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A nice post whose essential point is that you should eschew formulaic methods of writing that force you to fit your thoughts into a rigid format and thus hamper your ability to express them in a way that best suits the subject.

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.




Whatever your style, the structure of your piece ought to be customized to its content

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.


Thoughtful comment, but I want to point out that your basis is misleading. His essential point goes beyond eschewing formula, to specifically recommending people use a spoken voice style.

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.


And since people communicate successfully all the time through 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.


> A nice post whose essential point is that you should eschew formulaic methods of writing that force you to fit your thoughts into a rigid format and thus hamper your ability to express them in a way that best suits the subject.

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.


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.


We're releasing a new Macbook Air

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.


Hear, hear. Style is a powerful tool for ameliorating the difficulty of a subject.

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.


Well written comment!

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.

[¹] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7012848


This is the sort of comment up with which I will put.


In the craftsman's toolbox I would add Virginia Tufte's lovely and inspiring book "Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style". To write better, one must write better sentences. Start here.




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