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.
In general, personally attacking your audience is not an effective writing technique.
> 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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
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.
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.
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.
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.)
the willingness to entertain the best argument against
your position in good faith.
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 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
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).
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.
>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 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 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.
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.
Policing tone is passive aggressive censorship & bias.
It's as hideous a concept as 'culture appropriation' or
the cult of positivity.
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 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.
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 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'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.
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.
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.
“Nobody’s going to do your homework for you”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
If there is a benefit, though, I'd be interested to know what it is.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
This is my all time favorite programming book, both for the prose and the code within it:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Like Mark Twain once said "I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one."
No he didn’t. It was Blaise Pascal:
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.
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))
I don't think I got your point with this selection of quotes, if you don't mind explaining.
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:
- The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, Borges:
- David Lynch and Lost Highway, Wallace:
- Laughing with Kafka, Wallace:
- Consider the Lobster, Wallace:
Edit: added some more essay links.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You seem to be stating this as an absolute truth.
Beautiful writing is useful.
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.
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.
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.
I agree with this, but avoiding writing nonsense is science, and not art. So there definitely is a scientific aspect to writing.
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.
Borges absolutely was extremely specific and analytical, but that’s not what I meant.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
In my life, Twitter is for hot takes, and Feedly is for deep thoughts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
That said, it is certainly better than your typical business book - but that isn't saying much.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
edit: I could reduce this to "Waffling and context both add word count." but then:
1: It's not clear I agree with you
2: Triplets--like the three sentences I wrote there--are an artistic device that improve clarity and help prose flow.
(I debated whether to use 'one' or 'someone' here, for similar reasons.)
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.
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.
There's a (generally) younger cohort at Handmade Network that might be interested in your essay. I'd encourage you to make an account and post it on a new thread :-)
"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..
"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.
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'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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Alternatively, you may overestimate how objective these rules are and how much they must correlate with some universal metric for good writing.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
For this comparison to hold water, you should compare garbage newspapers from each period rather than different literary mediums.
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].
Being a grammar Nazi about what one can assume is a non-native English speaker's grammar is just plain 'ol dumb.
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.
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?
"But," in Paul's usage, isn't a preposition. And starting sentences with prepositions isn't considered "incorrect" by most grammarians. Or even bad style.
If it's good enough for the Bible, it's probably good enough for you.
It’s been translated to the nth degree, is ancient & frequently obtuse on purpose...
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.
The word "but" is a conjunction, like "yet". Oh, the ironing!
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"  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
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.
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.
But perhaps a simplistic initial draft is not the same thing as a badly written, incorrect one.
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]
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?"
Further, It's hard to criticise Graham on HN.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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, his writing reeks with humanity.
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
LEADERSHIP LAB: The Craft of Writing Effectively (Larry McEnerney, Director of the University of Chicago's Writing Program)
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):