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The Most Important Writing Lesson I Ever Learned (stevenpressfield.com)
157 points by sage_joch on Aug 12, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments

I was actually very touched by the quote left in the comments and it's worth mentioning it here:

A pro views her work as craft not art. Not because she believes art is devoid of mystical dimension. On the contrary. She understands that all creative endeavor is holy, but she doesn’t dwell on it. She knows if she thinks about that too much it will paralyze her. So she concentrates on technique. The professional masters how, and leaves what and why to the gods. Like Somerset Maugham she doesn’t wait for inspiration she acts in anticipation of its apparition. The professional is acutely aware of the intangibles that go into inspiration. Out of respect for them she lets them work. She grants them their sphere while she concentrates on hers.

The sign of the amateur is the overglorification of, and preoccupation with, the mystery.

The professional shuts up. She doesn’t talk about it. She does her work.

I know there is no shortage of one-line advice here, but this one has always stuck with me. And since it usually takes time and hindsight to distinguish the quality advice from the short-lived transient whims of a bored blogger, I thought I'd resubmit this.

love it. It's my first time reading it. Thanks for posting it. I think I'm going to send it to a few people or even write about it myself.

Do you think someone would want to read that? :-)

A startup is never competing with other products. It’s competing with nobody giving a shit. -Michael Staton

It's not like I didn't already know this, but this one-liner has stuck with me for a few months now.

That's brilliant. Stealing that bon mot. It's applicable in so many situations.

( To take just one - "Your YouTube series is not competing with other series. It's competing with nobody giving a shit." )

Another explanation: The problem with a YouTube series is connecting the people who would like the series with the series.

My view is that this problem holds for about 2/3rds of the content now on the Internet and is getting much worse rapidly.

My work is to do something about that.

That's also very true. Particularly for something like a series which doesn't have an easily accessed niche, it's a major problem.

(I make videos on the Web for a living, and it's certainly been a problem for my company before now.)

What's your work? I'd be interested to hear about that.

Thanks for your interest.

I'm taking an approach that is fairly general, e.g., for that 2/3rds, and where solving the problem for video clips is just another application.

Roughly, first-cut, my work looks like a new Internet 'search engine', but that has to be only a rough description. That is, while 'search engine' may be the best two word description among widely understood two word descriptions, I don't think that much like a usual search engine can solve the problem. I believe that a solution needs to be a combination of search, discovery, recommendation, curation, and subscription!!!! How 'bout that!

Then there's another point, well connected with your "niche": Trying to provide what is 'most popular' is not promising! I.e., something in a niche is almost by definition not very popular. Or, what is in a niche is in 'the long tail'!

My guess is that we are moving to much more 'specialization' in content so that the fraction of the total content in the long tail and the niches is becoming a much more significant fraction of the total content. So, my 'search engine' is to help people mine this new fraction, the long tail.

How to do that? Well with the problem described, a key concept becomes obvious: Some case of strong 'personalization'!! That is, somehow have to get the user more involved so that the user can better indicate what they want and so that the search engine can, in some useful sense, 'learn' about what the user wants.

I've got the crucial, core, unique 'secret sauce' programmed and now am finishing up the routine parts of, really, just routine, simple Web site construction. And except for the crucial core stuff already done, it's a quite simple Web site. But the routine Web site work has taken me far too long -- those 3000 Web pages of Microsoft documentation of just routine parts of .NET really slowed me down.

Today I'm trying to finish up some work on just a simple session state store: I didn't like what Microsoft offered in ASP.NET, found a bug I wanted to get far away from in part of what they had, so did my own handling of session ID and session state with my own, simple session state store. But my session state store is via TCP/IP in my server farm, and I also need TCP/IP inside my server farm to connect my Web pages to my secret sauce servers. For using TCP/IP, have to build a 'message' service on top of the TCP/IP 'stream' service, so I did that and have used the session state store work to test it.

Then write the rest of the Web pages, load some initial data, and go live.

Discussed on HN at length before: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=850857 (with a cute 'Hacker's Corollary' from edw519)

As a marketeer one of my rules of advertising is to ask myself am I giving something to my audience. I see to many ads that are based on what the advertiser wants only. To give something can be a prize, a laugh or an interesting fact etc. There are no limits or rules here. But I want them to leave my ad having gained something from their POV. IMO this makes the best advertising and is a good healthcheck point when you review your ads.

This is tyical advertisers' bullshit. It assumes that all people are sheep.

The line of advice should've been "Nobody wants to read your shit if you're trying to sell them something". And even then it would've been half off imho, but I can't come up with anything better.

Some of the highest voted articles HN don't follow any of the detail advice in this article. But they're popular anyway, because they're interesting. Somebody made something cool, and people want to know how he/she did it. Sure, these only work in niches. When you go mainstream, the only articles that get read by many are "10 ways of getting your partner to gave sex with you more often".

But hey, this is an advertiser. What does he know about niches? More yet, what does he know about people who are actually, genuinely interested in a whole range of topics, and would happily spend 30+ minutes reading a single article?

Of course, any article an benefit from being fun and concise. But that's just bonus, no prerequisite.

Because if you've got something interesting to tell, people want to read your shit.

Actually, the primary theme of the article seems pretty solid to me.

"Nobody wants to read your shit" (unless you give them an good reason to do so).

That's not assuming people are sheep. That's assuming that people are self-interested. And much of the time they are.

So even if you ignore everything else the author wrote (which you seemed to, since you're arguing that HN articles are popular because they're interesting, and the author's answer number two included making the writing interesting...), there is a valuable lesson present.

If you want people to read your writing, write something that will appeal to somebody (say... your audience). It isn't even difficult to give somebody a good reason to read what you wrote: if they find it interesting, that's a reason; if they find it entertaining, that's a reason; if they get to escape their lousy life for 25 minutes, that's a reason. This is hardly revolutionary advice, but it is a good reminder.

The line of advice should've been "Nobody wants to read your shit if you're trying to sell them something".

But a writer's always trying to sell the reader something, even if it's only the next line of text, and then the next. In the bigger picture, a writer's selling knowledge, or a point of view, or entertainment.

'Interesting' is a side effect of being considerate to your reader, which is exactly the point of the OP.

Depends on your definition of sell I suppose. By that logic all of our interactions with people are 'selling' to them. When my boss asks me how many hours I've got left I'm 'selling' the 12hrs I need. When I hold open a door for an old lady I'm 'selling' that I care about old people. When I notice my SO is down because of family issues and I make her a nice dinner, I'm 'selling' that I'm a nice guy.

You can certainly frame life that way, but it doesn't feel very nice, to me anyway.

Yeah, it's one way to interpret things - not necessarily right or wrong.

In a sense, we, ourselves, are the biggest targets of our selling efforts - for example, taking certain actions that are consistent with our self-image while avoiding actions that contradict it - in an effort to maintain a perception of our "self" as a consistent entity with consistent values over time.

His point #2 is "Make it fun. Or sexy or interesting or informative."

I rarely if ever read an article on HN which isn't any of those things.

Seems like the same people you're saying didn't follow this advice actually have, conciously or not, followed it.

I think really what the author is saying is when your trying to sell a toothbrush it a razor, nobody really cares. The tech equivalent would probably be anti virus software.

"If you're pumping out good shit, people will follow you."

Gary Vee

Learn from the best, screw the rest..

"Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don't want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally."

-- George Orwell, "Why I Write" ( http://orwell.ru/library/essays/wiw/english/e_wiw/ )

Not everyone wants to change the world, and not everyone is Orwell, but I still think motivation matters. And if your sole motive is to "sell stuff, be famous, and/or popular", I give you this advice: don't write. Read instead.

It'd be great if the editors wouldn't feel the need to change the title to every submission here.

Other people can better comment on the main theme of this article(which I thought was a great read btw). The point at the start about your first job bending the twig made me think about my own progression. At first I thought "Thats so wrong, I went from Big 5(IT consulting) to Big 4(Accounting) to the startup world". Then I realized that he was right and my experiences at those massive companies is what drove me to where I am today. So to any planning the start of their career, read it, believe it but don't confuse it with saying where you start is where you will stay. Where you start will just help you decide where you want to be.

His book "The War of Art" is one of the best "self-help" for creative people I've read.

If you're struggling to be a creative person, it will help. I think it's better than "The Artist's Way." There's certainly less nonsense.

A very good point, but -- ironically -- not very clearly stated.

Indeed, most HN commenters seem to think that this piece is about advertising. It is not. True, that is the primary example used, but later he talks about writing novels.

The point (as I understood it) is this: give value to your readers. No one wants to read something just because you wrote it. They want to read it because they get something out of it: fun, information, etc. And brevity & clarity mean your reader has to work less to get the value.

Steven Pressfield: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Pressfield

The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Afghan Campaign, etc.

love this piece. thanks for posting it. it reminds me one of the talk by Jobs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dR-ZT8mhfJ4

This being Hacker News there are of course some apparently well reasoned dissents from the OP point. It strikes me as the stone cold truth. "Nobody wants to read your shit." That's just how it is as a default state. He's obviously suggesting some paths out of the dilemma.

I too have spent my non-self employed days of work in the ad game and couldn't agree more. The concept of always"adding value" that has become so parroted in the good circles of the start-up space are relatively ignored in the ad space.

In the old days just creating something "cool" was considered enough value add because the information volume allowed for time for people to focus and decide how that "cool" gave them value. No Mas! If in a few seconds the viewer/user can't own, share, brag, stop and think about or act on what you create, than it is a waste of time.

If you have never read any of Pressfield's work than you are in for a treat. Gates of Fire is one of my all time favorite books. He even knows how to craft words from a secondary language (Greek).

And hence GoDaddy's superbowl ads.

Does anyone know how his squares with Long copy marketing which often violates both (well 2 is subjective verging on tautology) his requirements?

Write short when trying to capture those deciding on throwaways, write long when trying to convince or swindle erm assuage the uncertain?

Why does this article about begin concise, because no one gives a shit, start with two paragraphs of biography... which I really couldn't give a shit about.

He had a good point, but I almost gave up before getting there.

So advertisement is evil (it is) but you should start a career in it anyway, because...?

I find it disgusting when advertisers talk to each other in this way, masquerading their profession of dishonesty as something creative, in the same level as an actual writer, an artist. Fuck these people, fuck all of them, the world would be a much better place if they all went out of jobs.

The main claim is:

"No one wants to read your shit".

Let's check that: I came to Hacker News to read. I saw the post and read it. I read the Hacker News comments.

Today before Hacker News I read CNet. Later I will read Google News and a few more.

I may stop at TED to see if they have some new content.

For the Romney-Paul speeches in Virginia yesterday, I worked to find, download, save, and index copies, and I read the copies.

So, net, I very much do want to "read". I work hard to find things I want to read.

The flat claim that I don't want to read is just nonsense.

But the statement was about advertising. Okay. Do I ever want to read ads? Actually, yes, very much yes.

When I buy products, I very much want to read about the products. E.g., a friend urged me to buy the book 'The Amateur', so this morning I went to Amazon and read a few dozen of the highest ranked comments about that book. I very much wanted to read.

Two weeks ago the power supply on my main desktop computer started making noise each morning when I turned the computer on. So I spent about a full day reading about power supplies and, maybe, how to replace the fans in the power supply I have. Finally I ordered a spare power supply in case I need it.

I did read. I read a lot of 'ad' content. I read about everything I could find relevant to my power supply issue. And I regarded what I read as important enough to keep copies of most of it.

So, yes, I do want to read ad copy also.

But, right: The usual ads I don't want to read. Why? Well, with some irony, the author did say a little about why -- the ads are "shit".

Okay, let's take such an ad, say, for a new car. I've seen and read hours beyond belief of ads for new cars, am really eager to learn about new cars, but to me nearly every ad I've read about new cars is just the author's "shit". That is, the ad writers, apparently following what the author said, just will not, Not, NOT tell me what I want to know about the new cars. They just have their feet locked solidly in concrete, will NOT tell me, and, thus, will write "shit" that, yes, I don't want to read.

So, why the "shit"? Apparently because the ad writers, and the author, just do NOT understand what a customer might want to know.

What do I want to know?

"All new"? That's nearly always a lie. Good. No way would I buy a car that really was "all new". Instead, I want every essential mechanical part and every important system to have been on the road in hundreds of thousands of instances for at least five years. So, say "all new" and right away I hope and believe that you are lying. So, now that I know you are lying or are being a fool, I am reluctant to take any of the rest seriously.

Headlights: The cars have headlights apparently from 'designers' to yield an emotional experience of 'flowing' into the sheet metal. BS. I deeply, profoundly, bitterly hate and despise all such constructions and intentions. Why? Because such headlights have some "shit" engineering issues. E.g., it's not clear how to aim them. E.g., there is a plastic cover the is easily scratched and starts to go yellow or gray or whatever due to UV or whatever.

What I want in headlights are traditional, old, very reliable, very functional, industry standard, widely available, competitively priced, very well engineered and tested sealed beam units enclosed in glass. NO PLASTIC. Period.

Next, here's what I really do care about in cars: Utility, functionality, performance, reliability, ruggedness, and ease of maintenance.

E.g., for ruggedness, I want traditional heavy steel bumpers that protrude several inches from the rest of the car. I want no glass or plastic near the bumpers. The bumpers need to be able to take heavy bumps without damage. And I should be able easily to unbolt a bumper and replace it.

So in an ad, I'd want to know how rugged, strong, durable, and easily replaceable the bumpers were. I've yet to see an ad that gives any information at all on bumpers. Bummer.

For the dashboard, I want to know how to remove it, repair or replace various components, e.g., bulbs, the speedometer, the tachometer, the connection from the radio to the antenna, all EASILY. Ads don't provide me with any such information. Bummer. This matter of the dashboard is just a routine part of ease of maintenance.

Far and away my greatest concern about the car is corrosion -- e.g., around the front and rear windows, the body panels, from condensation inside the car, of the exhaust and the radiator, of the brake parts, of the fuel lines and brake lines, of the gas tank, of the floor of the trunk, of the wheel rims where the tire bead joins and needs to make an air tight seal, etc. I want to know what has been done about corrosion.

Okay, let's set cars aside and consider, say, desktop computers. I need to build another one. So, I want details on the motherboard, power supply, processor, processor fan, case, case fans, how hard disks are mounted in the case, hard disks, DVD, etc.

But, of course, the ad copy for these products is from feet locked in concrete writing me "shit" and just refusing to give me the information I need. E.g., it's standard now to paint the case all black; this is some Darth Vader thing? With a black case the photographs become just big, black blobs with no visible detail. With such a case, I will always need strong lights just to see what is inside the case. I deeply, profoundly, bitterly hate and despise all the dysfunctional, destructive 'stylistic' nonsense that has given us black cases. Upchuck.

Here's the fundamental problem with ad writers: They are convinced, down to the center of the cells at the center of their bone marrow, that all there is in life, writing, ad copy, and cognition is some humanities zenith of vicarious, escapist, fantasy, emotional experience entertainment. 100% emotion 100% of the time. Solid, rational, meaningful, useful information never. And that's why it's "shit" and why I don't want to read it.

Your reply couldn't have been a better demonstration of the author's point. When I noticed the length of your reply, and its tone, I stopped reading it. I have limited time, and I could tell that you weren't considering the audience's limited time (although normally I give major leeway towards comments, which are written on the spur of the moment). There are so many other good things on the Internet that I could read, and there are so many things that I want to write. I just don't have time to put up with reading other people's shit.

Redcircle, you made me want a "plus 20" button.

The main point is the humans tend to start out with a delusion -- that other people will automatically be as excited about your "stuff" as you are.

They won't. And it takes a surprisingly long time for that truth to sink in and replace the delusion.

To me that's some damn good insight. But if you're going to argue against it, at least argue against the main point. And please try to be concise!

What I wrote is fine and not an example of the author's points. You just didn't want to read what I wrote. Okay. My content is not what you want. Okay.

There is another point I omitted (to save space!) that likely is a better explanation of what is really going on: The point goes back to McLuhan's "The medium is the message". So, in particular, the issue is not so much what the author said or what I said but just "the medium".

So, what was "the medium" and its role: The old medium was narrow, if you will, short on 'bandwidth'. So, there were a few huge audiences, and a main goal of ad copy was to reach as large a fraction as possible of one of those huge audiences. Well, that goal was difficult. In rough terms, the technique was to appeal to 'the least common denominator'. And a need was to get the message in a very short ad.

Now with the Internet, the medium has changed. It is no longer the case that the audience does not want to read. Instead the audience does want to read but only relatively narrow content.

The writing lessons he praises are not so much good for writing but at one time were good for some of McLuhan's media.

I was offended by his claim that he had found good lessons for "writing". I've done quite a lot of quite serious writing and much more very serious reading, and for that work his lessons are badly wrong. Here is a current sore spot with me: I'm writing software on Windows and, thus, am using .NET. So far I've collected over 3000 Web pages of documentation on the parts of .NET I am using. Nearly 3000 of those pages are from Microsoft's MSDN Web site of documentation. I've been programming for decades but am new to .NET.

Now for the sore spot about writing: The writing of the .NET documentation has been by a huge margin the worst part of my software project. For me, reading Knuth's TACP was fast and easy, but reading Microsoft's .NET documentation has been a total pain and very inefficient. The main reason for the difficulty is much the same as for the author -- a determination to concentrate on 'writing' styles that refuse to concentrate just on information.

He didn't say "nobody wants to read". He said "nobody wants to read your shit".

People want content (informative, funny, sexy, etc. depending on their purpose for reading.) What they don't want is to be beholden to your priorities, to be reading your shit, to be spending their valuable time on something that has little or no value to them.

For example, I don't want to read your shit about bumpers. I came to this comment thread to discuss writing, but your comments about writing were dwarfed by irrelevant comments that matter to you and not to your audience.

I believe you may have missed the point of the article. The idea was that you have to strive to make your content concise, appealing, and engaging, so that people will want to read it.

Actually, I think the previous comment has made the point of Steven Pressman's article. I, too, came here looking for things to read. I want to find information, to see new ideas and viewpoints. On the other hand, I don't care what ten_fingers read before this or after. I don't care that his power supply was making noise. And no, I didn't finish his comment.

It was too long, rambling, and seemingly overflowing with the opinion that ten_fingers is the most important person in the world and the rest of us should drop everything to absorb his every utterance. In short, not to put too fine a point on it, that his shit don't stink.

That's a personal attack and offensive and inappropriate.

My point was about information as the desired content. For that point I gave some examples, today before coming to HN, after HN, and some recent reading, and those were good examples of information to make my point. The point is the content, and the examples were fully appropriate.

I made a point, clearly, strongly, and thoroughly. Apparently my doing so made you angry. Apparently you resent seeing points made.

You are angry about something, but I did nothing wrong. Your anger is something you have done wrong.

You are attacking me and not my thoughts.

My last sentence was possibly out of line. For that, I apologize.

The remainder of my comments can in no reasonable way be interpreted as a personal attack. They only concerned your comment, and I stand by them. You may believe you made a point clearly, strongly, and thoroughly; I seriously disagree.

Also, be careful about conflating anger and disagreement.


> seemingly overflowing with the opinion that ten_fingers is the most important person in the world and the rest of us should drop everything to absorb his every utterance

is not supported with facts and is based on nothing solid, just a wild opinion, full of anger, wildly wrong, insulting, and out of place. Say something like to someone in person in a bar and risk getting a bottle broken over your head.

All I did was comment on the article's claims of some good writing lesson. I don't think the lesson was good and used examples to illustrate why. What I wrote was fine and deserved no insults.

>Apparently my doing so made you angry.

no, your ineptitude made him contemptuous.

>Apparently you resent seeing points made.

assume at least minimum competence on behalf of your audience

yeah I deserve downvotes for this, but I can't abide overconfident naivete, too brittle to take a punch

You appear to have missed the point of my post: I don't care even as much as a weak little hollow hoot about "concise, appealing, and engaging" and already am looking hard for what to read. I will want to read it if and only if there is solid, useful information there. The author didn't mention solid, useful information.

"Concise" usually means omitted crucial details.

Again, the author is trying to get read by providing a form of entertainment based on emotions, and what I want is information. In the culture of the author, information is regarded as really offensive, and that is the reason many potential readers regard such writing as "shit".

To borrow from the humanities culture, I'm willing to read, I'm wanting to read, I'm waiting to read when I can find content to read with useful information.

So, when I don't read his copy, he concludes that I don't want to read. No. I DO want to read. But what I want to read is useful information. He thinks the issue of my not reading is that I don't want to read, and I think it is because he wants to provide only emotional content and not useful information.

> "Concise" usually means omitted crucial details.

That's utterly incorrect. "Concise" actually means: "Giving a lot of information clearly and in a few words; brief but comprehensive."

What he's saying is: get to the point. People prefer to read things that get to the point.

You're not 99% of readers, sorry to say. and you're a different usecase anyway...you go to sources you already have a habit of believing has content worth reading, no matter the presentation. But 99% of aspiring writers are not in these situations...that is, belonging to a brand that has loyal repeat readers. for them, it's best for them to lose any preconceptions of entitlement that they deserve to be read.

No, I don't think that that's correct now with media now: Consider Web sites that want to report news on some of the common subjects, e.g., politics, the economy, international relations, business, science, technology, computing, energy. For each of these subjects, there are Web sites with interested readers.

Then, good news for aspiring writers: For such a subject and Web site, go for it! Just write some solid, new, meaningful, hopefully useful and insightful, information about the subject. Then attach an appropriate headline, subheading, and first paragraph, and, presto, be confident that you will have done 'good writing' and will reach about as much of your audience as is reasonable. No tricks. No magic. No secrets. No special techniques. Just accumulate, organize, and document the information and, then, publish it on an appropriate Web site with appropriate titles, etc. Then, if I am interested in your subject, you will get my full attention; no more secrets of writing will be required.

Here is a big, huge point about writing now, media now, and the points here: It has finally become fairly clear that the best writing on Web sites now is not from 'writers' or journalists at all! Such 'writers' can polish their craft, work on their technique, etc. all they want and will still lose. What such writers are losing out to are subject matter experts with no particular skills in writing at all. So, for a piece about, say, US-China trade, f'get about a business journalist-writer and, instead, get an expert in US-China trade. Want to know about a new supercar? F'get about the auto 'journalists' and, instead, go to a video at Jay Leno's Web site and watch the chief engineer of the car describe the details.

This lesson has been so well appreciated that many Web 'news' sites are trying to get as much of their content as possible from subject matter experts who are not 'writers', with good lessons or bad, at all.

E.g., want to know about venture capital? Okay, read the business journalists? Usually not! Instead read Hacker News, especially the comments, Fred Wilson's blog AVC.com, etc. Net, the good content is not where writers have learned lessons in writing but where the writers are subject matter experts and know what the heck they are writing about, i.e., have the information.


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