How do you write original rationalist essays?

post by lumenwrites · 2021-12-01T08:08:03.330Z · LW · GW · 16 comments

This is a question post.

I really enjoy Scott Alexander's and Paul Graham's essays. How can I practice to learn to write as they do?

I'm getting pretty okay at writing tutorials, where I just walk people through the process of completing some project. I'm also okay at research-based posts - it's not that difficult to gather information from the internet and compile my own summary that is hopefully useful to other people.

But I don't understand how PG and SSC create such insightful essays seemingly by making them up (I'm talking about the SSC posts where he just shares his thoughts, not the ones where he analyzes studies or teaches you more than you ever wanted to know about x).

I can share things I have learned from experience, I can try to explain complicated subjects in more accessible ways, but none of these approaches will lead to essays that I see so many of at Less Wrong. People seem to just sit down, and generate interesting, original, and unique thoughts through the process of writing itself, by "thinking on paper". Or maybe not, I don't know.

Aside from just being born naturally very smart and gifted, is there anything that can be done to learn to write like this?

How do people like Scott Alexander, Paul Graham, Eliezer Yudkowsky, etc, just think of all these unique and original things? It seems like they just have a boundless source of ideas, every paragraph is insightful, and most of these thoughts are something they just came up with, not something they have learned elsewhere. Not just that, it seems that they come up with them as they are writing the post, not through collecting random epiphanies a person has now and then. Like, they can generate these epiphanies intentionally, on demand.

I guess the more general question is - how to I get better at creative, original thinking?

I have spent years practicing "creative" skills - traditional and digital art, writing, gamedev, programming, fiction. I've made a lot of things, I'm pretty proud of some of my projects, I'm getting pretty decent at some of these skills. But gun to my head - I can't seem to just sit down and make up an original non-fiction essay worthy of Less Wrong (or even my personal blog), even a simple one. What's wrong with me?

Answers

answer by romeostevensit · 2021-12-01T16:11:10.532Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Three pieces.

Creativity is a trainable skill.

Philosophy is a trainable skill and many ideas come about from turning a weird thought experiment into a writing piece via creativity.

Insights are a trainable skill via deliberate contemplation and inquiry.

For creativity I'd read John Cleese's book. For philosophy I'd read the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy focusing on following your own interests. For insight I'd look at Gendlin's Focusing and Thinking at the Edge.

I guess there's writing skill too, but that's amenable to deliberate practice.

answer by Alexander · 2021-12-04T00:39:46.244Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have a similar goal. It could be helpful to share my journey thus far and plans for how I want to keep progressing in this direction.

My primary motivation is that reading and writing are foundational skills, and I will directly or indirectly improve many other aspects of my world by enhancing both. Exploring the world of knowledge and creating new knowledge are fun activities in themselves.

I find it challenging to write without material that offers an underlying framework. Therefore, I decided to practice writing book reviews to overcome this obstacle, but ultimately, I would like to progress towards originality.

I have found a correlation between how much effort I put into writing a post and how well people receive it and engage with it. This offers a feedback loop, a crucial component of deliberate practice [? · GW]. To get feedback, write and share.

The posts that become curated [? · GW] on LessWrong tend to have the following (non-exhaustive) characteristics:

  • Intellectual labour has gone into creating them.
  • Offering a precise/constrained understanding of something I had vague intuitions about.
  • Explaining the cognitive process transparently instead of merely stating conclusions.

I don't think there is a secret sauce other than learning and practising.

answer by philh · 2021-12-03T23:40:04.719Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I've published 5-10 such essays, depending how you count, and... maybe all but one of them? can be traced back in part to reddit comment sections.

Reading a comment, disagreeing with it, noticing a pattern with a bunch of other comments I've disagreed with - oh, I don't think there's a name for this pattern - I'm gonna call it the Sally-Anne fallacy. (Re originality: I don't fully remember, I think the link between the fallacy and the Sally-Anne test came from a friend of mine.)

Finding myself spending way too much time in dumb arguments, thinking about how to avoid that, coming up with a tactic for it.

Wanting to weigh in on an argument, finding that I didn't like the social dynamics if I tried, thinking about what's up with that and how to improve the dynamics.

I don't know if this sort of thing is how others do it, but that's where a lot of my inspiration seems to come from.

answer by ChristianKl · 2021-12-01T21:29:00.134Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

While it's not about Scott's writing style in particular but about another LessWrong user https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/ndHmbz9tyEgc88oiP/how-to-write-like-kaj-sotala [LW · GW] is an indepth investigation into how Kaj Sotala writes his articles which are generally well received.

16 comments

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comment by Morpheus · 2021-12-01T16:05:00.012Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting! I am not quite sure what exactly you want to point towards. For example, I've been very impressed when people like Elizier or Scott came up with concept handles for things like Generalization from Ficional Evicence [LW · GW]. But I am not sure this is the kind of "original thought" you mean.

Can you give 1 example of a train of thought in a post that impressed you in a way that you didn't feel like you could produce something qualitatively similar? Or do you feel like this would be hard to do because the kind of "originality" your talking about is more expressed in how it fits into the overarching worldview of a person? Or something else?

comment by philh · 2021-12-03T23:11:43.998Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

most of these thoughts are something they just came up with, not something they have learned elsewhere.

Note that there's some pressure on authors to make it seem like this even when it's not. For one thing it makes them seem smarter, and for another it's easier to make the text flow better. (Especially if the source isn't "I learned this from this specific person and you can read their book here" but "I picked this up from various conversations with people whose names I don't remember".) I expect if you could see how the sausage was made it would seem less original than it does now. That's not to accuse anyone of deliberately hiding their sources, and it's not even necessarily a bad thing. (Note that flow is good and irrelevant info is bad.)

I think EY's admitted that the sequences come across more original than they are, and I think Scott recently wrote a note like "the worms hypothesis from my last post is not original to me".

comment by MondSemmel · 2021-12-02T11:54:30.594Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For another facet of practicing creativity, check out the Babble and Prune sequence [? · GW] if you haven't seen it yet. I particularly liked this [? · GW] and this [? · GW] post.

comment by Pattern · 2021-12-01T19:43:22.314Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

1. There's nothing wrong with doing research.

2. Even if there was one trick that worked, it might take a while to explain. Both of them might have writing advice.

3. What do you want to write about?

comment by Viliam · 2021-12-01T15:18:41.359Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can teach, I can write short fiction, but can't write this type of essays either.

My problem is that teaching and fiction seem like opposites. Fiction is just some random bullshit, written in an entertaining way. Teaching is like solving a puzzle. Fiction does not require any special knowledge (on reader's side). Teaching, at best, is tailored to student's current knowledge, so the first step is to figure out what your student already knows and knows not.

In an essay, you kinda do all of this at the same time. You have a topic, you make some funny sidenotes, but don't lose the main topic. You expect your audience to already know some basic things, to already think in certain ways (to accept a certain type of argument). You aim to be technically correct, but to keep a conversational style.

I find this somewhat easier to do when talking than when writing. At least, when I say something, I can't take it back anymore; I have to continue. When I start writing, you will usually find me one hour later, still revising the first sentence of the first paragraph. (So, maybe, talk and record yourself at home?)

comment by shminux · 2021-12-01T08:37:47.210Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But gun to my head - I can't seem to just sit down and make up an original non-fiction essay worthy of Less Wrong

With a gun to your head you would. It's amazing what the right motivation can do.

Replies from: lumenwrites
comment by lumenwrites · 2021-12-01T09:36:43.850Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

While I'd rather not test this empirically, I think I'm feeling pretty motivated to do this, and yet I can't. I'd really like to solve this issue without resorting to hiring a professional assassin on myself.

Replies from: Pattern
comment by Pattern · 2021-12-01T19:47:39.230Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are there any writing contests? (Those might not go around putting gun to people's heads, but:

They might offer rewards.

Have prompts or guidelines.

Places that do that sort of thing might also offer resources to help, or be affiliated with such.)

comment by rsaarelm · 2021-12-02T05:27:14.169Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You seem to be asking how you can deliberately and effortfully practice your writing. Did Scott and Paul Graham get to where they are by deliberately and effortfully practicing their writing? Are there people like them who did? One thing that has stuck in my mind from an old Paul Graham essay:

One of the most dangerous illusions you get from school is the idea that doing great things requires a lot of discipline. Most subjects are taught in such a boring way that it's only by discipline that you can flog yourself through them. So I was surprised when, early in college, I read a quote by Wittgenstein saying that he had no self-discipline and had never been able to deny himself anything, not even a cup of coffee.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-12-02T11:41:30.762Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Did Scott and Paul Graham get to where they are by deliberately and effortfully practicing their writing? 

Scott did a bachelors in philosophy where they taught him how to write philosophic essays. 

If I look at an early article of Scott like https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/Cq45AuedYnzekp3LX/you-may-already-be-a-sinner [LW · GW] I also believe that Scott's writing quality improved by practice. His writing is now much clearer.

Replies from: rsaarelm
comment by rsaarelm · 2021-12-03T12:04:23.072Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This doesn't really answer the core question about deliberate effort. University education is pretty hit and miss in terms of teaching you how to write well, most people who graduated with a philosophy bachelor's probably can't write like Paul Graham. Scott improving over time might also be just a matter of him liking to write and compulsively writing a lot and thinking about his writing, without ever really making a complex training for improving or putting particular effort into focusing on writing when he would rather be doing something else. Also, he already had his whole medical degree that was a thing you put actual effort into even if you don't feel like it going on at the same time.

To spell it out in more detail, right now I don't actually know if the "maybe I don't really feel like doing this right now but if I make myself do deliberate practice on it every day I will eventually be great" default script works at all. The feeling I get from the Paul Graham essay and from Scott's Lottery of fascinations is that in a power distribution environment on an open-ended task (science, business, essay-writing, yes, chess, tennis, violin-playing, no) the people who end up as the visible top talent have some significant degree of inherent effortlessness in how they practice the thing everyone's trying to be good at.

If you're looking at things from the viewpoint where you see the top of the power distribution, "I want to learn how to write essays like Paul Graham and Scott Alexander", and you assume you can get there with deliberate effort when you don't have the significant initial effortlessness, the first question to ask is if this is even possible, and the mainstream "just believe in yourself" middlebrow culture really doesn't want this question to be asked.

More generally, I'm poking at a general pattern where the implicit idea of "you could do it if you just expended more effort" for any value of "it" is a broken mental pattern without the sort of nonobvious caveats I was just spelling out, and swallowing it as is can lead to lots of mental unwellness where it starts transforming into "you are feeling bad because you haven't hurt yourself enough yet".

Replies from: Morpheus
comment by Morpheus · 2022-01-19T17:43:06.361Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've thought more about this recently, and one problem I have with this is that the open-ended tasks make it also really hard to tell how many levels above you someone is. I can easily accept that I won't ever be the best chess player, not only because it does not seem important, but also because it is pretty clear to tell that there is a long road between where I am now and where I would have to be. My mind has a harder time accepting that I won't be Scott Alexander by tomorrow, not only because it is more useful to be good at writing, but also because I don't know how long the road ahead is going to be.