks with explicit sentence delimiters, and most of the criticism made were not of the sequence of words but details the additional visual signals of structure that appear in written but not spoken language.


That’s because you have very few exposition to 1890 writing. When I read published book from a hundred years ago (in French), I’m often stroke by how much clearer it is than say, newspaper garbage for instance. No only in style, but also how they write to inform instead of writing to hide facts.

It’s even more striking when watching archive videos from the 60’. People speak more slowly, are more composed and use wider vocabulary. It might not be as caricatural as the movie Idiocracy portrayed it, but in a way I feel we’ve slided into what they predict.


>When I read published book from a hundred years ago (in French), I’m often stroke by how much clearer it is than say, newspaper garbage for instance. No only in style, but also how they write to inform instead of writing to hide facts.

For this comparison to hold water, you should compare garbage newspapers from each period rather than different literary mediums.


I wouldn’t normally take apart an HN comment on grammar, but you are commenting on clarity of writing. If this is something you care about, than the following proofing may be useful. Format is (delete text)[insert text or comment].

———————

That’s because you have very (few exposition)[little exposure] to (1890 writing)[writing from 1890]. When I read published (book)[books;otherwise “often” in next segment doesn’t make sense] from a hundred years ago (in French), I’m often (stroke)[struck] by how much clearer it is than[,] say, (newspaper garbage)[awkward] (for instance)[redundant after using “than, say,”]. No[t] only in style, but also how (they)[unclear reference, refers to books but books don’t write, authors do] write to inform instead of writing to hide facts. It’s even more striking when watching archive videos from the 60’[s]. People speak more slowly, are more composed and use wider vocabulary. It might not be as (caricatural)[not a word and intended meaning unclear from context] as the movie Idiocracy portrayed it, but[,] in a way[,] I feel we’ve (slided)[slid] into what (they)[it] predict[s].


He said he read something in French, so the obvious assumption is that he's French (or French Canadian).

Being a grammar Nazi about what one can assume is a non-native English speaker's grammar is just plain 'ol dumb.


I don't think they were being mean. To me that should have been a PM, but we don't have those here.


My hypothesis is that our attention spans have decreased and this is a function of technological improvements. Because we seek out dopamine rewarding experiences we can satisfy that brain circuit by consuming novel content faster. We are basically attention seeking drug addicts. Take for example older movies vs modern movies. Today's special effects speeds up the pacing so that older movies feel boring. The same can be seen in TV shows. Seasame street is almost a case study where you can watch the change in realtime. Also older vs modern cartoons follow the same pattern. You could say it's almost frenetic. The effect holds for older vs modern video games as well although some games are different. YouTube as well.

One interesting thing I've observed is that with games like Minecraft and YouTube that kids are starting to become content creators. Where kids use to put on plays for the family in the living room, they can now effectively do the same but for the whole world. It's really fascinating.


In "But I think we can aim...", "but" is a conjunction, not a preposition

Also, his writing is fine: simple but clear and effective.

"Many of his sentences are phrases" — literally every sentence in this essay is a complete sentence. What are you talking about?


Entering pedantic mode:

"But," in Paul's usage, isn't a preposition. And starting sentences with prepositions isn't considered "incorrect" by most grammarians[0]. Or even bad style.

If it's good enough for the Bible[1], it's probably good enough for you.

[0]https://wordcounter.net/blog/2016/10/26/102560_can-you-start...

[1]https://biblehub.com/nlt/genesis/31.htm


I’m certainly no grammarian or even much of a writer, but the Bible seems a particularly odd piece of writing to use as a guide.

It’s been translated to the nth degree, is ancient & frequently obtuse on purpose...


Translations of the Bible, at least in historically Christian cultures, are usually treated as authoritative examples of proper written usage.


No they aren't.


Where did you get this idea?


(deleted)


So you derived the idea axiomatically?


sighs No, but if you think I’m full of shit, I don’t really want to waste my time discussing how I developed this particular misunderstanding about the world for your amusement.


I'm sorry. It's the game I'm poking fun at, not the players (I'm as bad as anyone) and I can see how I could have communicated personalized contempt rather than general bemusement. I apologize and promise that I don't think you're full of shit.


Thanks. In retrospect it's kind of funny that I ended up making one of those mistaken remarks that the original essay explicitly recommends against.


I'm not sure I even agree with that, since I just spent my lunch down a 20 minute rabbit hole of researching the regard usage experts have for English translations of the bible, and it's actually a pretty interesting digression. I shouldn't have jumped on you for it; I made the thread worse.


I'd be interested to see what you found out!


Starting a sentence with "But I think we can" is neither incorrect, nor is it a preposition.


Starting a sentence with But is perfectly fine as long as it's actually starting a sentence. We get to not to in grammar school only because starting a 'sentence' with But often turns that 'sentence' into a phrase.


This is something up with which we will not put!

--Winston Churchill.


allegedly. On the topic of not ending a sentence with a preposition.

https://brians.wsu.edu/2016/11/14/churchill-on-prepositions/


> He begins sentences with the preposition, "But".

But “but”, in the use in question, is a conjunction. With which one should be less concerned about starting a sentence than one would be about a preposition.


There's nothing wrong with starting a sentence with "but."


quote: "...with the preposition, "But". Yet, his writing..."

The word "but" is a conjunction, like "yet". Oh, the ironing!


Good catch. The ironing was intentional.


I can agree to some extent and that’s why I’m doing tenproblems.com ; good academic writing can be seen nowadays as the best shot we have at bonafide or not deceitful, at least, discussions. It should really be made accessible to the general public as a form of liberal education and to whomever realizes that a broader liberal perspective helps their own writing in the vocational public arena.


tl; dr:

1. Sets the topic of "What is a good essay?"

2. Asserts that correctness is necessary, but not sufficient condition for a good essay.

3. Illustrates 2 by pointing out that by increasing vagueness, complete correctness is always possible. Characterizes correctness/precision as opposing forces.

4. Adds two more criteria for a good essay - telling people something important, and that they don't know

5. Adds the essential caveat that things we know subconsciously may be worth restating [crucially, as points 1-5 we all certainly subconsciously knew]

6. Adds a fourth dimension to a good essay: "as unequivocal as possible" [aka strength]

7. Highlights the inherent tradeoffs in satisfying these conditions. Increasing one dimension may reduce audience size.

8. Details an simple algorithm for only writing important/true things -- reviewing/revising one's own ideas heavily before publishing (up to 100 times)

9. Proposes a technique to find important topics: by examining the pool topics one cares about

10. Proposes a technique to find novel topics: By examining topics that you've thought about a lot [and surprised yourself with when you found a connection]

11. Suggests "strength" [6] comes from thinking well and skillful use of qualifiers.

12. Adds another quality to what makes a good essay -- simplicity

-

13. Proposes that good essays (by this formula) are particularly likely to make people mad

14. Identifies one cause of anger is that some widely-held incorrect beliefs an essay calls out are likely to be cherished beliefs

15. Mentions the strength component of very precise writing (as well as brevity) can come across as incredibly confident, and exacerbate the ruffling of feathers

16. Proposes that being misrepresented is particularly likely with this essay style, and isn't avoidable generally, but doesn't think one should worry too much about disingenuous misinterpretation.

-

17. Advises aspiring essayists to relax the constraint of breadth-of-audience/topics. Suggests publication isn't a necessity.

18. Provides some hopeful thoughts on the future of essays


Observations.

This is one of my longest tl; drs, particularly for a short essay. This to me signals high content ratio (low compressibility).

As somebody who tried for years to get people online to pay attention to my essays, I am not super confident that we have good content-discovery mechanisms for essays online [except video essays, which seem to thrive]. Thus I don't take this essay as personally relevant, as I am not personally convinced that a good essay written by an unfamous person, would warrant enough attention to justify the rigorous revision process.

I notice PG chooses to view the essay through an artistic/historic lens that puts him in the minority. It seems to me he strives very hard to stay above the primal desires that dominate the internet-attention-economy. A very tough challenge.


we all spinoza now


There are many ways to write, and many reasons to write. Be careful that you do not take one person's advice as the only way to write.


I don't know. I get what pg is saying but I feel like he's missing some huge points here.

I find that emotionally-laden content with overly-specified points combined with extreme surety sells better than more intellectual content that leaves many questions open to the reader. I find that in my own writing, over the years I'll take the same subject and move slowly from generalisms to specifics, and that *the process of reading, writing, and thinking about the generalisms are what drive the eventual specificity an confidence. I also find that writing and editing is itself thinking, that many times I don't slowly advance towards a goal until I've flailed around at the edges for a while. (Which he says as well, I think)

Being wrong a lot in public helps to be eventually be right. There are things you'll never see unless you establish feedback mechanisms and run through them several times. There's a popular idea among some intellectuals that most books don't deserve to exist. I understand and mostly agree with that; there's been a ton of books that are supposed to say something that don't. There's also a ton of essays that show a writer wondering around in a field, circling around some idea they can barely express and how no idea how to understand.

I'm okay with all of that. In fact, I think it's a good thing. I might not read any of it, but we need lots of people thinking about important things and trying to work through the issues. That's going to mean breaking a lot of these rules (or scoring low on the multiplied metric).

Don't get me wrong, I like the metrics and they're a goal of mine. But you shouldn't write for other people, you should write for yourself. Otherwise you'll spend a lot of time worrying about what other people say about you. Write for yourself, figure out what's important to you, then work through becoming more and more specific as you grow. You don't play tennis by watching the scoreboard, you play by hitting the ball and engaging in the game. Likewise while you want to score high on these metrics, you've got to spread your intellectual wings and grow some. Otherwise it's just somebody talking to himself in an interesting manner. That might make a great thing to consume, but how useful is it actually?

tl;dr it's better to write a lot, continue to score low on all of this as long as you're learning. Much better than scoring high and never changing.


At first I thought pg implied you can't publish anything that you aren't sure is correct. That surprised me, since he often publishes 'minimal viable' first versions of his essays and then expands on them later (unless I am wrong on this).

But perhaps a simplistic initial draft is not the same thing as a badly written, incorrect one.


I think there's a well-trodden aphorism that seems apt here: perfection is the enemy of good. The perfectionism that 'pg discusses here seems orthogonal to the goal of useful writing which to an extent has an associated time pressure. I would rather publish often and usefully to achieve the maximum impact on my readers.


I'll say it again, it's a piece of writing that wouldn't warrant any attention if it weren't for the author's status here.

I'm halfway through and my brain is stunned by the effort of forcing it down.

PG needs a break from writing for a while. I enjoyed his early stuff and I hope he gets a return to form.

[edit: it's like he's the George Lucas of writing useful articles for hackers: the early ones were classics but he somehow lost the magic for his follow-up series]


>> I'll say it again, it's a piece of writing that wouldn't warrant any attention if it weren't for the author's status here.

This is probably true. If I was the person to write this, and post this on my personal blog, and submitted it to HN, nobody would give a fuck.

Of course, that may not indicate anything, because that could be said for Newton's Principia, Einstein's Relativity, The Great Gatsby, Proof of Fermat's last theorom...

I think the question isn't "Would the world appreciate this if it weren't by PG?" but "SHOULD the world appreciate this, even if it weren't PG?"


Glad I'm not the only one. First few paragraphs lead to a good buildup but going on it fell apart.

Further, It's hard to criticise Graham on HN.


Is it difficult? Most of his articles receive quite a lot of criticism on hn.


He used to have interesting things to write about - subjects that he'd thought deeply about, had discussed with his peers, and could distill into valuable prose.


I think you're right. He's just churning out banal advice on a broad range of topics in which he has limited expertise, in the form of long-winded blog posts. It's so different from his early stuff, it's almost like he's hired a ghost writer to merely give the appearance he's still writing.


Strong disagree there. Sure, quality varies. I thought "The Two Kinds of Moderate", which is very recent, was excellent.


This is incredibly lazy criticism. You add no analysis, reasoning or anything of value.


At this risk of being accused of snark, tu quoque. If you don’t understand the basis of the OP’s opinion, you’re welcome to ask. There’s no need to assume bad faith.


> At this risk of being accused of snark, tu quoque.

How so? I feel I was being quite concise.

> There’s no need to assume bad faith

I did not assume anything. There simply was nothing to work with.


> I feel I was being quite concise.

And so does the OP, I'd wager. Personally I found the basis of the OP's criticism sufficiently self-evident to not require dissertation. If you didn't, that's fine too—but it's lazy criticism to declare that because YOU formed a different opinion that the OP was being lazy.


Recursive sarcasm?


Would you be kind enough to share any links to your own writing and some of the key factors that improved it.

I wish to improve my communication and appreciate that Paul Graham thought hard then freely shared his insights on such a difficult topic for a great deal of people.

I've always wondered how and why Geoff Bezos ran Amazon with six page essays and now I think I'm a bit closer to understanding.


Do you also ask cinema critics to show their own movies, food critics to provide their own food, etc.? One does not necessarily need to be able to _make_ something to be able to _tell_ whether something is good or not.


Not even cinema critic, cinema viewer.

"yeah I don't really like the Marvel movies, I think they're overrated"

"oh? Can you show me your movie so I can see what a good movie looks like?"

What a complete and utterly garbage thing to say on that guys part.


Is Paul unfamiliar with what makes good academic writing? He starts by digging into academic writing, but I am not sure he knows how it functions and what it functions to do. Good and great academic writing pushes the envelope on theories and frameworks and tends to be the repository for new ideas that people like Paul use to make sense of the world. A case in point is Clayton Christensen. It's in the forges of his profession and writing practice that his Innovator's Dilemma was born. Academic writing may not be accessible and easy to read for outsiders, and tends towards a high degree of density. But that's the task of journalists, business people, educators, and essayists etc. to translate and apply it to the real world.


Former academic here. I disagree. Academic writing has evolved to demonstrate that you are (1) an insider and (2) to obfuscate your ideas so that peer reviewers are less likely to challenge you.


I think this varies a lot by subject. Certain fields reward ambiguity and vagueness quite heavily. Good academic writing tends to be the exception rather than the rule. This may be true of essays as well as good writing is quite rare. I think the criticism is less about accessibility and more about the general trend towards uselessness of academic writing in a lot of fields of academia.


> How can you ensure that the things you say are true and novel and important? Believe it or not, there is a trick for doing this ... ... trick is not to say anything unless he's sure it's worth hearing. This makes it hard to get opinions out of him, but when you do, they're usually right.

I wish I could do this.

I have to vocalize bad ideas at times & almost with surety to draw out all of the opposition so as to whittle the idea down to sharp and solid -- and to make it robust against the array of slings it could possibly face.

I do not know how people can go through a dialectic process like this in their own silent mind. Or if anyone truly does. Or if they do, if this process trends toward "safe-ish" ideas only.


On the essay form, I don't yet see a mention of the excellent Essays of E. B. White[1]. Yes, the same one from 'Strunk and White' of The Elements of Style.

Two essays that I still vividly remember from the book (both were written around 1940s):

(1) Coon Tree

(2) Death of a Pig

These are indeed essays with an "an odor of durability", as White puts it while he ruminates in the preface about what he was considering to publish.

Get the entire book[1], his writing reeks with humanity.

[1]https://www.harpercollins.com/9780060932237/essays-of-e-b-wh...


I tried enabling reader mode in Firefox to read this page properly, but Firefox didn't offer it in the address bar. So I checked the source of the page and I was surprised to find that this still uses table layouts!


A lot in common with Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing [1] which was previously on HN. [2]

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/feb/24/elmore-leonard...

[2] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16422686


A true test of good writing is the test of time, the following for example was written 15 years ago and remains relevant: https://idlewords.com/2005/04/dabblers_and_blowhards.htm


Wow, I’m not impressed with this at all It’s obvious to anyone what the ways are in which hackers and painters are completely different. Does anyone really need to write lots of vacuous commentary on this ? On the other hand, the ways in which they are similar are actually interesting to think about.


Hello guys,

I don't know if it's right place to ask this, but do you guys have any other resources that I can learn how to write great essays.

Because I have started to write essays at our startups blog which is called www.jooseph.com . It is basically playlists for learning. This resources would be really helpful for me to create a list for how to write great essay and also teach myself to how write great essays. Thanks in advance


You want to read Umberto Eco's seminal "How to write a thesis". Not quite the same as an essay. But it does contain tons of good stuff on writing.


Thank you for your suggestion :)


The writer does not mention eliminating complex grammar, and uses pronouns a lot. I find using pronouns greatly dilutes meaning and efficiency for non-native English speakers and requires more attentive reading even for native English speakers. The writer is not using simple direct language in my opinion, and being both simple and direct are critical for useful writing.


I found this lecture about effective writing to be very useful:

LEADERSHIP LAB: The Craft of Writing Effectively (Larry McEnerney, Director of the University of Chicago's Writing Program)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtIzMaLkCaM


Another type of writing that happens a lot especially on HN that is better than essay writing is dialogue. You get immediate feedback on what you failed to make clear and what points you missed because your intuition skipped over it, or if you're genuinely wrong.

Still even in dialogue, arguments become circular because a lot of dialogue is selectively interpreted and misinterpreted at a subcncious level.

I was recently introduced to a way of writing that makes all your points unequivocally clear. It may not lend to enjoyable reading but it makes your stance and point solid and clear. I post the dialogue below and while there's a lot going on (not relevant to this post, it's a debate about how function composition is a central feature to functional programming) in that dialogue the main point is that it evolves into a different format at the end to make things completely clear you can see the evolution just by scanning the conversation (especially near the end):

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22290188


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