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How do you get to write so well in HN?
276 points by nevergetenglish on Oct 30, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 105 comments
Sometimes when reading HN I wonder how people get to express their ideas in such a clear and persuasive way, many times they seem to be very intelligent and informed. I have been trying to improve my English a little but not having anybody to write to or any need to use English makes me believe that I will be stagnated in a low level profile, and that I will never will achieve the level of mastery and proficiency they show so well in their writing.

Recently, reading some cites, like Rooselvelt "man in the arena" I got a little sad because perhaps I am doomed to never be such a great speaker. Anyway, I will continue reading HN, enyoing such an intelligent and informative community and trying to hone my English. So bravo for HN.

I find it not justice that "Tim Cook Speaks Up" is eating my cake. What if I am only a heterosexual guy, a troll and my only goal is to get some karma points.

I realize that the language topic is a pure one and that it should be separated (sanned) from a egotists, only looking for karma points guy. But what?, you guys are beautiful and constructive, sorry for not just being that type.




There's a fallacy here, and interestingly it's also at play on facebook.

You know when you look through your feed on facebook, and every single day you see that at least one of your friends has done something amazing, commendable or just interesting? That makes you feel that you aren't doing anything with your life, and that all your friends seem to be living more interesting and happier lives.

But stop and think for a moment. Approach it from the other side. If you have 365 friends, and you post one interesting post a year you are faring as well as the average of your friends. It just seems that everyone is doing more interesting things than you because you only notice the interesting things your friends post. You only see the highlights. Nobody posts a "today was boring - I did absolutely nothing" status.

HN is the same. Think a bit about it.

If 10.000 people see a comment thread then statistically someone will be knowledgeable about the subject, whether its the French Revolution or the finer nuances of L2 caching. The most knowledgeable ones will feel they have something to contribute and write a comment. The vast majority won't. On top of that the top comment is (supposedly) the most well-written, eloquent and knowledgeable, and can thus be argued to be the best 10.000 people can come up with.

If I were to start commenting on threads about L2 caches I would make an absolute fool of myself, and prove to everyone that I have no clue what I'm talking about. So I don't.


That's a really good example of impostor syndrome on a grand scale.

Also see http://alistapart.com/column/seeing-past-the-highlight-reel : "we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel".

People also tend to sound far better in writing, precisely because they have the opportunity to compose and edit; you don't necessarily see the volume of composition and editing that goes into the average post. Anecdotally, I'd suggest that it takes far longer to write a quality post than you'd guess. Short content can take all the longer to write, precisely because of its brevity. ("I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short." -- Blaise Pascal)

(I also like this image: http://open.bufferapp.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/0-VtB9_... )

And that's just on an individual level, comparing yourself to one specific other person. When you compare yourself to an entire community of people and their highlights, you run into exactly the issue mixmax noted: the most knowledgeable and confident people will post, and a subset of those will get upvoted.

Comparing yourself individually to the best of what a large community can offer is like asking why you're not an Olympic athlete.

If you want to build up your skills in writing specifically, consider focusing your writing on areas you already have expertise in, or on areas that you're actively learning about to provide an "experiences" type of writeup. And compare yourself primarily to your past self.


Somewhat related is the friendship paradox:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friendship_paradox


Great question. I think it's on more people's minds than you think. I have friends that have brought this feeling up with me. HN brings a lot of great minds together, including your own. It can create feelings of inadequacy in many readers, but it shouldn't. Everyone is always growing. You can write well too.

As with any skill, there are specific quick hacks you can apply to get a lot of gain really fast, and there are well-worn paths that you should travel to maximize gains and minimize time spent. Regardless, the best way to learn any skill is through sheer practice.

My methodology for posting comments on HN or any social news site is based on my values. I value production over consumption, and so to curb my consumption and increase my production I created a rule for myself: If I read a post on social media(HN, reddit, etc), I have to leave a comment on it. No ifs ands or buts. I almost never actually want to comment, but by the time I'm done commenting I'm always glad I did.

This is amazing for becoming a better writer and researcher, and forces you to dive into things that you normally would only attain a surface-level understanding of.

Every time I decide to go to a social media site, I have to be very conscious of the titles I click on to read. I understand that the moment I begin reading an article, I am committed to adding something of value to the discussion. Sometimes I wind up clicking on an article that is way out of my domain-knowledge, and so I have to read WAY more about it before I can even try to add to the discussion. I end up learning far more and also upping my ability to explain and present myself in situations where I'm uncomfortable with the domain.

So while I encourage you to practice your writing, I also encourage you to limit your consumption, strongly link your consumption with your practice, and most importantly, step out of your domain knowledge and never be afraid to learn something new.


I agree with virtually everything you've said, except for the part about limiting consumption. Limit consumption on certain channels (Facebook, Buzzfeed, etc.). Increase consumption on other channels (books, deeply analytical blogs, good magazines, and even fiction). And every so often, lose yourself on Wikipedia for a few hours. Jump down some hyperlinked rabbit holes there. Soak up random knowledge, purely for the sake of intellectual curiosity. Start on The Industrial Revolution and wind up, three or five clicks later, on the use of tunnel irrigation in ancient Mesopotamia.

The best way to become a better writer, a better thinker, or a more informed commenter, is to become a curious and habitual reader. Some of the best topical insights I've ever had have come from seeing analogs in wildly different domains. Some of the best writing techniques I've developed have come from reading wildly different writing styles. Almost none of this has been directed toward a specific outcome or contextual purpose. I read because I like to read. What I read may or may not prove useful later on. But it's almost always later on.


No worries, I agree with you 100%

I'm referring specifically to low-quality consumption, but didn't want to fill up a long spiel about that since it was another topic. I should've been more specific.


Brilliant, I especially like: "I value production over consumption, and so to curb my consumption and increase my production I created a rule for myself: If I read a post on social media(HN, reddit, etc), I have to leave a comment on it".

One thing I find myself doing frequently is, I will skip the article and go straight to the comments and look for a summary. Then I determine if I want to read the original material. Often, I simply read the comments, because as OP noted, there are invariably gems of insight and experience to be found for most any subject.

In a way it's kind of sad, I've been doing this for years, and there have been so many gems. I know I haven't remembered them all. They are each reduced to a few moments of satisfactory warmth. I hope they've enriched me as a person, but I'll never know.


> My methodology for posting comments on HN or any social news site is based on my values. I value production over consumption, and so to curb my consumption and increase my production I created a rule for myself: If I read a post on social media(HN, reddit, etc), I have to leave a comment on it. No ifs ands or buts. I almost never actually want to comment, but by the time I'm done commenting I'm always glad I did.

This is an awesome advice. Thanks!


I really like this idea. Not only does it force you to increase the volume of your writing, giving you more practice, but it also forces you to try to immediately use what you've learned, fixing the knowledge in your mind. Also I would think that it forces you to test whether you truly understand the topic. You can't really be ambiguous or hand-wavy when describing a concept to someone else.


While this is a good way to learn about things in depth, I'd be wary of overusing it. It could have detrimental effects when commenting on topics way outside your domain knowledge (lower comment quality or worse - a misinformed comment). Also, it limits the scope of topics that you might end up developing an interest in.

Interestingly, the way I consume articles and forums is almost completely opposite. I skim through anything that catches my fancy, which helps me discover new topics that are interesting to me, and I only contribute when I have something completely new and valuable to add to the discussion. Often times you find that someone has already mentioned what you wanted contribute. The exceptions are when you are an expert in the field and hence more likely to have knowledge that is not common.


Most people who come off as eloquent in english have spent a lot of time not only writing but also reading. Reading encourages passive learning of language patterns, and reading the works of talented writers (even without analysis) can lead to learning some of the skills that those writers use. (I'd be surprised if this were not also the case in your native language.) If you feel like you can't get enough practice speaking and writing english in a conversational context, spend some of the time you would otherwise use to practice writing english instead reading fiction in english.


This and this again. As a few commenters note, reading exposes you to other ways of structuring and phrasing your own writing. As with reading code, you get exposure to writing styles by reading other's writing.

Read writers of different styles, and read poetry. At the risk of leaving out hundreds, off-hand, read Betrand Russell, Nabakov, Dylan Thomas, Louisa May Alcott, Kerouac. (Try to ignore the fact that Nabakov wrote exquisitely well in more languages than most people speak.)

Read these works aloud, because they sound differently than they scan on the page. Especially if it's something you like, or something that you find hard to read and parse.

Emulate each style. Try copying their words verbatim, because you'll realize things that are easy to skim over when reading. Then try writing something new, but using their style, acting out their style.

Realize that some writing is not meant to be accessible and assume that there will be writers whom you respect, but whose writing styles you don't like. Understand why you don't like those styles and how to avoid those forms -- what did they do and how can you say the same thing but not in that voice.

And, of course, write as well. Write a lot.


My main profession has been a writer...and since joining HN, I've probably written 10x more words on these comment boards than for any other forum or published medium. I can't say that I'm actively trying to practice...but discussion here is (usually) so enjoyable that it's easy to get in the habit...just like playing recreational soccer for fun can often be a better way to get in shape than a dedicated running regimen.

If English and writing is not something you've been able to devote yourself to, I would recommend something in addition to frequent commenting: pick up a copy of "The Elements of Style" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Elements_of_Style) and as you write comments on HN (or blog posts)...pick a rule in Elements of Style and focus on the technique mentioned. For example, rule 12, Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.

e.g. "He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward" versus "He grinned as he pocketed the coin".

Look over your comment and revise it according to the technique. Rinse, repeat, etc.

Elements of Style is an old book, but I still find it to be great advice. I've thought about making such a book for programming in a high level language (I know such a book exists for C/C++)...because good style can really influence good function.

Also, assuming that you're using a throwaway profile for this comment, make a profile with your real name and identity. This has been discussed on HN before, but being accountable to your identity is a nice push to make you even more attentive to your quality of writing.


1. Your writing per this example seems perfectly fine.

2. English skill is separate from being intelligent/informed.

As a native speaker who has had very extensive English training my entire life, I still find myself in a situation similar to yours. My issue is lack of experience. There are so many people on HN that have been through it all and know about countless technical topics inside and out. I find myself just observing most of the time, besides those rare occasions where the topic happens to overlap with my experiences.

I have certainly encountered examples of horrible English that were still highly informative posts. Sure it can inhibit their communication ability, but that doesn't prevent the content from shining through. In fact, I tend to be more interested in content from non-native speakers, because it implies they are probably not from America and have points of view that are more valuable/unique for me to learn about.


In reply, I say bravo for trying to become a better writer. And if English is not your native language, don't become discouraged too soon if your progress seems slow at first. I've been very impressed by the English writing here of some people who plainly grew up speaking some other language in a non-English-speaking country. Keep practicing, and you will become better.

For specific writing advice, I recommend the new book The Sense of Style[1] by Steven Pinker, which is about not just fussy rules of English but also about THINKING in a way that helps improve writing. I will have to practice with the ideas in that book for a long time.

For specific advice on improving English, I have some tips I've shared before here on Hacker News that other readers have liked. As I learned Mandarin Chinese up to the level that I was able to support my family for several years as a Chinese-English translator and interpreter, I had to tackle several problems for which there is not yet a one-stop-shopping software solution. For ANY pair of languages, even closely cognate pairs of West Germanic languages like English and Dutch, or Wu Chinese dialects like those of Shanghai and Suzhou, the two languages differ in sound system, so that what is a phoneme in one language is not a phoneme in the other language.

http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/Wha...

But a speaker of one language who is past the age of puberty will simply not perceive many of the phonemic distinctions in sounds in the target language (the language to be learned) without very careful training, as disregard of those distinctions below the level of conscious attention is part of having the sound system of the speaker's native language fully in mind. Attention to target language phonemes has to be developed through pains-taking practice.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10442032

It is brutally hard for most people (after the age of puberty, and perhaps especially for males) to learn to attend to sound distinctions that don't exist in the learner's native language. That is especially hard when the sound distinction signifies a grammatical distinction that also doesn't exist in the learner's native language. For example, the distinction between "I speak" and "he speaks" in English involves a consonant cluster at the end of a syllable, and no such consonant clusters exist in the Mandarin sound system at all. Worse than that, no such grammatical distinction as "first person singular" and "third person singular" for inflecting verbs exists in Mandarin, so it is remarkably difficult for Mandarin-speaking learners of English to learn to distinguish "speaks" from "speak" and to say "he speaks Chinese" rather than * "he speak Chinese" (not a grammatical phrase in spoken English).

Most software materials for learning foreign languages could be much improved simply by including a complete chart of the sound system of the target language (in the dialect form being taught in the software materials) with explicit description of sounds in the terminology of articulatory phonetics

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articulatory_phonetics

with full use of notation from the International Phonetic Alphabet.

http://www.langsci.ucl.ac.uk/ipa/ipachart.html

Good language-learning materials always include a lot of focused drills on sound distinctions (contrasting minimal pairs in the language) in the target language, and no software program for language learning should be without those. It is still an art of software writing to try to automate listening to a learner's pronunciation for appropriate feedback on accuracy of pronunciation. That is not an easy problem.

After phonology, another huge task for any language learner is acquiring vocabulary, and this is the task on which most language-learning materials are most focused. But often the focus on vocabulary is not very thoughtful.

The classic software approach to helping vocabulary acquisition is essentially to automate flipping flash cards. But flash cards have ALWAYS been overrated for vocabulary acquisition. Words don't match one-to-one between languages, not even between closely cognate languages. The map is not the territory, and every language on earth divides the world of lived experience into a different set of words, with different boundaries between words of similar meaning.

The royal road to learning vocabulary in a target language is massive exposure to actual texts (dialogs, stories, songs, personal letters, articles, etc.) written or spoken by native speakers of the language. I'll quote a master language teacher here, the late John DeFrancis. A few years ago, I reread the section "Suggestions for Study" in the front matter of John DeFrancis's book Beginning Chinese Reader, Part I, which I first used to learn Chinese back in 1975. In that section of that book, I found this passage, "Fluency in reading can only be achieved by extensive practice on all the interrelated aspects of the reading process. To accomplish this we must READ, READ, READ" (capitalization as in original). In other words, vocabulary can only be well acquired in context (an argument he develops in detail with regard to Chinese in the writing I have just cited) and the context must be a genuine context produced by native speakers of the language.

I have been giving free advice on language learning since the 1990s on my personal website,

http://learninfreedom.org/languagebooks.html

and the one advice I can give every language learner reading this thread is to take advantage of radio broadcasting in your target language. Spoken-word broadcasting (here I'm especially focusing on radio rather than on TV) gives you an opportunity to listen and to hear words used in context. In the 1970s, I used to have to use an expensive short-wave radio to pick up Chinese-language radio programs in North America. Now we who have Internet access can gain endless listening opportunities from Internet radio stations in dozens of unlikely languages. Listen early and listen often while learning a language. That will help with phonology (as above) and it will help crucially with vocabulary.

The third big task of a language learner is learning grammar and syntax, which is often woefully neglected in software language-learning materials. Every language has hundreds of tacit grammar rules, many of which are not known explicitly even to native speakers, but which reveal a language-learner as a foreigner when the rules are broken. The foreign language-learner needs to understand grammar not just to produce speech or writing that is less jarring and foreign to native speakers, but also to better understand what native speakers are speaking or writing. Any widely spoken modern language has thick books reporting the grammatical rules of the language,

http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Comprehensive-Grammar-Grammars...

http://www.amazon.com/Comprehensive-Grammar-English-Language...

http://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Grammar-English-Language/dp/...

and it is well worth your while to study books like that both about your native language(s) and about any language you are studying. Good luck.

[1] http://stevenpinker.com/publications/sense-style-thinking-pe...


This is a phenomenal reply tokenadult. Would you be willing to reply to the same question if I post it in http://writers.stackexchange.com/?


I'd have to register an account over there, but I could get ready for that while you post the question. Thanks for the suggestion.

AFTER EDIT: I'm registered on Stack Exchange now. I refer in my user profile there to my Hacker News user I.D.


Thank you! I'd love you buy you a beer or coffee in return!


Post the link to the question when you submit it :).


ELL [+] is perhaps a better fit for this question?

[+] http://ell.stackexchange.com/

"English Language Learners Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for speakers of other languages learning English."


Well, the original question was specific to writing. The author in fact does not say whether English is a second language.


Out of pure curiosity: Why are you interested in having it cross posted on Stackexchange?


What progress I made in learning a foreign language, for both vocabulary and appropriate usage of the words, was from learning phrases and not individual words one at a time. Or, to learn several words, it's much easier to learn a phrase that uses those words than just the words themselves. And learning the phrases lets you start to think in the new language and not keep going back via 1-1 word to word from your own language to the foreign one.

One way to learn a lot of those phrases is to have a little story with maybe 20 such sentences and then read the story out loud maybe 20 times a day for a few days. Then practice making the sounds correct via use of language lab where hear a recording of a native speaker reading the story and, then, correcting your reading of the story.

Can learn a lot of a foreign language that way, quickly.

So, this approach is radical: Start with reading and speaking and leave writing and grammar until later, say, after have already learned a lot of phrases. Or, in English, how does one learn I am, you are, he is, we are, you are, they are? Sure, not by memorizing such a table but by lots of phrases that are examples of the content of such a table. Then, when have lots of good examples, learn the rules later.


Another good way to be exposed to a new language: if you already watch TV shows/movies on your computer, try to find an audio dub in the target language with subs in your native language. Try to ignore the subtitles but use them as a reference when you hear an unfamiliar word or sentence structure.

I really like this because you get to hear usually several different accents & voices that you can start to correlate with stereotypes - how does a young woman talk, how does a shy person talk, how does a businessman talk, how does a thug talk, etc.


I want to add: I love to watch English movies (and TBBT) with English caption also (Austrian-German is my native Tongue). This allows me to fall back to the English written word should I have missed the spoken one. The meaning of single words is usually easily deducible from context. It also helps to correct my pronunciation of words I use to pronounce incorrectly.


For specific writing advice, I recommend the new book The Sense of Style[1] by Steven Pinker, which is about not just fussy rules of English but also about THINKING in a way that helps improve writing. I will have to practice with the ideas in that book for a long time.

I'd add Write Right! by Jan Venolia and Writing With Style by John Trimble.

The Sense of Style is wonderful but I worry especially that it might be too advanced for relative beginners, and the chapter about sentence diagramming / sentence grouping may be confusing.


If I may suggest another resource: http://www.dailywritingtips.com

Articles are published daily, as the name implies, and the they are not that long, so you can learn about standard English usage without spending too much time at it.


Thank you for this thoughtful comment, I think your writing precisely embodies what nevergetenglish was referring to.

> "It is brutally hard for most people (after the age of puberty, and perhaps especially for males) to learn to attend to sound distinctions that don't exist in the learner's native language."

I'm a native French speaker who learnt English in Scotland when I moved there (been living in mostly English-speaking countries ever since). As far as most people I meet are concerned, I have a very weird accent; the perception ranges from "he's Scottish" to "what the hell?" depending on where I go and who I talk to. In any case, while phonology is clearly very important, I would argue that it is not completely necessary for expressing yourself properly, at least in writing.

> "[...] another huge task for any language learner is acquiring vocabulary, and this is the task on which most language-learning materials are most focused. But often the focus on vocabulary is not very thoughtful."

This is sadly very true, though I honestly don't think there's a silver bullet when it comes to learning vocabulary. One additional source I would add to your "royal road to learning vocabulary" would be exposure to colloquial language, or slang at the extreme, i.e. listening to day-to-day conversations between "commoners". This is how I realized that there is often a "correct" way of saying something (as in purely grammatically correct), and the "natural" way (i.e. as expected by native speakers).

> "Every language has hundreds of tacit grammar rules [...] which reveal a language-learner as a foreigner when the rules are broken"

Continuing from my previous point, I think the opposite sometimes applies too. For instance, back in Scotland, I had to force myself to say "If I was" instead of "If I were", because the mistake has become so systematic that it has almost become a rule.

I think grammar is at least as important as vocabulary, particularly in a language like English where the language is so modular that words can fairly easily be made up, to the extent that they are understandable within a logical context, even if incorrect.

Finally, I would add culture as a possible fourth big task to add to your list. This may just be me, but there seems to be a dimension of language closely tied to the culture associated with it. There are idioms that make complete sense to me, yet I cannot explain why to my (French) family. This is ostensibly related to linguistic relativity[1].

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity


I am French as well and I have been living in Scotland for the last 10 years or so, and although I do agree on the perception that Scots have a somewhat, perceived, regional dialect, it is true Scottish-English is actually seen as a language; Words that are spoken only on this side of the border are not seen as merely a form of dialect.

I agree as well to the advise given to listen to locals having conversation. It is probably the best way to learn colloquial conversation skills and therefore blend within the local population.

On the accent, it is really hard to leave completely behind your native accent and requires huge amount of effort to replace it. I am not saying it is impossible, but as mentioned by grownseed, some folks will be completely oblivious to the fact that you are not a local and some other will just recognize a twang in the way you speak that isn't quite what they expect from another local.

That being said: "practice makes perfect" ;)


Do you also have an accent when speaking in French now? My family and friends told me that even when I speak French I have a weird accent. I have been living in the US, Canada and Hungary and have been speaking English daily for the last 3 years, and it is weird to me that I have now an accent in my native language


There are two things that helped me when getting better at writing.

1. Reading other good writing. 2. Practicing writing.

The first one is pretty self explanatory. Just read good writing and analyze the patterns they use to express themselves.

The second involves practicing the art of writing. When I write, even on a site like HN, I take my time.

The first draft is a throwaway. I just dump what's in my head on the screen or paper.

Then I "refactor" it. I add organization to the thoughts and concepts and then I ruthlessly cut anything not crucial to what I want to express.

I have a last step I use when It's a blog post or article. I use an "editor" usually my wife who looks it over misspellings, grammar, or confusing content. I don't usually do that for HN though since it's a more informal medium.


Read a lot. Read fiction and non-fiction books. Read poetry. Read Wikipedia. Read the newspaper. Read news websites. You'll start to build a mental database of words, phrases, and writing tricks that you can draw from. (Notice the anaphora and Rule of Three right there?)

Listen to public radio and pay attention to how people speak. Good writing should flow naturally, like a conversation with a close friend. Learn how to type quickly, so the words can flow from your mind without the encumbrance of having to remember where the keys are on your keyboard.

Oh yeah, and write a lot. Most importantly, when you write, make a conscious effort to write well. Think about what you're writing, don't just put words on the page. Think about things like, "should I have used a semicolon in that last sentence, instead of a comma?" "Should the 'S' in 'should' have been capitalized? Look it up if you're not sure. Ask yourself if the word you've chosen conveys your intended meaning, and ask yourself if that sentence is a run-on sentence.


ESR noted this way back when [1]:

"4. If you don't have functional English, learn it.

As an American and native English-speaker myself, I have previously been reluctant to suggest this, lest it be taken as a sort of cultural imperialism. But several native speakers of other languages have urged me to point out that English is the working language of the hacker culture and the Internet, and that you will need to know it to function in the hacker community.

Back around 1991 I learned that many hackers who have English as a second language use it in technical discussions even when they share a birth tongue; it was reported to me at the time that English has a richer technical vocabulary than any other language and is therefore simply a better tool for the job. For similar reasons, translations of technical books written in English are often unsatisfactory (when they get done at all).

Linus Torvalds, a Finn, comments his code in English (it apparently never occurred to him to do otherwise). His fluency in English has been an important factor in his ability to recruit a worldwide community of developers for Linux. It's an example worth following.

Being a native English-speaker does not guarantee that you have language skills good enough to function as a hacker. If your writing is semi-literate, ungrammatical, and riddled with misspellings, many hackers (including myself) will tend to ignore you. While sloppy writing does not invariably mean sloppy thinking, we've generally found the correlation to be strong — and we have no use for sloppy thinkers. If you can't yet write competently, learn to."

There is a lot in common between good argumentative skills and good coding.

http://www.catb.org/esr/faqs/hacker-howto.html#skills4


> For similar reasons, translations of technical books written in English are often unsatisfactory (when they get done at all).

That's true. When I read a CS book in Greek, it's hard to understand what the author wants at once. Words like module when talking about kernels for example, are not easy to translate.


I'm glad I'm not alone in noticing this. The level of discourse on HN is step beyond any other site I frequent. I don't go a single day without being impressed by somebody's diction.

Some of you have a knack for articulating my inner thoughts with far more eloquence than I ever could.


>The level of discourse on HN is step beyond any other site I frequent.

I agree. HN has recently (in the past 6 months) re-gained a lot of the high-level discourse that drew me in I first started lurking 4-5 years ago.

Well-done, dang et al.! Not that it was in a hole, but you've succeeded in bringing the site's discourse up a level.


It's also worth noting that the level of discourse is higher because low-quality content (e.g. Reddit-level puns) is appropriately dismissed.


These two books helped me. The downside is I get annoyed now when reading other people's bad writing.

http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Edition/...

http://www.amazon.com/The-Curious-Case-Misplaced-Modifier/dp...


English is my second language and posting a comment on HN takes me five rewrites before clicking "add comment" and two+ edits after. Even then they don't necessarily come out all that clear judging by some of the responses I get.

Maybe start a blog in English or hang out in IRC channels related to your interests?


Hey I speak "Standard American English" and I post on HN exactly the same way. I'd call you proficient in written English, no excuses needed.


I had no idea that English is your second language. I am impressed. I've upvoted a lot of your comments since I first started seeing them, so your writing method seems to work.


You speak well enough that most people won't point out problems in your language. That's an issue because you aren't getting enough feedback to make progress.

To wit, I haven't seen anyone given you concrete feedback on your writing.

Your writing is generally good, but you occasionally use words in non-idiomatic ways. The effect is jarring because the rest of the writing seems solid.

For example: "makes me believe that I will be stagnated" You are using the word "stagnate" improperly. One cannot "be stagnated". (It's not a transitive verb). You should write "makes me believe that I will stagnate"

Or, perhaps this is cultural, I couldn't really understand this sentence: 'I find it not justice that "Tim Cook Speaks Up" is eating my cake. What if I am only a heterosexual guy, a troll and my only goal is to get some karma points.' It came across really strangely, and made me feel uncomfortable, like there was some joke I didn't understand.

My main feedback is find a trusted native speaker who will actually point out when you say something in a non-standard way.

You should actively solicit criticism of how you speak, from people that you like and trust. Explain to these people that they won't hurt your feelings, but that they are helping you learn. Encourage them to point out to you when you say something that is understandable but sounds funny.


Advice to practice is good. Advice on HOW to practice may be useful, too.

Try summarising other people's texts - and don't just take each sentence separately and try to make it shorter, take all the ideas in the piece and experiment with reorganising them in your mind and then on the page to produce a more elegant and concise means of expressing them to your reader. Lots of the good HN writers you've noted see the short and compelling 'elevator pitch' that summarises months of work and aspiration as their greatest challenge. Politicians are always looking for the 10 word phrase that conveys the heart of their policy.

Read what you write back to yourself. Aloud. Good writing also tends to be 'performable' - no rambling subclauses to get lost in, no awkward word combinations that make the speaker (or listener, or reader) stumble and disengage. Be more Harrison Ford and less George Lucas (Han Solo said something like "You can write this stuff, George, but I can't say it")

And finally, do exactly what you've started here: Seek advice and feedback. This is a community that shares ideas, so dive in, but ask for comment on how you express them as well as their content. Grab a native speaker and check your idioms. Ask friends to point out the clunky sentences that lets down an otherwise good paragraph.

Good luck to you!


The guidelines say to write as if you were face to face to a person. You wouldn't probably mention those nasty things, or at least you try to hide it behind constructive criticism.

Take this one step further: For everything you write, imagine the utmost authority on that topic reading your post. A blunt example: A rant about Python syntax. Imagine Guido van Rossum reading that during his coffee break.

Do not post if you can not add anything to the discussion. Assume your debater is smarter than you and knows more on the subject. This is still HackerNews. Ask someone if they have won the Putnam prize, and you may be unpleasantly surprised. [1]

Read and practice: http://www.paulgraham.com/disagree.html

Use your spell-checker. Write shorter sentences to avoid grammatical errors. Nobody is too smart for short, simple sentences.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=35079.


A few thoughts:

1) Your English seems fine! I see little difference between your writing and others' here.

2) The writing on Hacker News isn't especially good. I would aim much higher; study writing as a craft and skill (I'll add suggestions below). I even wonder if your post is a troll, flattering HN posters!

> I wonder how people get to express their ideas in such a clear and persuasive way, many times they seem to be very intelligent and informed.

3) I wouldn't assume that those appearances match reality. Unfortunately there is little relationship between writing persuasively and presenting accurate information, and between appearing informed and actually being informed. Throughout history, many misinformed or deceitful people have persuaded others to follow them into catastrophe.

4) Suggestions for studying writing:

* Write. There is no substitute. Set aside regular time every day to write essays, fiction, poetry -- anything expressive and carefully thought through.

* You must think clearly to write clearly. If you don't understand your thoughts well, how can you express them to others? Get your thoughts in order and understand your feelings before you write.

* Take classes in composition; online classes are fine. Also here are two short books I (and many others) highly recommend: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and Style by Joseph Williams.

* As much as you can, read only the best; you will learn from what you read, so don't learn mediocrity. I mean great craftsmen of language such as Hemingway, Nabokov, or Martin Amis; there are many others and generally you can find them among the authors of what is considered great "literature".[1]

[1] I know some here will feel that's snobbish, but great skill with language is essentially a requirement of literature and not of other genres, which have their own strengths.


In addition to practice (which many here have suggested - and they're good suggestions!), it would probably be helpful to get some feedback on your writing as well. I find in coding at least (the closest comparison I can make since I'm a typical American and only speak 1 language), the absolute best and most "rich" learning is done when someone corrects/improves work I've already thought about and tried.

Not in an insulting way of course - just in an improving way. And on that note, I'd be more than happy to give you feedback on your posts & comments here if it would be helpful and not offensive. In public or in private. Just let me know!


Go ahead, take a swim in this ocean of mediocrity. See the button below the box? It says add comment. Not 'Submit Dissertation'. Not 'Final Opinion'. Just remarks made in passing. Like tears, in rain.

Don't try to imitate 'diction' or 'mastery'. Express yourself as simply as you can.

And don't feel bad if you can't express something naturally in English. There are limits to the language. You are most likely able to imagine things you cannot precisely say in English.


I'm going to give some advice that I think is essential to improving your writing, but I haven't yet seen in the comments here:

Work with an editor.

Almost every great writer you can think of in recent history has had a good editor, at the beginning of a career, or in many cases throughout their entire career.

If you were a professional writer, you'd have a professional editor. Since it sounds like you're not, you'll need to find your editor some other way. Here are some ideas.

- Take a writing class, ideally in person. Your editors will be the class instructor, and depending on the class structure, your fellow students. One advantage of this approach is that you are given assignments to write about.

- Find a writing tutor. This will require either you or your tutor to invent assignments to review and work on. One possible way to do this would be to review your comments on HN, and read the rest of the comments in that thread. Work with your tutor to find the comments you think are better, and think about why that is, and how you could improve your own writing.

- Find a writing club or group or workshop. These are typically groups of people who get together informally on a regular basis to review and edit each others' writing. They are often focused on specific formats--a group of poets, for example, or a people who enjoy writing short stories.


I was in the same boat when I found out about HN. The amount of detail, eloquence and prose on technical subjects (or non technical) members talk about here is fascinating. This is what made me want to improve my own English and writing.

At first, I was worried that my comments won't be up to scratch if I posted them, but we all have to start from somewhere. Its been well over a year since I found HN and I am still learning and improving ask I type out this comment. I like to believe Mastery/Great proficiency in any skill is understanding that continuous learning.

I personally go about writing comments in these steps below;

1. Read and understand the article/link being discussed. 2. Draft out your comment. 3. Read your comment to see if it makes sense(includes grammar, structure, spelling and relevancy). 4. Comment 5. See 3. 6. Edit your grammar and spelling mistakes, if any. 7. Repeat 5 and 6.

On top of that, I use [1]Anki to store new, difficult words I don't understand or I have never come across. I also read novels that I find interesting in my spare time.

Understanding that it's never ending journey, is the beauty of it, in my opinion. Also find a referencing format you prefer. I use the [2]IEEE Citation Style.

[1] http://ankisrs.net/ [2] http://www.ieee.org/documents/ieeecitationref.pdf

Edit: Probably going to come back and structure this correctly.


"Read books. A lot of books." An invaluable piece of advice from a distinguished philosophy professor of mine.

As a freshmen I'd somehow found my way into his ancient philosophy course–a junior/senior elective typically reserved for PHL majors. While I was able to pass the course, I was always embarrassed by my paper submissions because they'd be returned to me dripping in red ink from his observations. This was a man that had his own translations of Plato's works published in textbooks, and he cared enough to take the time to point out my juvenile grammatical errors on 20 page papers! At the close of the course I wanted to "make amends" for my shortcomings by asking him how I could improve my writing ability. I anticipated he'd recommend some tome on grammar [that I'd never end up reading] but instead he simply said "Read books. A lot of books" and he left it at that.

I've no idea of the count of books I've read since taking his advice to heart, but it's made an enormous difference in the way I structure prose, the vocabulary I use, the tone & voice of my writing, and I could go on... I feel that if you read the works of authors you like on topics that you enjoy, you'll absorb much of what makes their works great. You'll find yourself improving without consciously trying to improve your mechanics–but you need to enjoy what you read for it to work!

And as a check on your own development? Throw in works like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Fight Club" from time to time. These works have intentional errors and nonsense thrown in by their authors to mess with their readers. If your head begins to hurt while reading them then, in terms of your own development of skills, you've done something right!


I am the poster I am really enjoying this post going up (now 18.14 time in Spain) is number five, I am exhilarating with joy. I can't imagine the pleasure those start ups reach when they launch and they find in their web that page count and money is rocketing, it must be something ever lasting in your memory (and better if it last in your pocket).


You have to practice writing.

On HN, being specific and brief helps a lot.

Being sure you're conceptually clear in what you want to convey helps with brevity.


Art:

"If truth was self evident, Eloquence wouldn't be needed." And surely we need eloquence. I share your envy. I believe you have to imitate the writers/users you enjoy reading the most. As you go along, you will develop your style. Think of words as colors, and beautify your sentences.

Science:

Pick up a book on Logic, preferably very old, then Rhetoric. Done!


I would recommend not only reading, but also writing a lot of text. I find that writing text is not much different from programming: if you just try to improve a little it will not work. You have to make a conscious effort.

Also writing is an iterative process, at least when you are learning a foreign language. Write a paragraph, then stop and think: how can I express the same idea in a better way? Rewrite it until you cannot add or remove anything else. Then keep writing another paragraph. After several of them go back to the first ones and read them for yourself. They might not make sense anymore; so start again.

It's not simple and not everyone can make it. You have to aim for doing your best and stop any "it's good enough" thoughts that you might have. There will be a point when you don't need to rewrite it anymore; that's when you pick up a a new language (;

TL;DR:

1. Read 2. Write 3. Rewrite 4. GOTO 1


Writing is rewriting.

For example, this ought to be rewritten:

> I find it not justice that "Tim Cook Speaks Up" is eating my cake. What if I am only a heterosexual guy, a troll and my only goal is to get some karma points.

So should this:

> I realize that the language topic is a pure one and that it should be separated (sanned) from a egotists, only looking for karma points guy. But what?, you guys are beautiful and constructive, sorry for not just being that type.

Can you rewrite the first quote without using "is eating my cake" and using something like "I don't find it just"?

Can you rewrite the second quote without "is a pure one" and without "sanned" (I have no idea what that is supposed to mean) and "separated from a egostists"?

Can you rewrite it without abusing the punctuation, i.e. without using a question mark right before a comma?

Can you write 10 different versions of each quote?


Native english speaker here, I have the same problem. I can express my ideas clearly in my head and when talking to people but my writing is just terrible IMO. I feel like I'm not taken seriously some of the time because my writing is bad even though my content is not.


Like people said, it is practice.

Stackoverflow worked wonders for me. Of course at first I sounded like Tarzan, but after some time I started to get comments like this: "+1 for sense of humor and for the fact the post is written in normal English, not geek English".


If you're interested in learning how to write clearly, check out "The Art of Plain Talk". [1]

It's dated – from the 1950's I think – but shows how to express ideas with clear, direct language. A lot of it has to do with using verbs as much as possible and cutting down on adjectives.

Similarly, Hemingway has always inspired me.

Reading, in general, is very helpful. Read widely, on many subjects. Find authors whose 'voice' you like, and emulate it in your own writing. Stretch yourself with publications like The New Yorker, and Harper's.

1: http://www.amazon.com/Art-Plain-Talk-rudolf-flesch/dp/002046...


I would start blogging about what you know (if you don't do so already). Focus on explaining how to do X. Then write about your opinions. It can be as short as a paragraph, or as long as a novel. In terms of writing intelligently the key is to learn about new things. If you desire to write intelligently about software, then by all means study software from the bottom up. As you study and learn new things try and explain them in your own words. How you understood it. The more you explain and the more you write the better your ability do so will.

I'm horrible with English. But that did not stop me from getting published in a recognized tech magazine. If I can do it, you can definitely can too.


The "write better" goal is one big reason I participate in online discussions like HN. Big ideas with lots of critics and fast responses mean you have to learn to write concise, to the point, be persuasive, and be interesting. The more you write, the better you'll write - so long as you value writing well. Watch how people respond, both in replies and in up/down "karma" votes. Get in vigorous (but friendly! always friendly!) discussions with those with opposing views. Learn verbal "judo", using their words to make your point. Know how much research is appropriate to make a point; write enough to be thorough & clear, but not so long as to lose most readers.

Write.

A.

Lot.


I think it is interesting when people say that they are not good writers or not good public speakers. These are skills like any other. You may or may not have an aptitude for them, but the only way to get really good at any skill is practice.


Simply structure your theses, that is, lead your reader down the tree outline of your thoughts. When those thoughts are worthwhile and clearly expressed, you yield a result not unlike tokenadult's.

Now, he has actually iterated upon that post and did not write it from scratch, which I can tell because I recognize his writing style, and he posted a very similar comment sans the phonemics and phonetics on some of HN thread 2 years back on learning languages[1].

You'll notice trends in the structure, as he moves from his relevant story, rounds around some inline-defined concepts, and finally closes with a summarized forward outlook and pitfalls to avoid. As I said, it also helps that he already had the general idea behind this organized, combined with his experience in the area of learning a Sinnitic language.

And don't believe we're so high and mighty, if tempted. We make mistakes all the time, and as I pointed above, you may not have realized that tokenadult had an outline for this already in his head. You also may not realize that he made a mistake - the consonant cluster differentiating 'speak' and 'speaks' is not grammatical (i.e., describing relations between words) but, rather, lexical (i.e., referring to different ideas). This is an incredibly minor terminology kludge. Yet how often can that happen, escaping your notice, on a comment on L2 caching? On the exact algorithmic analysis of a bloom filter? On vague theoretical concepts such as referential transparency? Ad infinitum.

Don't overthink it too much (if you get me), just write as you did above. That is precisely how you will, eventually get to tokenadult's level.

As Alan Perlis: "What you know about computing other people will learn. What's in your hands, I think and hope, is intelligence: the ability to see the machine as more than when you were first led up to it, that you can make it more."

What others know of X you will learn, because what's in your hands is intelligence and openness.

Peace in your journey.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4714388


I think the crux of your problem is to express ideas and not really English per se.

The best way to convey ideas is ... to practice conveying them. This might sound a bit cliché but bear with me for a moment. You can certainly read books but please practice the books and see what is good for you.

The next question is - where will you practice? Participate in good online forums and offline discussions. Reddit, Stackoverflow and HN are great online forums.

How does practice help? It will give you active feedback if your thoughts are being conveyed. It will give you a real-time personal assessment of your expression.

PS - Please take my assumption and advice with a pinch of salt!


"Elements of Style" remains the best single volume guide to writing. Stephen King's "On Writing" is fun and a good follow up. I concur with the read great writing and practice a lot tips. But how to practice? It's old fashioned and slower, but try printing out what you're writing and read it aloud. Make edits in pen on the draft. To force the concision Elements recommends is to get a word count on your first draft and try to cut it down by 33 to 50%. Finally, ask friends for help editing. Keeping asking whoever is toughest on you.

Good luck!


Practicing is not just about writing a lot and often.

Practice requires constantly going back to what you wrote, too.

My English isn't as good as I'd like it to be, but:

1. I know it would be worse if I didn't review my writing :)

2. I'm bold enough to claim that I write pretty well at least in my first language.

On message boards I'm notorious for editing my posts, sometimes several times in a row, reverting previous changes etc. :) It's a bit embarassing, since this is obviously a neurotic trait. But peaceful minds don't strive for excellence :)

Never be happy with what you just wrote. Keep trying to improve it.


I'm not a native English speaker. I usually type the comments in MS Word, so I can correct most of the typos and grammar errors. Another trick is to reread the comments twice before submitting.


I would say practice makes perfect. If becoming a better writer is important to you, try to build a regular practice where you write each day and build some sort of feedback loop into this process to help you improve the quality.

There are plenty of pedantic people spending their time on forums who will naturally correct you if you make an error in your writing.

Writing a blog entry once a week and asking a friend or two to review the draft might be another way.

You're not doomed to anything if you take on a mindset where you believe that you can and will improve.


It is true that the only way to get better at writing is to sit down and write. I write at least 250 words each day no matter what. I recently published a blog post on that habit, which you might find helpful as well:

http://mlafeldt.github.io/blog/write-every-day/

The post also received a lot of comments here at HN:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8350005


I am old enough that this was significantly more difficult in my time than it appears to be, now. Namely, lots of exposure.

Access to videos, even non-boring audio, not to mention to native speakers, was much more difficult and limited for the average language learner in the U.S. at that time.

For one foreign language, limited access to pop music that I rather enjoyed helped significantly. Listening to it repeatedly helped me absorb the sound of the language.

For another, a very early and successful foray into video taped lessons that had a running, dramatic and humorous story as a major component proved quite effective. SO much better than those dreadful, "repeter" audio cassettes. In addition to the language itself, the videos provided, without explicitly describing it all, a lot of cultural context.

Speaking and writing did, of course, also help. All the passive, listening and observing understanding does not fully form those neural pathways.

But when it did come to speaking and writing, I started off with a much better idea of how the language actually sounds, what the day-to-day idioms and colloquialisms are. I wasn't simply trying to translate my thoughts, word for word, into the other language -- something that often ends up sounding rather off and that, inadvertently, takes on different meanings from those intended.

When I arrived in one foreign city, acquaintances who eventually became friends told me that I sounded "like and old book". Because in my literature classes, that had been my primary exposure. With time in the "real", contemporary world of that language, this changed.

So, don't overdue or rely on "memorization". That conscious level activity has its limits. Take advantage of today's media-rich world to gain as much exposure as you can. And beware of the contexts of that media; just as in your native tongue, people speak differently in different contexts. Fortunately, e.g. in video, it's often easy to get some idea of what context is being portrayed.

Oh, and do read a lot, too. I have some exposure to a few languages orally, where I'd have a hard time writing down a few words much less complete sentences.

Nonetheless, you need the other exposure I describe to have a fuller sense of the language and to "sound right".


Off the top of my head, here are 11 ways to improve your writing.

1. Vary sentence length 2. Vary sentence construction 3. Use parallel construction 4. Put emphatic words at the end 5. Read your writing out loud 6. Avoid repeating uncommon words close together 7. Write in the active voice 8. Write about what something/someone does instead of what they are 9. Appeal to the senses, mainly the visual 10. Be specific 11. Delete unnecessary words


I've been looking into how to improve my writing as well. One of the things that I've learned is that good writing is the result of good sentences. Sentences, not words, are the basic building block. If you focus on writing better sentences you will become a better writer.

I know this doesn't help with how to write better sentences but just having this direction has helped me focus. Hopefully it helps you!


I would agree with this. The only way to become proficient in something is to do it. I've been typing into rectangular <textarea>s since 2002—plenty of time to grow comfortable with the vagaries of textual communication.

How do you become better at communicating your internal ideas externally... without the aid of non-verbal communication? By doing it! Jump into discussions, type, type, type. Read what others are writing, see which communicators you find powerful, observe which ones fall flat in their attempts. Try to imitate the more power communicators. Are they using a certain style of writing that you could leverage?

Learning more certainly helps—"oh, that's an em-dash? What's its function? How can I use it to more accurately translate my thoughts into sentences others read?" Then lock-in that new knowledge nugget by practicing. Work it into your next post/comment/message to a friend.

My key takeaway would be: Just do it. Write like a fiend!


a lot of comments here suggested focusing on style (use a thesaurus, by the way), and that's all well and good, but good writing flows from thoughtful reflection. it's about digging deeper into the material you want to comment on and trying to weave a narrative with threads of experience that are unique to you. you don't need flowery language, really. you need interesting thoughts.

how do you get interesting thoughts? some people have suggested reading, and that's a good way. but also try to have life experiences outside the norm. spend time with people you don't feel entirely comfortable with. try to understand their lives. go places that feel slightly dangerous. ask 'why?' expose yourself to a diversity of ideas. study topics that really interest you.

let these things inform your viewpoint. pull such perspectives from the far reaches of your brain and mold them to fit the topic at hand. sometimes it turns into an engaging comment, and other times, not so much. don't worry about these latter cases.

and choose what you comment on based on how uniquely you can add to the discussion.


May it be coding, writing or another skill, there is one thing that matters most when learning and perfecting it:

* practice

* observe how others do

* practice

* practice even more

Obviously, you won't be good at first, but that's the whole point of learning, isn't it?

So every time you encounter a defect in your skill, make a mental note for next time. Don't try to make it right the first time, just make it. That way, you will get feedback, and know what the actual defects are.


Is a real gift to read all those wonderful responses, a language is also about feelings and communication. Maybe one day I will be able to write on the spur on the moment and those written words will modulate love, anger, passion or regret. Maybe in one of those moments I could feel that this language is no longer a wall, that I am not alone any more and that I communicate with someone else soul.


Very nice!


Surround yourself with beautiful language. It will find its way into your lexicon and, more importantly, your thoughts.

Write for yourself frequently. Long form, poetry, small notes, one-liners, it doesn't matter—just write.

Eventually you won't feel like an impostor and the voice of your writing is your own. The people whose language you admire have practiced their writing and oration a lot. They started the same way.

Just write.


If you are a undisciplined writer like me, you will have to find the theme of your post after writing it. In the goulash of your initial stream of writing, look for a kernel or thought that clarifies your point. Use that kernel as a logic driver to select words and organize your sentences in support of that theme. You know you are have found the kernel when you start removing words. ;)


Try to write more. I think I have the same struggle as you and I've seen improvements when I started writing everyday. There is an application for that: 750words.com (which only gives you a 30days trial but it's a good way to start! I've made my own application like this (3pages.fr) it's free but it's in french :))


Practice, practice, practice.

English is my third language, so I always make tons of mistakes and am trying to improve. Learning to think and write better is kind of a secondary reason I participate in HN discussions.

Maybe that's the key, write something you are passionate about (programming, startups, literature) and in the process you'll notice you got better?


In addition to all these very useful answers above I would like to recommend the following approach:

1) Write an article 2) Do not hesitate to make any kinds of mistakes 3) Give it to a proofreader/editor 4) Compare your version versus edited one 5) Learn 6) Repeat form #1

P.S. for proofreading i would recommend oDesk, 300Editors or Wordy.


The key is not to compare yourself with others, but instead to see from how far you have come and be proud that you will be even better in the future.

I'm swiss-french and I try to practise english every day - mainly through reading and writing, as we don't speak english where I live.


I'd suggest to look up a list of the "100 best English books" or something like that, and also to read a lot of the best engineering/development books, including those that are written about the developers themselves more than the details of their work.


There are the people who make technology, and then there are those who write about it. I've rarely seen both in one person, as each side requires a level of focus and dedication that would do the other side an injustice.

HN in my perspective, is mostly a PR site for technologists trying to push their brand/personality with some bigger agenda.

I've seen a lot of people develop their brand/persona on HN and blogs before trying to push out some tech company. 3 such people come to mind.

To be fair, I'm probably no different, except that I dont post here (yet) -- just consume and opinionate.

So consider the context.

If you really want to be good at writing the best way is to practice. A blog is a great way to get in the habit of writing.

I would also refer you to some well known books like the de facto standard for "good" English composition used by PR's and news organizations: The Elements of Style (http://goo.gl/SPcAOF <== amazon link with my referrer tag)

Like anything they key to becoming "good" is time, focus and dedication -- obviously.

In any case, consider the context of HN and what the motivating factor is for people who do submit posts here -- they write well because they have an agenda and are using language as a tool to advance their agenda -- me too!

(side note: I'm still trying to figure out what the motivating factor is for Redditors though, if anyone knows, please let me know.)

(side note 2: I'm really surprised that in the book mentions, no one mentioned Elements of Style - it really is a big deal. Ask any Literature/English professor. I just re-ordered it myself for nostalgia sake and I'm always catching myself trying to remember the rules from it)


Most of my writing is learned from reading.

A lot of perceived quality is by subconscious shibboleth: they'll think better of you if you don't make the slight errors other people make. Go consume Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary.


Most of all just write a lot.

Read well-written copy, whether it is elaborate prose, wartime speeches, or clean and fresh ad copy. Analyse it. Emulate it.

Write first, then edit. Don't do both at the same time.

Read your old stuff and find flaws in it.

Shorten text. Shorter is almost always better.


Read a lot, and write a lot! (You have to do the reading part to expose yourself to lots of different people who write well, which over time will distill into knowledge of how to write. But that part will only happen if you write.)


"It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech."

-- Mark Twain



Keep it short. Nobody wants to read a book.

Structure the content visually and conceptually. Short paragraphs work well.

Don't hesitate to post your initial thoughts and then clean it up during the period when you are allowed to edit the comment.


I actually wrote an article on the topic, funnily enough...

http://swombat.com/2010/12/6/get-better-at-writing


I don't understand why or how something that contains these paragraphs:

"I find it not justice that "Tim Cook Speaks Up" is eating my cake. What if I am only a heterosexual guy, a troll and my only goal is to get some karma points.

I realize that the language topic is a pure one and that it should be separated (sanned) from a egotists, only looking for karma points guy. But what?, you guys are beautiful and constructive, sorry for not just being that type."

makes it to the front page of HN, getting so much empathy and support from the community. Was the text edited after it got this outpuring of support, or are we really okay with this? Why is it still being upvoted? Why does nobody even address this? Has HN been punked?


I don't think it contained those last two paragraphs when first posted.


But for how long does that text stay editable? One hour? This thing is more than 4 hours old, doesn't that mean it got the majority of its support after the edit was made?


Edit: The last two paragraphs were added when the post was number 5 in HN in an unsuccessful and evil attempt to reach the top.


re: " how people get to express their ideas in such a clear and persuasive way"

http://www.amazon.com/Pyramid-Principle-Logic-Writing-Thinki...

Recommended reading, especially for anyone whom consults or writes proposals.


Practice, Improvise, Fake it till you make it.


Read Henry James. I repeat, read Henry James.


Practice. Practice. Practice.


Somebody, I think it was Stephen King, once said something like "the best way to get better at writing is to write a lot, and read a lot". I seem to recall this sentiment being expressed in King's book On Writing, but I may be mis-remembering. Anyway, it rings true with me. Read, write, read some more, write some more, lather, rinse, repeat.

If you need something to help encourage you to write, consider participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month)[1][2].

Also, there are TONS of resources available for people who are working on getting better at writing. Just go down to any Barnes & Noble store and find the section with the writing books, and you'll find shelves full of books on "how to be a better writer". Some are aimed at fiction, some non-fiction, some specifically for writers of memoirs, magazine articles, etc.

It's sort of cliched to say, but The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is excellent, as is Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

I have been trying to improve my English a little but not having anybody to write to or any need to use English makes me believe that I will be stagnated in a low level profile, and that I will never will achieve the level of mastery and proficiency they show so well in their writing.

Maybe consider starting a blog in English, and just write about whatever interests you. It doesn't even really matter if you get any readers/followers or not, the important thing is just to write as much as you can.

All of this advice is predicated on the idea that you're more interested in getting better at written English. If you want to be a better public speaker the best thing to do is, wait for it... do a lot of speaking!

One good way to get yourself some practice speaking is to join a group like Toastmasters[3], if you have a chapter nearby. If not, there may be a similar group, but you may have to dig a little. Another option would be to find any local techie user-groups (Linux User's Group, Ruby Meetup, Java Meetup, whatever it might be) and offer to present there. These groups often struggle to find enough speakers to fill their calendars, and any volunteers of usually (in my experience) warmly welcomed.

Edit: I just remembered, there is another book, which I found recommended here on HN a while back, and just recently acquired, which I consider excellent. It's called The Pyramid Principle[4], by Barbara Minto. This book is less about language, and more about structure and organization, in terms of how you present your ideas. I recommend this one very highly.

[1]: http://nanowrimo.org/

[2]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Novel_Writing_Month

[3]: http://www.toastmasters.org/

[4]: http://www.amazon.com/The-Pyramid-Principle-Writing-Thinking...


This sooooo feels like a troll, I wanna share it on my facebook page


The lessons for getting started are quite standard. First, you need three books or, now, Web sites, one for each of a good English dictionary, a good English grammar, and a good book on rhetoric. For a dictionary, sure, something by, say, Webster's. For grammar, something used in senior English in high school or freshman English in college. For rhetoric, sure, Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. Not nearly new stuff. For more, The Chicago Manual of Style can provide clear answers to some tricky questions, good answers not easy to find elsewhere.

Then you iterate: (1) You write something, a postcard, an e-mail, a birthday card, a blog post, a love letter, an elevator pitch, a term paper, etc. Hopefully you can get others to read what you wrote and get some feedback or at least some reactions. Then with what you noticed yourself while writing and from the feedback, you identify some issues or problems in your writing. (2) You read, hopefully well written material. Here maybe the best is good material from the STEM fields and good material from the world of literature. In that reading, you try to see how that writing solved the problems you noticed so far in your writing. And you try to learn more. Then you return to (1) and iterate again.

Then for the iterations of (1) and (2), devote at least 10 years before you expect a lot of improvement. Good writing skills are likely the most difficult learning considered in education, and I say that is a devoted STEM student with high contempt for belle lettre. As a college prof, I saw that the adult evening students, while not very good as students, were much better at writing than even the good students of usual college age -- the extra years of reading and writing, in a deliberate effort to learn more or not, were the huge difference. Net, the learning takes years -- call that decades.

For STEM writing, there are some special techniques. Maybe the best, pure form of these techniques and, thus, the easiest to place to learn is in the best quality pure math and mathematical physics. For pure math, sure, emphasize Halmos, Rudin, Bourbaki, von Neumann, Breiman, Neveu, authors of college texts on abstract algebra, e.g., Herstein, etc. There are lots of highly polished freshman calculus texts, and can learn a lot about STEM field writing from those examples. A good text on freshman college physics also has some really good lessons to teach on STEM field writing. Maybe you want the math/physics and maybe not, but there are good writing lessons there. For writing in computer science, sure, like it or not, Knuth's, The Art of Computer Programming. Knuth's a good writer on computing, e.g., just his The TeXBook is some especially good STEM field writing.

For literature, one of the main goals, whether they say so or not, is art as in the common definition of the communication, interpretation of human experience, emotion. To oversimplify, call such writing belle lettre.

With some irony, belle lettre commonly is really good communicating the passion, pathos, poignancy, plight, and pain, and other such awful alliteration, of the human condition but otherwise nearly useless at communicating something effective to alleviate the pain, etc. Then the STEM fields and its writing are less good at the emotional communications but now in this the 21st century often just astoundingly good at getting really solid, safe, effective solutions to the pains. Which you prefer is your choice!

Or, in simple terms, do you want to suffer with the pains or do something about them? Yes, I know this remark is judgmental, provocative, potentially pejorative, and other such awful alliteration. Here people can agree to disagree, and YMMV.

I'm no good at writing, but the above is the best I know about learning how to do it. And a lot that I'm saying is quite standard -- not nearly new, for more awful alliteration.

Go for it. And, here on HN, show us what you're getting and what you've got! When you've got lessons for other learners, show us those, too!

Good news: There are a lot of people who are plenty bright enough to write really well but are nowhere nearly bright enough to have anything worth saying! Lesson: Don't have to be very bright to write well! Or, if you are bright enough to have something to say, then nearly necessarily you are more than bright enough to be able to learn to say it well!


>I got a little sad because perhaps I am doomed to never be such a great speaker.

There is no better way to doom yourself to something than to say you're doomed to that fate. If you want to be a better speaker, practice. Some people pop out of the womb with great oratory ability. Most people have to learn it through hard work and practice and failure.


I learned English by debating online and I recommend this method to anyone. Go on Reddit and start disagreeing with people. When they prove you wrong do some research and refute their arguments. Rinse and repeat. You will learn English and be informed and have fun at the same time.


Practice.




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