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More people should write (2012) (jsomers.net)
160 points by jsomers 17 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 84 comments

The reason I don't write is that I'm unconvinced that a worthwhile number of people will find my writings and actually read them in 2023.

I'm fine with doing all my writing on HN. If you look at the comments section of my profile, it might as well be a microblog.

The argument in the article does not involve anyone reading your writing: "That’s the promise: you will live more curiously if you write. You will become a scientist, if not of the natural world than of whatever world you care about. More of that world will pop alive. You will see more when you look at it."

I just did look. 19k karma is indeed nothing to sneeze at.

Difference is though that in the HN comments it's someone else who picks the topic and time.

Much as I appreciate the discussion here, occasionally I think there's some value in just doing a writeup on a topic. Or, a memory dump. If for no other reason, than for the therapeutic value of cleaning up the mind... And forcing the random musings that make sense in the head through the filter of written language just to see what actually makes sense.

I wonder if there is a way to easily export one's own Hacker News comments. It might be useful for you to back your comments up one day, as there can be value in searching through your past writing and also having a backup (which never hurts).

Write a script to download them using the Hacker News API.[0]

First, get the user endpoint: https://hacker-news.firebaseio.com/v0/user/<username>.json (ex: https://hacker-news.firebaseio.com/v0/user/jl.json?print=pre...)

then iterate the "submitted" array and make a request to each ID at the item endpoint: https://hacker-news.firebaseio.com/v0/item/<ID>.json (ex: https://hacker-news.firebaseio.com/v0/item/8863.json?print=p...)

Then save each JSON response somewhere. You won't be able to get the content of flagged and banned messages. If you do this more than once you'll also need to keep track of the last ID you downloaded, or the updates endpoint to catch edits, I think, although the readme is a bit vague about how exactly that works.


This is exactly my reason too for not putting up my own website/blog.

What about people who write for themselves, and somehow end up on the homepage of Hacker News? You'll end up getting roasted by people like this guy: > Disagree. Writing a blog post is like getting on stage. You need to come on stage with a dream that you’re going to dazzle the audience with your show. Your blog is so interesting that it’s worth the time to read it! https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=38324486

Did you paste a proper link?

Is to post different from writing? Considering that so much of online user-generated content these days are posts, comments, replies. I’m not even talking about fluffy exhibitionist social media posts or incoherent comments on news articles. I mean supposedly more highbrow comments on special interest aggregator sites such as this. Forums and bulletin boards.

Does that constitute writing? Or are we just creating more ephemeral chaff?

I think posting is, in general, an extension of dialogues, i.e conversation. Writing involves dialogues, of course, but encompasses a much wider field of styles. Ephemerality of the text does not automatically implies reduced value. You’ll get some of the benefits of writing within dialogues but it’s limited by the fact there’s not much room from digression, so less creative freedom and exploratory potential compared to just actively choosing the subject and style, with no particular audience or pre established context in mind. I regard monologues as an expansion of dialogues (a dialogue participation is sort of a monologue if you think about), and there’s a low entry barrier for doing it, can be very enriching and even therapeutical. All in all, I think the author here is talking writing for the sake of writing, which is structured thinking.

As someone who has been doing both daily for a while, yes, they're different.

It's kind of like comparing speaking at a meeting or giving a speech, to talking to a long time friend over coffee, or talking to yourself in the mirror. In the abstract you could say the action is the same, speaking, but the experience as lived is very different.

Posts can go either way: I would say that some online exchanges have more of an oral cultural character and others have more of a literary cultural character.

(upon reading TFA, it seems it doesn't even care about the oral/literary distinction I had been trying to make; for TFA the important part of posting is the export of thoughts out of one's head, which can be done in either mode?)

As someone who just started writing regularly a few weeks ago this piece is very encouraging!

I'm very curious if I will be able to make writing a habit. In the past I often quit new behaviors after a few months.

I discovered this quitting behavior a year ago and since I'm aware of it I found a lot of examples where this happened in my past. Now I see everything I start as part of a big experiment to test which things stick. So that I can learn which properties of a habit make it stick with me.

Hello, I'm someone who's been through that and I'm "on the other side" in the sense that I did stick to it. I wrote this and I hope you find it helpful: https://medium.com/@vonjuice/4-important-words-for-writing-c...

> Now I see everything I start as part of a big experiment to test which things stick. So that I can learn which properties of a habit make it stick with me.

This is wise. In addition to watching the properties of the object, which could be considered static, be mindful of the properties in yourself and how these interact with the former, because yours are dynamic and can be developed as a skill, so you learn how to make beneficial habits stick more regardless of their perceived properties.

Thanks for your reply. The "stop" was new to me. Having a good feeling when you stop because you know that you come back again is helpful.

I read a few more of your articles and I like the variety of topics. Keep on going!

Thank you!

I’m the same way, I think.

It’s like the movie Groundhog Day.

Every moment is a new start, and you keep starting over and over again and trying to finish or to improve your navigation of a messy, random river that is life.

A piece of writing, a project, a trip to see friends is usually interrupted by life. And there’s never that perfect time for you to do the work. Perfection is a memory of the past.

We need to do things in between, simultaneously with all the mess, and keep starting over and over.

I don’t write because writing is tied to some very bad memories. I’m terrified of people reading what I write and humiliating me, it wouldn’t be the first time.

Me innermost thoughts remain mine alone as a result.

I feel you, but you should get over that. You’re only hurting yourself.

Counseling with a qualified professional is immensely helpful. With a decent counselor, you could start seeing results almost immediately.

I am rooting for you.

I find burning pages kinda therapeutic. Give it a try, write your least shareable thoughts and then watch them burn.

How do you you do this in practice?

You just gave me a sad idea where there are people who exist to adulthood who have never burned paper or seen it burn first-hand. Like city children who have never seen animals, or lakes or seas or oceans, or never seen the stars, deprived of some deeply human experiences. (I grew up with a log fireplace at home, but I also played with friends using a magnifying glass to concentrate sunlight and ignite paper out on the street).

Do you mean "how does one burn a piece of paper" literally? Or, how does that person arrange their life to have a fire regularly?

> You just gave me a sad idea where there are people who exist to adulthood who have never burned paper or seen it burn first-hand.

Done that, never again. I thought it would be cool to burn my paper print of some key material. Opened the door, put a lighter to the paper on the landing just a step from the door.

The paper did not burn cleanly as I imagined, and I had soon rather large pieces of burned paper flying inside my apartment. Not burning, luckily, but brittle and becoming ash wherever I tried to catch them or pick them up.

Learned my lesson: Put paper into a fireproof container, then burn it.

of course, s/he means how to burn a piece of paper without setting the apartment on fire or set off an alarm. it's really funny that your first thought was that they doesn't know how to burn something technically and connect that to children who think a chicken has four legs or cacao milk is produced by brown cows. had me chuckle.

Step 1. Take batteries out of fire alarm.

Step 2. Find two fire-resistant vessels like sink, bathtub, metal bowl, frying pan, sauce pan, etc.

Step 3. Fill first vessel with water, second vessel with the paper.

Step 4. Light paper on fire.

Step 4.1 If fire spreads dump water on fire.


My gut reaction was the same, but then I realized that in order to burn anything more substantial than a match on a regular basis I’d have to go to the outdoor grills or something. There’s no way to do it in my apartment without setting off a fire alarm.

Will candles set off the fire alarm where you live too?

I'll wager that burning one sheet of paper at a time would be on par with a continuously burning candle.

Well-ventilated area, non-flammable container, lighter/matches. Liquor, cigarette, thousand-yard stare optional.

Just write on a sheet of paper, then fold it, put on a ceramic dish plate and burn it with lighter. Make sure you keep a window open and far from anything flammable. Better if you have a fireplace.

Bro(scillator), u fine. Just respond to that which is evocative to you and you won't be able to stop the words pouring out of you like... Ya you get the analogy ;)

I've recently started writing daily, since September. Setting a daily word target was what worked for me, I do at least 1600 a day and try not to write too much more. If you're writing a first draft of around 90k words then it will take only 56 days to get there at 1.6k a day. My realisation that this was actually a pretty small time commitment really helped me finally take the plunge.

This is obviously an old idea, and indeed I'm just copying a similar process to Haruki Murakami's. I definitely recommend his series of essays on being a novelist: Novelist as a Vocation (this really helped me).

On to second draft now and moving from daily word count to number of chapters or paragraphs edited has helped as just a metric for pace. Doesn't mean it's quality writing, just that I have a sensation of movement and progress.

Related to writing, I also high recommend Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running." He wrote this as a memoir centred along running, and he often writes about how his habits of running carries over to other habits in his life, such as writing. I liked this excerpt from the memoir in particular:

"Right now I’m aiming at increasing the distance I run, so speed is less of an issue. As long as I can run a certain distance, that’s all I care about. Sometimes I run fast when I feel like it, but if I increase the pace I shorten the amount of time I run, the point being to let the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day. This is the same sort of tack I find necessary when writing a novel. I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day’s work goes surprisingly smoothly. I think Ernest Hemingway did something like that. To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm. This is the important thing for long-term projects. Once you set the pace, the rest will follow. The problem is getting the flywheel to spin at a set speed—and to get to that point takes as much concentration and effort as you can manage."

related & useful:


Undervalued Engineering Skills: Writing Well (pragmaticengineer.com)


Some tactics for writing in public (jvns.ca)


Writing about what you learn pushes you to understand topics better (addyosmani.com)


Vim Is Saving Me Hours of Work When Writing Books and Courses (nickjanetakis.com)


Writing a Book with Pandoc, Make, and Vim (keleshev.com)


Writing a book: is it worth it? (kleppmann.com)

I agree about the topic.

I'm not really a fan of "You should" stuff. I always try to word it as "I do this," or "When we do this", etc.

Little less "dictatorial," but then, I'm used to dealing with folks that are very contrarian, and have learned the futility of trying to get others to do something; even when it directly benefits them.

Because of this, I have been accused of "narcism," and "making it all about me." I guess we can't win for losing.

But I love to write. The problem is, it takes a lot of time and energy. I have been quite occupied with a project, the last couple of years, and that has interfered with my writing.

Did you try to make it neither about yourself nor about your interlocutor?

I'm sorry. I'm a bit dense. I'm not sure I understand the question.

> write full sentences about themselves and the things they care about.

This is from 2012, when social media had not yet taken over the world. Now we're drowning in a sea of verbiage from people writing about themselves.

I think my memory of 2012 must be different from yours, though I’m not exactly sure what ‘taken over the world’ means.

Your writing has stayed with me, and I occasionally remember bits of your essays many years later. Pleased to see your articles in recent months in the New Yorker. Congrats on being a dad!

I love writing. I have more than 1000 articles under my belt and eight books, all in the last 7 years.

Writing helps you discipline your thoughts. All too often, logical gaps or nuggets of ignorance in a seemingly watertight argument only turn up when you commit your thoughts to the paper. (Well, word processor.) And, vice versa, thinking without writing things down tends to be infected with sloppiness.

Write things, if only for yourself and your future self. You may also find out that you have a knack for it. In that case, godspeed.

I don't write because: 1) I don't find writing in my native language interesting, 2) I am not fluent enough to write in English, 3) I think I would feel quite embarrassed to share my views under my name.

But I am contemplating about writing under pseudonyms with LLM proofreader assistant. Actually I do it right now with HN but without AI part although these are short creations.

I would write but the problem is that I write (and say) things that at first are mildly incoherent, not particularly well formed -- as you can see in my comment -- and don't always align with what I think. First impressions matter, and I don't want people to remember the bad ones. I regret writing about Python when I was just starting out in programming as a kid, and then having that blog post mentioned on Reddit almost 20 years later, with people being rude about it because it's trendy to be like that online. Fortunately I was smart enough not to post under my real name.

I love reading and writing. Do you all have any advice for writing more and writing better?

Earlier this week I picked up a copy of On Writing Well by William Zinsser, a style guide on what he believes makes for good informal writing. It's yet to reflect in any of my comments but I'd recommend it if you struggle with being concise.

It does have a heavy focus on American writing and it's akin to a longform opinion piece, but I wouldn't let that get in the way of what makes for an accessible and pleasant read.

edit: What also helps is to sit down and write. Make a blog and even if you don't have a specific topic to focus on, just write and keep at it. Take a note of how you write, the style that you naturally develop with all of your quirks; do you overuse commas, do you routinely break up sentences with a dash or a semicolon? Does it have a sense of flow?

Before long something will click in your head, you'll become more cognisant of the world around you, and your head will be screaming at you to write certain thoughts and ideas down.

I second the recommendation for "On Writing Well." I read this many years ago, and the book had a strong positive influence on my writing (serving me very well when later doing editorial work, writing articles, and writing summaries, emails, and reports week-to-week).

George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" essay is a short essay that shares many of the pieces of advice [1]. The main principle that I've taken from both is that you will be more effective at getting your points across to the reader, if you optimize your writing for ease of comprehension, instead of attempting to sound sophisticated with unnecessarily fancy words. This is especially helpful in work environments, where getting your points across clearly can save yourself from delays due to confusion.

I would also strongly recommend reading good writing often. Becoming a regular reader of a well-written newspaper or magazine is great for learning new ways to write down observations or advance a point of argumentation, and I've also personally found it enjoyable to have a broader awareness of what's going on in the world.

[1] https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwel...

Any magazines that you recommend?

I share randcraw's recommendation of Harper's and The New Yorker, as I've subscribed to both and found their writing quality to be excellent. If you'd like to try them out, I recommend reading some of the past "Easy Chair" columns in Harper's for short-to-medium-length reflective essay articles. In The New Yorker, "A Reporter At Large" features are excellent (as they are thorough and often impactful to shaping current events upon publication), though the writing style is relatively lengthy.

If you like science reporting, The Atlantic has excellent reporters with this focus. The Scientific American and The New Scientist are also worth considering (along with the news and analysis-focused articles in the journals Nature and Science), though I've personally read The Atlantic more often as I'm also interested in the publication's articles about general topics outside of science reporting.

If you're interested in geopolitics, I highly recommend Foreign Affairs. The authors and contributors typically have interesting backgrounds in government or academia, and the essays are in-depth. Similarly to The New Yorker, the release of certain articles is itself newsworthy (often as senior policymakers of various countries are often guest writers)—as a direct result, the publication is closely read by senior policymakers of different countries. I also recommend The Diplomat as a comparable publication, with a specialized focus on news and analysis about geopolitics in East Asia.

If literary writing interests you, I would also recommend looking into some literary journals, such as The Paris Review, The Baffler, The Hedgehog Review, The Malahat Review, and Ploughshares.

These days, I personally listen to the audio versions of The New Yorker's Reporter At Large segments and The Atlantic's science reporting when I can. For the remaining publications, I typically download the ePub or PDF versions for reading on an e-reader (minus the publications that don't offer their issues in their format), and read just the articles that I find interesting on my commute.

For you personally, I would recommend identifying topics of interests that you are passionate about. You can then try to find high-quality publications about these subjects, which may or may not be on this list. If you're more interested in the focuses of the publications you read, you are more likely to develop a habit of reading well-written articles, which is helpful for improving your own ability to write.

This is a great response, thank you for taking the time! My current interests vary more or less around philosophy of mind, metaphysics, technology (less technical and more about our relationship to it), and sociology. I do have some sources for these such Aeon, Nautilus, and a couple of others, but was curious what other people deem as well-written magazines. I'm taking a look at some of the ones you suggested, thank you.

I've found Harper's and The New Yorker educational for good composition and writing style.

It's probably like photography: just do it a lot. Write about your home, your neighborhood. Edit: also read other writers' work, of course.

In novel writing there's very old advice: plan to throw away your first million words. Actually, that's good advice generally, not just for fiction.

Some great advice from Ben Kuhn on how & why of writing:

[1] https://www.benkuhn.net/writing

I also just published some structural tips for writing quickly at high quality:

[2] https://taylor.town/pseudoprose

Make sure to create a low-friction writing environment for yourself! Whether it's a notebook or text-editor, you should be able to get your idea onto paper within 90 seconds of having it.

Allocate a time of the day, every day, for writing. You can spend the time writing whatever comes to mind, working on a story, or staring out the window, or reading about writing. For the latter, I recommend this list:


At the risk of sounding smugly, just write. Perhaps ask someone to read your texts, but don't rely too much on random critics. Individual people have their own taste and pet peeves; what is unreadable for one may be enjoyable for others.

Writing is like hiking or skiing. While there are some important rules how not to kill yourself, you can only learn it by doing.

Also, read a lot, ESPECIALLY works by people who have a good command of your language (IDK if you are native English speaker; I am not). Writing style is a bit contagious. Don't worry if you occassionally sound like someone else, this kind of contagion is really unavoidable if you read a lot.

I would say that the optimal ratio of R:W time is about 5-6:1.

Depends what kind of writing you want to be better at, but for fiction Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ is both interesting and useful. As for ‘more’, what’s worked for me is to make a routine for it.

I actually composed a free ebook about writing advice from many major writers.


Hopefully this should help.

It depends :)

Do you have an idea what stands in the way of your ambitions?

Here are some suggestions (dang, I'm starting to sound like ChatGPT here):

1. Try an accountability partner and call them once a week to discuss progress.

2. Share your work, preferably to an audience you trust, and nourish feedback.

3. Experiment and train creativity. Write a short story, write with a pen, write technical documentation, write code.

Hope this helps.

Read and think about you read.

You can't get better at writing without reading as much as you can, as widely as you can.

Possibly the thing I do most is read comments on the internet, I'm not convinced it makes me a better writer, tbh.

I'm sorry, I thought it was obvious I meant read books, good books.

I do a daily writing exercise that is to write at least 1000 words, whatever comes to mind. No editing. Just let it flow and see where it takes you. When you get used to it (which you will do very quick) you will be surprised how it improves your writing skills.

> "It’s like what happens to a room during a game of “I Spy”: if your friend spies something red, the red stuff glows."

The only I Spy I know is "I spy with my little eye something beginning with...". Is there another common version where people describe the appearance of the thing instead of the spelling of the name?

Growing up, my brothers and I would play "I spy" by identifying a color. E.g., "I spy with my little eye something that is orange".

Dialectical formats and "responding" to shit is seemingly the most I can generally handle. If I was "comfier" I would probably put my heart into it a bit more but I think I do ok on the creating/consuming balance

Insightful. Too bad the author apparently stopped writing for 10 years now.

The author just recently published a nice piece in the New Yorker [1].

1 = https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/11/20/a-coder-consid...

He still writes[0], albeit not on his blog, but for New Yorker, The Atlantic and the likes.

[0] https://jsomers.net/#writing

the more people out there that write, the less writtings by people are worth

scarcity never creates value, but it always incresases it

but also: the more pople have written, the cheaper text and AI bot training become

which makes me feel in a funny situation, the more I write, the better I get at it, but it also makes it simpler for AIs bots to learn my style and make it worthless by the inverse-scarcity phenomenon

This only follows if the only value/worth you consider is economic value, ie for trade. Which would exclude much of what people value: creativity, scientific knowledge, insights for living, personal growth etc. Obviously those have economic value in certain ways, but it’s not their only value.

Yes, getting better at communicating clearly and effectively is worth the time for social reasons. Aesthetic reasons can be important too.

How would one know they are getting better at communicating clearly and effectively? Compare with code or drawing where mistakes are instantly seen. Writing doesn't have that, and if you read back your own writing you always know what you were thinking. Who has got time to read what you write, from an outside perspective, and reply with what they think you said, without getting involved in whether they dis/agree or dis/like?

Maybe there's a website in that - parrot.me where you post and other people reply only with paraphrasing what you said back to you.

i'm just exactly at that "moment in life" where it's either 'make' money (i.e. collect it from others using trade) or recieve welfare (ask for donations, beg on the streets, call parents...)

I think cooking is a good analogy. You may have no desire to get into the food industry, but having cooking skills is good for you (and potentially those around you) regardless.

Writing has a double value though, it’s intrinsically valuable to the writer themselves to illicit better thinking. it’s also valuable as form of communication and collaboration.

Why should one care about "worth"? If more people write then there will be more bad and more good writing. (good/bad in terms of personal enjoyment from reading)

If someone asks me if they should do something I do, I always lay out the pros and cons of doing what I do, and try to give them the questions whose answers they need to know in order to decide if they are the type of person who should. Why are there so many articles by writers telling other people they should be writing instead of telling them why they might or might not? I would never presume that any of my hobbies or habits is so universally beneficial.

> Why are there so many articles by writers telling other people they should be writing instead of telling them why they might or might not?

I guess it's a "better" title in a sense that it gets people to read (ie clickbaity)

A "pros and cons" article vs "here's why you should do X" elicit different emotions, which I'd argue, the latter is better for attention grab.

But I do agree with you though, when someone asks me for advices, I always try to give them context.

I also try to understand where the "advisor" comes from when I see radical advices out there. Even if I don't agree with it, at least I can understand the reason behind it.

Taking your argument, perhaps the thing that is being made scarce, through the act of writing, is ignorance

Which might have served us better before now

This is a coldly economic take. Does the sole motivation of writing have to be for the consumption of others?

Scarcity depends on the amount of openly published writing. You can publish only parts of your work or publish it to limited audience.

Are you trying to convince people to spend less time writing? Ive never disagreed with a comment more than this one

I'm asking a question without an answer

the more people that exercise, the less exercise is valuable

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