Write To Say Stuff Worth Knowing

I had the following thought, and then went looking for others who had said it before. Wasn’t hard to find:

There are two types of writers, Schopenhauer once observed, those who write because they have something they have to say and those who write for the sake of writing.

If you’re young and you think you want to be a writer, chances are you are already in the second camp. And all the advice you’ll get from other people about writing only compounds this terrible impulse.

Write all the time, they’ll tell you. Write for your college newspaper. Get an MFA. Go to writer’s groups. Send query letters to agents.

What do they never say? Go do interesting things.

I was lucky enough to actually get this advice. .. A fair amount of aspiring writers email me about becoming a writer and I always say: Well, that’s your first mistake.

The problem is identifying as a writer. As though assembling words together is somehow its own activity. It isn’t. It’s a means to an end. And that end is always to say something, to speak some truth or reach someone outside yourself.

Deep down, you already know this. Take any good piece of writing, something that matters to you. Why is it good? Because of what it says. Because what the writer manages to communicate to you, their reader. It’s because of what’s within it, not how they wrote it.

No one ever reads something and says, “Well, I got absolutely nothing out of this and have no idea what any of this means but it sure is technically beautiful!” But they say the opposite all the time, they say “Goddamn, that’s good” to things with typos, poor grammar and simple diction ..

So if you want to be a writer, put “writing” on hold for a while. When you find something that is new and different and you can’t wait to share with the world, you’ll beat your fat hands against the keyboard until you get it out in one form or another. (more)

I’ll actually go much further: hold yourself to a far higher standard than merely having something you feel passionate about saying, which many readers will like. Instead, find a way to contribute to a lasting accumulation of knowledge on topics that matter.

Yes, you could weigh in on some standard topic of opinion, one where many have already stated their opinion, and where little progress seems possible. This might make you and your readers feel good. But your one vote will contribute only a tiny amount to long-term human understanding.

You’d do better to focus on a topic where opinions seem to change over time in substantial part due to arguments. Then you could contribute to our collective learning by declaring your support for particular arguments. In this case you’d be voting on which arguments to give more weight. But if many others vote on such arguments, you’d still only make a small fractional contribution. And that fraction might be smaller than you think, if future folks don’t bother to remember your vote.

Better to find a topic where humanity seems to be able to make intellectual progress via arguments, and then also to specialize in a particular subtopic, a subtopic about which few others write. If you can then get other influential writers in overlapping topic areas to read and be persuaded by your argument, you might contribute to a larger process whereby we all learn faster by usefully dividing up the task of learning about everything. You could do your part, and the rest of us could do our parts, and we could all learn together. That can be writing worth reading.

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  • efalken

    While I do agree it’s better to have great ideas than great prose, it is good to remember ‘moderation in all things.’ There are big returns from ‘just’ writing if you haven’t done much of it. I think it especially helps make arguments succinct and better prioritized.

    That said, I do think all those journalism majors who have no expertise in anything are an abomination, in that they play too much to anecdotes and personalities. Thus, I applaud people like Krugman, Noah Smith (PhD) or Megan McArdle (MBA) who write about econ and business with a better sense than James Stewart. I often don’t agree with them, but at least they are not ‘not even wrong.’

  • Silent Cal

    How about the path of being a writing specialist who partners with the people with the insights? The prominent example of this is Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Everybody should go with their comparative advantage. The fact that yours doesn’t lie in producing the clearest prose doesn’t mean developing that advantage doesn’t suit others. This piece is too transparently self-justifying to be credible.

  • Robert Koslover

    I agree, although this sounds suspiciously like someone arguing against the practice of judging professors by counting the number of papers they publish… not that there’s anything wrong with that. 🙂

  • Scott Young

    I agree that this is a good strategy, but it also assumes that writing is mostly about proving formal arguments.

    Writing is also about unifying a community, entertaining, translating existing ideas into a form more relatable to the audience, signaling affiliations, etc. I think it’s perfectly valid to write not to push some marginal limit of human knowledge in a narrow, underrepresented subdomain. Such an analysis seems to only value academic writing compared to the writing most people actually prefer to consume.

    In fact, I’m surprised this wasn’t a more Hansonian post arguing that “writing isn’t (really) about communicating arguments” but perhaps my pattern matching for Hansonian beliefs is overgeneralized…

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I agree that many people read to be entertained, to signal affiliation, etc. In this post I’m personally rejecting those reasons relative to accumulating knowledge. That needn’t be only academic, however.

  • Faze

    Over the years, I’ve been in a position to read dozens of self-penned manuscripts by frighteningly accomplished people who’ve led fascinating lives and garnered unique insights. But 98 percent of these manuscripts would not interest anyone but the author’s dependents and maybe psychiatrist. Without the magic of style — something a writer is born with — even the most eventful life makes a dull book. We don’t read the novelized or actual memoirs of Proust, Nabokov and Woolf because of the gripping events they relate, we read them to bask in their glorious style.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      You can read to enjoy style. But I prefer to read as part of a process to help us all learn, so to me the question about these self-penned manuscripts is whether the insights are worth the volume in terms of future accumulation potential.

  • http://invariant.org/ Peter Gerdes

    “Take any good piece of writing, something that matters to you. Why is it good? Because of what it says. Because what the writer manages to communicate to you, their reader. It’s because of what’s within it, not how they wrote it.”

    Really? I would disagree most strongly with this. Both as far as it applies to the novels I like the most and as far as it applies to the writing society has judged to be the best. Take Shakespeare. He has nothing profound or interesting to communicate. He is just very good at communicating fairly banal human sentiments in very interesting ways. Indeed, one could say the same thing about most good poets.

    Why shouldn’t the theory of comparative advantage apply just as strongly to writing as to anything else. Yes, as far as nonfiction goes good writing about uninteresting subjects is undesirable as is bad writing about interesting subjects.

    So figure out what you are better at doing: are you better at writing well or making interesting contributions to the sum of human knowledge. If the later then make your contributions and only bother to write well enough to convey your ideas to other specialists. If the former then find someone with interesting ideas and write about them. There are plenty of good ideas out there in want of a great communicator.

    Isn’t, in some sense, this what a great deal of journalism is about (taking someone else’s ideas and conveying them in an understandable fashion). Isn’t that a very good use of writing talent?

    • Ryan Holiday

      That’s preposterous. The underlying stories of Shakespeare as based on some of the most famous events in history and were tools for him to express thoughts on power, love, hate, wealth, etc.

      • http://invariant.org/ Peter Gerdes

        I meant did not require any unusual personal experiences for him to appreciate.

        Yes, the events he describes are profound in the sense of very moving and emotionally important. They are not profound in the way that one would call a mathematical insight profound, i.e., representing some unusual insight.

        In other words there was no need for Shakespeare himself to have lived a particularly extraordinary life to write the things he did.

      • UWIR

        “The underlying stories of Shakespeare as based on some of the most famous events in history”

        Does anyone appreciate Shakespeare for having gained knowledge of historic events?

        “and were tools for him to express thoughts on power, love, hate, wealth, etc.”

        Like what?

  • Dave Lindbergh

    Samuel Johnson said “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money”.

    Writing is hard work. Writing to signal affiliation, intelligence, or style is mostly a waste of time – unless somebody is interested enough to pay for it.

    If your intent is to influence the world, your advice is good, but even then, only if you have readers.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      I think Johnson was speaking from personal experience. He wasn’t exactly an intellectual. Sort of a sui generis individual. An extraordinarily skilled writer, however.

      As a generalization, Johnson is clearly wrong. Some people feel compelled to write. (I don’t think they’re necessarily blockheads, but perhaps Johnson would define them that way.)

    • UWIR

      “Writing is hard work.”

      I don’t know about that. Given the right circumstances, some people find writing not particularly effortful, nor time-consuming.

    • Pete_VM

      I wonder if Thomas Jefferson is still getting royalties for the Declaration.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        I think Johnson was referring to literary writing – books and articles – not practical documents like contracts and laws, notes and notices, signage, documentation, etc.

        Most of the Founders were lawyers by profession – as such they were indeed paid to write.

        And, of course, writing comments on blogs is not “hard work”; it’s no harder than talking. The hard part is organizing complex thoughts in a larger document.

  • Allison Schneider

    I agree halfway. The only writing I enjoy is from people with insight worth talking about. The practice of writing, though, trains the mental habit of narrativizing all your experiences explicitly. You need to practice this before you have anything worth writing about, if you want to write anything worthwhile. As Faze points out, even a list of fascinating experiences is dead without that narrativizing reflex.

    There’s a corollary to this. People with well-developed narrative skill (it doesn’t have to be through writing) are capable of pulling a thread from events that seem mundane. There’s comparative advantage for writers who can do this: everyone senses the narrative potential in an Everest attempt, but not in a trip to the store.

    My favorite example is Kurt Vonnegut extracting the meaning of life from going to the store to buy an envelope:

    “I work at home, and if I wanted to, I could have a computer right by my bed, and I’d never have to leave it. But I use a typewriter, and afterward I mark up the pages with a pencil. Then I call up this woman named Carol out in Woodstock and say, “Are you still doing typing?” Sure she is, and her husband is trying to track bluebirds out there and not having much luck, and so we chitchat back and forth, and I say, “Okay, I’ll send you the pages.” Then I go down the steps and my wife calls, “Where are you going?” “Well,” I say, “I’m going to buy an envelope.” And she says, “You’re not a poor man. Why don’t you buy a thousand envelopes? They’ll deliver them, and you can put them in the closet.” And I say, “Hush.” So I go to this newsstand across the street where they sell magazines and lottery tickets and stationery. I have to get in line because there are people buying candy and all that sort of thing, and I talk to them. The woman behind the counter has a jewel between her eyes, and when it’s my turn, I ask her if there have been any big winners lately. I get my envelope and seal it up and go to the postal convenience center down the block at the corner of Forty-seventh Street and Second Avenue, where I’m secretly in love with the woman behind the counter. I keep absolutely poker-faced; I never let her know how I feel about her. One time I had my pocket picked in there and got to meet a cop and tell him about it. Anyway, I address the envelope to Carol in Woodstock. I stamp the envelope and mail it in a mailbox in front of the post office, and I go home. And I’ve had a hell of a good time. I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

  • Romeo Stevens

    This search heuristic as applied to writing can also be generalized. In general we should wish to find underexplored areas of the map. These areas can come in several flavors:

    They can be areas which simply no one has thought to explore at all.

    They can be areas that have been explored but repeatedly in the same fashion, rather than using a variety of differing methods.

    They can be areas that have an unpleasant chasms around them (perhaps you need to do a year of boring work before they are accessible, or working on them is low status)

    They can be areas that appear to be low value because most people who investigate them fail.

    Maybe there are other simple search heuristics as well. This suggests a strategy of finding or developing special search methods and then using them on many domains until a potential underexplored opportunity is spotted.

  • free_agent

    I remember in the early days, innumerable articles in Salon would be bylined “Xxxxx Yyyyy is a writer and lives in New York.”, which always seemed to me to be an odd way to identify one’s self.

    But in the end the question is Why do you write? If you want to make a living at it, then writing drivel in the best form for the medium is often quite profitable. Consider writing pop lyrics, television, or big-money movie scripts — certainly those people make more money off writing than Schopenhauer ever did. OTOH Schopenhauer was a rich kid and could write to be remembered by posterity. (Per Wikipedia, his mother wrote novels that were quite popular then, but she’s now forgotten.) Things must be similar in academia (once you have tenure).

  • Vítor Margato

    This is one of your best posts of the past few months. Your session on Quora wasn’t bad at all, but I expected more of the sort of advice you give in this post.

    • Vítor Margato

      Oh and by the way, we should agree that your advice is mostly about writing non-fiction. In fiction, there are endless counterexamples to this: “Take any good piece of writing, something that matters to you. Why is it good? Because of what it says”. For fiction books as well as for movies, how one tells a story is often much more important than the plot itself.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        For fiction books as well as for movies, how one tells a story is often much more important than the plot itself.

        Doesn’t it seem implausible that something that is often of predominant importance in fiction has negligible importance in nonfiction?

        Consider philosophy. Much of Nietzsche’s greatness was stylistic. While few if any great philosophers were terrible writers, Kant is comparatively bad, and his unstellar writing style weakened his rigor. (See Walter Kaufman.)

      • Vítor Margato

        Doesn’t it seem implausible that something that is often of predominant importance in fiction has negligible importance in nonfiction?

        No, I don’t think so. What is appropriate in writing depends on your purpose. I read this blog to learn — I like it when I feel I’ve improved (even a bit) my understanding of social patterns because of some post. Note, though, that learning is of course not the only reason why people read. Poor style can severely impair reading as pure entertainment, as in fiction.

      • Joe

        Doesn’t it seem implausible that something that is often of predominant
        importance in fiction has negligible importance in nonfiction?

        Yes, but the question is: important to whom?

        From the perspective of the writer, style is important in both fiction and non-fiction – in the former it helps make your writing more enjoyable, in the latter it makes your case more convincing. For readers of fiction who want to be entertained, better quality writing seems to be entirely a good thing with no downsides. Nothing bad happens if you get tricked into enjoying a novel whose plot is weak but whose prose is beautiful – I don’t think most people care much about what exactly it is about fiction that entertains them, they just want to be entertained. So both content and style are aimed at delivering the same thing.

        But for readers of non-fiction who want to learn factual information about the real world, rather than just let the author convince them of their views, writing style and content are in opposition. It certainly is possible to get tricked into believing someone’s bad arguments just because they’re phrased so elegantly. So when it comes to non-fiction, it probably is worth slightly discounting arguments from brilliant writers, and giving slightly more weight to poorly written arguments, to counteract your natural bias to believe claims more when they’re phrased better.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        But for readers of non-fiction who want to learn factual information about the real world, rather than just let the author convince them of their views, writing style and content are in opposition.

        Have you often (ever?) encountered highly important insights into complex and controversial subjects that were incompetently stated?

        The abilities to think and to express thoughts develop together. (As one social scientist said, intellectuals are individuals who are “always scribbling.”) Moreover, the perfection of an idea often is inseparable from its expression. Intellectuals test ideas (partly) by perfecting their expression. Ideas are properly abandoned because of defects revealed by trying to express them elegantly.

  • Brian Slesinsky

    Suppose this young would-be writer gets a job as a reporter. Ideally that means going out into the world to find stuff out and then writing about it. Seems like the best of both worlds? (Other than the pay, that is.)

    Of course this isn’t the same as doing a lot of research in a single topic. But the research-write-publish loop is faster, getting exposed to a lot of different subjects is useful, and decreasing cycle time seems like a good way to learn how do things, at least at the beginning.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I have nothing but respect for reporters who report on real relevant news.

  • Shadeburst

    Dale Carnegie said that a public speaker must have earned the right to talk. That applies to writers as well. Which means knowing a lot about life. Marco Arturo aside, young people generally don’t know a lot about life. Still they badly want to write. The solution is fantasy, where you can invent your own social and physical laws. It’s easier to write non-fiction. In a month you can learn enough on most subjects to have earned the right to talk. Feature-writers often have to do it in a couple of hours.

    • UWIR

      “Marco Arturo aside, young people generally don’t know a lot about life.”

      Most people know stuff that most people don’t know. A teenager living in Calcutta knows a lot more about life in Calcutta than I do.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Better to find a topic where humanity seems to be able to make intellectual progress via arguments, and then also to specialize in a particular subtopic, a subtopic about which few others write.

    But this isn’t how intellectual progress has actually occurred. The best minds have focused on a few problems that occupy the center stage of intellectual attention.

  • Joe

    “Take any good piece of writing, something that matters to you. Why is it good? Because of what it says. Because what the writer manages to communicate to you, their reader. It’s because of what’s within it, not how they wrote it.”

    It feels dangerous to disagree with Robin Hanson, but as far as I can tell this is almost completely wrong.

    You can make almost any piece of writing good, no matter what it says. “Bond. James Bond.” isn’t a famous line because it expresses something deep and meaningful. It’s a throwaway part of a basic plotline. It’s a good line because it’s a nice example of the rhetorical technique of diacope.

    Take Shakespeare. The greatest writer in the English language, almost without question, but not because his plots were uniquely brilliant (they *were* good, but not alone enough to justify being the best). Shakespeare’s particular genius was eloquence. Think of almost any famous Shakespeare line, and I could name the rhetorical trick it relies on. “To be or not to be?”? Diacope. “Sound and fury”? Hendiadys. “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds”? Hyperbaton, polyptoton.

    “A poet is not somebody who has great thoughts. That is the menial duty of the philosopher. A poet is somebody who expresses his thoughts, however commonplace they may be, exquisitely.”