Writing style most definitely ought to be customized for its subject and context.
Some say to write simply. This can be good. You engage your reader. You use active voice. You limit adverbs. You keep sentences short. Nothing wrong at all with this. It works well for many purposes.
Personally, I like to vary the short, direct, and active approach with occasional long, flowing sentences that can add flow to your writing, that can mix polysyllabic words with plain ones, that can use the passive voice as freely as the active when it is appropriate for the task at hand, that can build a succession of thoughts one upon the other in ways that flow naturally for a reader, that can interpose an arresting pause or two to emphasize a particular point - for example, by using hyphens to isolate an illustrative example - and that can bring in parallel elements to help dramatize a point, whether as a matter of form, or of substance, or of any combination of the two.
Whatever your style, the structure of your piece ought to be customized to its content. If it is a simple subject, it can have a simple format (nothing inherently wrong with the 5-paragraph format if it is not used in a formulaic way). If it is complex, then it needs to develop its themes with whatever level of nuance and subtlety may be needed to say something intelligent about the subject.
You need to be yourself in how you express your thoughts. Ever read a standard old-fashioned press release. It almost always begins something like this: "Company X, the world's leading producer of xxx and other market-leading products . . ." Apparently, whoever writes these things has been taught to puff the company right up front to give the release maximum impact. For me, this sort of style has the opposite effect. I read the canned language and I immediately click off and think, "this piece is going to be of very limited value to me, if any." And, just as this is true of such press releases, it is true of any other artificial way that people express themselves in writing. The artificiality may give you a fill-in-the-blanks way of completing your writing task but it works against you with the reader. Readers want to be stimulated in their thinking and, by using custom forms of expression - whether it be by an apt metaphor, a vivid illustration, an engaging story, or whatever - you do them a tremendous service by making what you say interesting. For this purpose, you should put yourself in their shoes and think, "how would I want to have this explained to me to make it interesting."
But being yourself is more than just ranting about a subject. Good writing takes hard work and by that I mean far more than putting time into a particular piece. I mean instead that good writing is the result of a cumulative effort, often spread over a lifetime, by which you read widely about many things, learn how to think, write frequently to develop your skills, gain depth of language skills through significant formal study if you can, and do any of a number of other things that prepare you to meet your reader as a craftsman and not as a hack (used in its non-HN meaning, of course). Yes, this is very hard work. But you will see that it is well worth the effort. You have a lot to say about interesting things. Well, learn to say it well.
Other opinions may vary. This is mine. In general, it also seems to be that of the author of this piece, who put his thoughts well. It is a post worth reading. For anyone interested, I have put together a few additional thoughts on what makes for good legal writing (my particular vocation), which is set forth here: http://www.grellas.com/articles.html.
This is good advice, but for novice writers it may be quite difficult or impossible to follow. The distinction between novice and expert writers is important and tends to get overlooked in these kinds of discussions, as I wrote in this comment: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7012474 .
Most of us experience writing lessons through school, where we're frequently not by not-very-good teachers and where the lessons tend to focus on extreme novices. But what is good for an expert may not always be good for a novice and vice-versa, so some of the lessons we're taught don't apply across the entire range of writing expertise / skill.
The rationale that I infer is that when people sit down to "write", they enter "writing mode". Writing mode is laden with dogmatic baggage. But the ultimate goal is to communicate, not perform ritual. And since people communicate successfully all the time through speech, it makes sense to suggest that when people write, they don't enter writing mode. Instead, enter "speaking mode" and simply transcribe their speech.
Yes, but. Much speech is filled with hedge words, convoluted phrases, and I'm-still-not-sure-what-point-I-am-making discourse. That stuff needs to go.
There's a fair amount of writing that comes across as if it were literally transcribed from an off-the-cuff spoken exposition, and it is distracting.
In casual speaking it's OK to say, "At this point in time", or, "Let me explain", or, "due to the fact", but if you're taking the time to write you can take the time cut the filler as well.
I much prefer a conversational tone in writing but it works best with some careful editing.
Caveat: rigid formats are de rigueur in some poetry, such as sonnets and haiku. Though if press releases were customarily haikus, I think everyone would be happier.
I'd settle for limericks.
For all the perceived annoyances of rigid formats they seem to have the benefit of forcing you to really think about what you want to say.
I've done a few Ignite talks, and one talk following the pechakucha format, and they are fairly demanding. I generally start preparing for such talks by writing out an essay of what I hope to cover. It's always way too long. So then comes the hard part: culling the cruft so that your limited time is well spent.
I've come to believe that this is a good way to prepare for any talk. First create the Ignite/pechakucha version, then think carefully about what deserves expansion.
I've not done this with essays. Perhaps, though, there's something to be gained by first drafting an essay as a sonnet, or a series of haikus (or limericks, for that matter).
Then expand as needed. If nothing else the final result should have a number of memorable poetic phrases. Or double-entendres.
Made of metal with the same Apple flair
But if you ask Steve
If it'll play DVD's
You'll be met with a blank 10 yard stare.
Technical writing is particularly prone to being bogged down in dry, formal, jargon-filled prose -- particularly in documentation or research (anyone trying to glean insight from the MSDN documentation has probably experienced this). Sometimes a punchy, example-driven blog post can explain more than a formal essay filled with abstract reasoning.
As for structured vs informal writing, there’s an interesting experiment by a copywriter who set up a “framework“¹ (on Github) for writing copy (like those press releases, landing page taglines, etc.).
I wonder how the idea of “forkable” templates for pieces of written content could be developed further.
By that, I don't mean be controversial for controversies sake (that's cheap). I mean that good writing has a point, and if you have a strong point people will be polarized by it, and that's actually a good thing. The worst writing I read (especially from myself) is writing that tries to hedge so it doesn't offend people. People SHOULD be offended. That's why you wrote the damn thing. If everyone already agrees, then you're not saying something worthwhile.
Plenty of proverbs would disagree.
Oh darnit, you got me.
It's possible to defy the rules and produce something awesome. But often you just need to produce something that's reliable, sturdy, useful and quick. Learn the rules first. Use them most of the time. Break them when you've got a rare, wonderful reason to do so.
Blogging is the most conversational form of writing out there. The best bloggers conjure up structures that are so subtle and sophisticated that everything seems totally free-form. Getting that right consistently is a gift. Switching into conversation mode 100% of the time and hoping for great results is like pressing together some notched pieces of wood and hoping for the best.
Then you have to relearn the five paragraph essay for the GRE, and it's worse than the first time.
One of the best ways to really 'get it' is to make outlines of things that are already written, to learn how it flows from one topic to another and back, and if it actually works. You can also reverse outline things you've already written and get a good idea of what's happening or missing and how it could change.
This is a decent resource, if a bit unorganized: http://harvardwritingcenter.wordpress.com/
"Lens essay" is worth a web search, if you're curious.
You don't need that structure, but for what they are looking for, it does often make your life easier.
Then again the essay part is the most pointless part for those pointless tests.
At some point I was so tired that I went for a walk and recorder myself explaining the intro and, lo and behold, it came out good. After that I acted as my own secretary and transcribed it and I was done!
For those who want to try this, I recommend you have a little plan before yous start writing so you can have a high level structure in mind about what you want to say:
point-form plan ---> speak it ---> transcribe --> final edits
I loved it right up until that point.
The problem with the 5 paragraph essay, is that it's a rule-of-thumb. It's a good guide, but isn't necessarily appropriate.
People seem like they always want to prescribe 'the rule to follow to do x'. Their 'rule' ends up being a rule-of-thumb, and then smart people dissect its inadequacies. I think that's what you did, is you nicely dissected a stupid rule-of-thumb, but then prescribed an equally stupid one.
There are a lot of flaws in the structure of thought, and that definitely isn't an optimal way to write an essay. Personally, I like to diagram my argument out first (how the sub-arguments relate to each other, like a dependency tree).
I've written a few speeches that went across very well, and with those I didn't simply follow a person's speaking habits. I wrote in what is actually a very structured and thought out fashion. It's just not 5 paragraph format because it's not an essay for my teacher to grade.
Perhaps a better point would be 'To become a better BLOGGER you have to stop writing and start speaking.' Blogging is inherently informal, much like how I'm writing this comment now.
The problem with the 5 paragraph essay is that it isn't a rule of thumb, it isn't a good guide, and it is never appropriate. Except maybe as a brief skeleton to build a student's understanding of longer-form writing on, to be discarded in the next assignment or two, but to be grading outgoing seniors from high school on it (and so rigidly!) is an atrocity.
Try to find one in the wild, one that was never a school assignment (so no published student homework or anything). Go on. Try it. Find one on HN comment page. (A different page. I'm sure someone will at some point float a 5P essay here as a response to be funny... the thought crossed my mind to try to do this exact criticism in this style, but ye gods is it a worthless style to communicate in and I didn't feel like sacrificing my point for the meager humor that would be produced.) Find one in a newspaper or magazine. Find one in a blog post. Find one in a well-regarded historical work on philosophy. And remember, it's not just a mere "it has five paragraphs", but a very proscribed schema that is at least:
1. Thesis paragraph, 5 sentences
2. Support point #1, 5 sentences
3. Support point #2, 5 sentences
4. Support point #3, 5 sentences
5. Restatement of thesis, 5 sentences
I won't guarantee you can't. I will guarantee that you will be looking for a long time.
There is a reason for this.
You're right - the format doesn't show up outside of school. And if we were being bombarded by 5 paragraph essays in the "real world" then we'd certainly have a lot of justification to this entire thread. But we don't. You just proved it. So what's the issue here?
(See also our math curriculum's ability to convince people that "=" is not symmetric by the repeated hammering of "1 + 4 = ___"; we think we're teaching them math and using "equals", they're learning that the "=" symbol means something more like "simplify and reduce" and that it has a direction. Grab three random people with the "usual" math education (i.e., not programmers), and see if they will agree that "1 + 3 = 2 + 2" (you may need to put an underline under the 2 + 2); I think you'll find a lot of them insist that is "wrong" and the right hand side "should/must be 4". And that's just one example.)
It definitely is a rule-of-thumb. You may not think it's a good one, but it still is one.
> it isn't a good guide, and it is never appropriate. Except maybe as...
Claims as strong as those are rarely true.
One might as well try to defend scales as being a valid form of music that should be performed in front of thousands of people. (And I mean literal, raw scales, not something that works a scale into a piece, for which there is no meaningful equivalent in this writing context.) Even if someone did that, it would be as some sort of artistic comment on listeners or the nature of art or something (see 4'33"), not because they have any reason to be performed in front of an audience.
By the way, since this may seem a bizarre amount of passion on the topic, what cheeses me off is that we TEACH this as the One True Essay Format. (See the beginning of the linked story.) I just can't believe the unnecessary harm we do with this. Even with my relatively low opinion of the ability of current formal schooling to educate, this still surprises me as a bizarre choice. So if I sound like I'd like everyone reading this to come away with the idea that this format ought to have a stake driven through it and you should never use it, it's just my feeble attempt to undo years of terrible schooling in a handful of paragraphs.
The structure of writing is not really about ranks or levels. A Pulitzer prize winner can choose to write a 5 paragraph essay without lowering himself to a 'high school level' of writing. You don't level up in college, you learn a variety of structures and skills. This doesn't mean that the skills you developed in high school are lessened. It just means that you have more tools to choose from, and are probably better at deciding between them.
Even more so, essays, like the serial novels, are antiquated formats from the time of letter-writing and paper publishing.
At least the Victorian novels gave way to their readership's desires and moved to a more concise format. The essays, annoyingly, remain overly wordy as the academic standards retain their obsoleteness in demanding a set word counts.
Already, the short novels are becoming dominant in the on-line publishing sites. With any lack, the current tide against the printed humanist\scientific publishing houses will bare fruit soon and in a decade or two we will be reading the thesis, facts and analysis rather then the dribble we've become accustomed to.
Present me your thesis in a sentence and a few bullet points: List the facts; Lay the arguments; Tie it all up in a paragraph. I don't want long prosaic discussions or fine poetics.
Further, I think it's important for a scientist or philosopher to fully and completely elucidate his or her point so that any debate over the subject is based on a complete understanding.
Would you prefer that a study not outline its methodology and full application of said methodology, and instead simplify by just giving you results? How would you reproduce it? Would you just blindly start trusting everything printed?
What I have going for me is that I'm a pretty good public speaker. The moment I picture myself behind a podium in front of an audience, ideas organize themselves into coherent patterns. It's a skill that's been honed over many weekends of debate practice.
My writing process now looks like this:
1. Identify thesis
2. Give a speech
3. Take bulleted notes
4. Give the speech again
5. Revise bulleted notes
6. If satisfied with structure begin expanding bullets into sentences and paragraphs.
For me I'd say the most important influences towards improving my writing came from one particular course in high school (modern european history) where the homework was all short essays and paragraph-ish long answers to a bunch of questions/topics and heavy participation in usenet during my college years.
With papers it's too easy to fall into a pattern of satisficing, because the bar is set pretty low, even in college, and the exercises are mostly unrealistic. But when you have to spend time trying to communicate complicated subjects to real human beings or to make detailed arguments then you have to step up your skills substantially.
I'm pretty sure there is some underlying difference and it would be good to know what it is - I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was 14, which never really felt like a satisfying answer, though I do have some dyslexic-ish symptoms (I tend to spell phonetically when I'm very tired and often type word-correct anagrams - like "never really left like a satisfying answer", above).
As a side note, poets make great technical writers because they can be so economic with language. There is something to engage here.
This was not due to a lack of essay-writing during my education...
 Reification vs Abstraction;
 E-prime vs Evaluation;
 Active Voice vs Passive Voice;
 Germanic vs Latin;
 Specific Diction vs Concatenated Adverbs;
 "Adverb are weak. They modify modifiers. Instead, use more specific verbs." - my English teacher
> use simple, germanic words
> The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details.
pg's essay "Writing, Briefly" mentions it in passing. So I assume that most HNer's are sorta familiar. The idea is that English words of Germanic etymology are usually simple, everyday words. E.g. "event, a lot, boring". English words of Latin etymology are usually flowery, pretentious words. E.g. "phenomenon, cornucopia, quotidian".
Latin words very abstract and hard to read. They often obscure meaning. Sometimes, they don't actually have any meaning. Sometimes, they're used as euphemisms. Germanic words are easier on the eyes and often evoke imagery of tangible objects.
I added links to my original post, because I realized that a single HN comment isn't enough to clearly explain my list.
On the other hand, though, I do understand the need to use the five paragraph structure (or, here in Brazil, the "three sections structure"). I, just as you, was usually pretty annoyed with these formulaic approaches to text, until I've had to re-learn all this essay writing stuff for my masters. In my college, professors and students are pretty close and debate is (really) stimulated, so I decided to throw my ramblings onto the writing professor (a very good writer, indeed). I used José Saramago (a portuguese Nobel prize winner that uses commas as periods, writes giant paragraphs, all the weird stuff) as my "strong" example, thinking it would shed the formalized structure argument to pieces and I would rise triumphantly from the talk with a Portuguese PhD specialized in text analysis. It didn't take me so long to realize why she had her PhD, and that her point of view was pretty convincing and, of course, well structured.
Kaboom! And I was illuminated. She agreed with each of my complaints. But then she proceeded to show me some texts from the beginning of the semester, comparing them with texts from the end of the semester. They were, in general, much clearer, concise, straight to the point - in one word, better. She argued that a course like that was intended to make people that do not write start to write something intelligible, comprehensible. It was not a course on creative writing. Therefore, the need for simplified rules and structures.
I do understand that this was the OP's whole point: upon reading his colleague's text, he judged it based on the rules he had learned. Then, when he talked to the other teacher, he realized that the main point of a text is to communicate something, irrespective of the number of paragraphs it has or the position of the goddamn thesis.
This rambling of mine is just to point to the other side: rules are important in some specific moments of the development of a proto-writer :)
That happens with all kinds of expressive, communicative actions we humans perform (in my opinion): photography, painting, music, poetry... All of them have some (or plenty of)rules. But these rules are not meant to be used as a "ruler" to judge if a work is good or bad, they are just a compass to guide the noobs :)
Intro, development and conclusion? Será?
In many circumstances it is. I wrote an essay that describes the thesis statement issue: "Paul Graham and not being as right as he could be in 'The Age of the Essay'" (https://jseliger.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/paul-graham-and-no...).
I've also discovered from teaching college freshmen that having a thesis statement usually improves the quality of their work product. But experienced writers working in some genres don't need thesis statements and indeed would be constrained by them (that's one of pg's points in "The Age of the Essay:" http://www.paulgraham.com/essay.html), and inexperienced writers probably need thesis statements to avoid a document filled with random thoughts. In this respect thesis statements are like training wheels.
But I wonder which effects are due to the speaking; and which to how speaking reminds you that you are trying to communicate to someone, and give them something of value?
Consider the problem-solving technique of explaining the problem to someone - which also works well when explaining it to a duck. Would writing a letter to a duck work as well as telling it? Is the helpfulness inextricably tied to verbalizing?
When I write, I tend to think too much and follow too many of my associations so the writing process becomes and endless start-and-stop of new ideas with a "branching factor" of 4-5. I often have to backtrack when I get too off topic. Think wikipedia browsing binge....
When I speak, I don't have the time to have so associations so the thoughts become more linear and follow logically one from the other.
Interestingly, I find handwriting (like real pen and paper) can also be good: in this case the pace is slower than typing, but I have enough time to make good sentences because my mind has the time to process things in the background as I'm writing out the words. Think look-ahead optimization...
Look at Kant's Groundwork or Sidgwick's Method: you have an almost desperate attempt at finding just the right way and right context in which to normatively ground a proposition.
Look at Heideggar, look at Nietzsche. Even look at Orwell. The "opinion" is the "point", and the point has to be teased, flipped, tossed, rejected, restored, restated. A paper that makes its opinion in one statement is like a kid in class who accidentally blurts out the right answer.
Books like Language Intelligence or manuals of technical writing delve into the topic fairly well. Watch championship extemporaneous speakers to see how to create an extended metaphor and build a structured progression of sources and analysis in a speech.
Do you think he's using "virtual assistant" here as an application, or a human service? Can anyone recommend one or two examples of each? (Does a software version exist?)
When you write to sell, you want the focus to be on the product - not your smooth talking voice.
Imagine a salesperson using poetry to sell you something. Although it would be entertaining, it would not help sell the product.
Don't write to entertain. Don't write to make YOU sound better. Write for THEM.
The problem with academia is it is built around bolstering YOUR ego. In the real world, having a big ego is counterproductive to working your way up the ladder. It's like having a broken leg in a marathon.
Don't believe me? Just look at how much trouble people with degrees are having. They can't find jobs. They don't have social skills. They have big egos, but can't make money.
And yes, I have a degree. I have a piece of paper that I can tell people I have. My clients are only mildly interested in the fact that I have one.
The amount of people that can write at the standard people on HN use for a well thought out comment is low. Very low. This also includes people with degrees. The vast majority of the population are as articulate with written language as your average YouTube poster.
Clearly most people can read a higher standard of writing than they can write themselves, particularly if it is a subject that interests them. If you are expecting a response on a one to one basis, e.g. an email, then writing at the top of your craft really might not be the best thing to do. Your well written feature length English and all of those big words might come across as intimidating. This factor means you may not get a response. Writing something simpler, i.e. to not show off one's mastery of the language might get a better result.
Far too often in academia you have people using big words without really knowing what they mean, as if they are using the thesaurus a little too often. Or they use buzzwords and acronyms when simple English will do. It is as if some people have a false idea of what it is to write properly. They try to impress but fail. They then enter the world of business and try to write the same way, caught up in trying to use big words rather than focusing on a simple message.
So yes, write for THEM. At times, to a wider audience this might mean writing at a level found in a tabloid newspaper, which is okay if done properly.
Q: is there software to transcribe instead of sending it to a virtual assistant (e.g. on the mac?)
Dragon Dictate is what I tried, and seems to be the biggest name brand in the area now from what I can see (and has a Mac version) - http://www.amazon.co.uk/Nuance-Communications-Inc-S601X-W00-...
Whether it works well enough to be useful, or if there are better alternatives than Dragon Dictate, I've no idea.
the aphoristic style,
the "5-paragraph" style,
the research paper, etc.
A paper should be as simple as necessary, but no simpler. Depending on your topic, you could have 20 paragraphs, 10 paragraphs. And if what you're writing is arguably good, length shouldn't matter. At some point in your paper you should say, "I'm doing a damn fine job here, and my professor should love to read this."
If you cannot say that, that is a good indication that you should dump the paper. Not some rigid, lifeless arbitrary numeral. Numbers are not out to get you.
Our education system in the West has done a serious disservice to us by installing this idea that we should feel bad about making others read what we write.
It's bloody awful.
You should use your topic as a basis for experimenting with different styles, not as a means to prove your mastery of the language.
Papers are not proofs.
Ok, I won the thread and I'm taking it home with me.