Improving My Writing Style

post by orthonormal · 2011-10-11T16:14:40.907Z · score: 6 (9 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 33 comments

I've written quite a lot here since Less Wrong started up, but I've started to suspect that my writing style is holding me back. Most recently, I wrote two sequences that seemed to garner widespread agreement on content/significance/originality but didn't really seem to excite anyone, which is a pretty clear signal that my style has been hobbling my ideas. So, as I'd promised to do (albeit a few weeks later than I'd expected), I'm trying to improve myself as a writer, and I need your help.

I'm declaring Crocker's Rules on the subject, and I'd like help with both diagnosis and treatment. Let me know, as precisely as you can, what's problematic in my writing, or what you think the root causes might be, or what you think might help me to fix my issues. I'll list what I've thought of so far in a comment below (so that you can make your own suggestions without anchoring issues).

Links to my recent major posts:

Consequentialism Need Not Be Nearsighted

Qualia sequence: Part I, Part II, Part III

And now an odd counterexample: I wrote this post quickly for Discussion, without thinking too much or editing at all, and then it got promoted and was received enthusiastically. That may just be the subject matter, or it may signify that the time I spend editing posts makes them worse...

33 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by lavalamp · 2011-10-11T16:59:36.565Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

In the consequentialism piece, one of your examples illustrating consequentialism refers to TDT. I think examples need to be simpler than the point you're trying to make--referencing more complicated ideas should be avoided if possible. Of course, nearly everyone here will understand you, but we wouldn't be able to link our facebook friends to the piece; there's too much of an inferential gap. Writing is more powerful when the examples are viscerally obvious.

Your point was fairly simple and should be understandable by anyone who knows what consequentialism is, but the writing was probably understandable only to LW readers. You don't need to supply a level 10 argument in the first post introducing a level 5 point, just because it's written for level 10 readers; doing so makes it inaccessible for level 4 readers who otherwise would be able to appreciate a level 5 point. It's OK to wait for people to actually object before answering their objections.

ETA: You have to ruthlessly go through your writing and remove everything in it that doesn't take your reader to your conclusion in a direct, easily understandable route. This may mean not saying something that you really want to say. This is hard for me. Only very high-level writers can reliably pull off meandering or non-direct routes to their points.

comment by orthonormal · 2011-10-14T22:19:54.404Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is an excellent critique. Thanks!

comment by [deleted] · 2011-10-12T01:45:10.008Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Read these:

comment by orthonormal · 2011-10-14T23:00:11.888Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the links- each of them is helpful.

The first one helped me recognize that my post writing is too optimized for coming across as high-status (too much jargon, esoteric vocabulary and wordplay) as compared to communicating simply. The second one is just good to remember, and the third is completely awesome.

comment by Teal_Thanatos · 2011-10-12T02:27:01.231Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

In Reference to "Consequentialism Need Not Be Nearsighted"

Let's start with the word Simple. It's in the first two words of the opening sentence of your post. Remove it, please don't use it again. You've just set up the entire post to automatically fail a percentage of readers who will be (now) emotionally impacted by failure to understand any section of your post. Even if it is understood after a moment or hours reflection, the self-shame brought on by this single word will reduce your chances to gain positive karma.

This word is used four times. This may be four times too many.

Next, you've used an example that 'many' saw through. What is many, how did you decide many have done this? by what cause do you have to decide that the people who post replies indicating they saw through it are the majority?

Why put in reflections (or praise) to a segment if it's going to exclude a large portion of your audience, you seem to be limiting the article to those who've already succeeded at finishing your previous article.

In your fifth paragraph you introduce names, Defectbots and CliqueBots. This information is used once in the footnotes. It's not really useful and shades the article by personalizing it. When Kibitzing is off and no names are beside the post, this seems to be a little...wrong. Your personalization of the article destroys the detachment of it's content, making it more about you and less about the content, this could narrow the field of people

So, in conclusion. to me, when you are writing, I am excluded because I have not immediately grasped everything in your article at once, I am excluded for a second time for not reading your previous article (And then, not seeing the catch on it straight away) and finally, for a final exclusion for caring about the content and not about you.

I hope this has helped.

comment by orthonormal · 2011-10-14T23:02:41.017Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, my idea of the audience must have defaulted to the people I interact most with here, and they're kind of the top contributors, so that caused a big distortion. I won't do that next time.

comment by Teal_Thanatos · 2011-10-17T23:17:29.288Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

:) I look forward to reading it.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2011-10-11T16:51:54.365Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW
  • Consequentialism posts were communicating a simple idea with a complicated technical example (that is not even well-understood, strictly speaking). Thus target audience is probably too small, people either already have the idea, or don't understand the example.
  • Qualia sequence seemed substantially confused to me (on the relevance-of-arguments level, I'm not saying I can pinpoint anything technically wrong in it). I'm not even sure if there is a way of recovering a clear argument from it.

So I expect it's not a matter of writing style for these posts.

comment by orthonormal · 2011-10-14T22:17:59.117Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Ouch, thanks.

comment by atucker · 2011-10-12T00:27:26.181Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Most popular articles directly prescribe relevant things to do in your day to day life.

Yours don't really.

The Qualia sequence is pretty much correct, but I feel like it was a bit drawn out. The agent networks are interesting, but I think that you could get most of the (directly relevant to qualia) information out of the idea that there's a particular neural activation pattern for red that you can't activate through learning lots of things about how humans perceive red.

If that pattern was standard between humans, you could probably get a congenitally blind person to see red through transcranial magnetic stimulation, or sufficient LSD. Or other hallucinogens.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2011-10-12T05:56:38.128Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Proscribe may mean the opposite of what you intend (prescribe).

comment by atucker · 2011-10-12T06:37:41.147Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Heh, true.

While some popular posts are pretty harsh on a particular behavior, they don't seem to condemn the idea of relevance.

comment by orthonormal · 2011-10-14T22:23:20.090Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The Qualia sequence is pretty much correct, but I feel like it was a bit drawn out. The agent networks are interesting, but I think that you could get most of the (directly relevant to qualia) information out of the idea that there's a particular neural activation pattern for red that you can't activate through learning lots of things about how humans perceive red.

Thanks. I do still think that some discussion of conscious/unconscious minds is needed for explaining why colors feel ineffable (and why it seems an equivocation to ask whether Mary learned something), but I probably could have taken a simpler first pass...

comment by Craig_Heldreth · 2011-10-12T20:39:14.069Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This document is short: Scrutiny of the Introduction. It is advice on making your writing presentable from a guy who has published ten books, a couple hundred journal articles, and directed 40 PhD students. You might find it helpful.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-10-11T17:53:50.162Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Here is how I would have edited the first three paragraphs of your post on consequentialism:

The simple idea that we ought to choose actions according to their probable consequences, ever since it was formulated, has garnered a rather shocking amount of dissent. Part of this may be due to causes other than philosophical objections, and some of the objections get into the metaphysics of metaethics. But there's a fair amount of opposition on rather simple grounds: that consequentialist reasoning appears to endorse bad decisions, either in the long run or as an effect of collective action.

Consequentialism, the simple idea that we ought to select among our possible actions according to their probable consequences, has garnered a surprising amount of criticism ever since it was first proposed. As lukeprog discusses here, some of these objections are likely to be mere superficial rationalisations of intuitive moral judgements, which are easily dispensed with in the philosophical arena. Other objections may be metaphysical in nature; needless to say, most Lesswrongians would consider metaphysical objections to a metaethical principle, or indeed any metaphysical argument, to be a priori incoherent. However, a significant proportion of opponents of consequentialism argue that consequentialist reasoning appears to endorse bad decisions, in the long term and when multiple consequentialist agents produce collective action; this criticism seems more worthy of our consideration.

Every so often, you'll hear someone offer a reductio ad absurdum of the following form: "Consider dilemma X. If we were consequentialists, then we would be forced to choose Y. But in the long run (or if widely adopted) the strategy of choosing Y leads to horrible consequence Z, and so consequentialism fails on its own terms."

Occasionally, a critic will offer a reductio ad absurdum of the following form: “Consider dilemma X. Consequentialists are forced to choose strategy Y to deal with the dilemma. But in the long run or if widely adopted, strategy Y leads to horrible consequence Z, therefore consequentialism fails on its own terms.

There's something fishy about the argument when you lay it out like that: if it can be known that the strategy of choosing Y has horrible consequence Z, then why do we agree that consequentialists choose Y? In fact, there are two further unstated assumptions in every such argument I've heard, and it is those assumptions rather than consequentialism on which the absurdity really falls. But to discuss the assumptions, we need to delve into a bit of decision theory.

This argument seems suspect. If a consequentialist knows in advance that strategy Y is likely to produce horrible consequence Z, then why should we expect him to choose strategy Y? In fact such an argument relies on two unstated assumptions, and since I believe these assumptions to be invalid the argument fails to refute consequentialism. In order to discuss these assumptions, we will need to delve into a bit of decision theory.

Some of this is just my preferred way of phrasing things. In other places I do feel that it's an improvement (for example, "if it can be known" is passive voice, which is generally considered to be both dull and unclear in comparison to active voice, therefore only to be used if there's a good reason to do so).

comment by lincolnquirk · 2011-10-14T13:16:19.148Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Ooh, my turn to try a rewrite of the first paragraph.

Consequentialism: "We should choose actions based on their probable consequences."

Ever since that idea was formulated, it has earned a surprising amount of criticism. The most interesting objections are ones which argue that consequentialist reasoning appears to endorse bad decisions, either in the long run or as an effect of collective action.

comment by prase · 2011-10-11T21:13:29.184Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I like the original version slightly more, mainly because of the first paragraph which is significantly longer in the edited version without saying more or being clearer. I regard the rejection of passive voice as quite an arbitrary norm; "if it can be known" is bad, but it is because "can" is superfluous there rather than because of the passive voice.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-10-11T21:54:40.309Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I regard the rejection of passive voice as quite an arbitrary norm

Feel free, but it is not arbitrary as I understand the word, because justifications are attached: generally speaking passive voice is dull to read, and passive voice obscures reality.

mainly because of the first paragraph which is significantly longer in the edited version without saying more or being clearer

It does say more. The content of the link is actually explained, clarifying things for people who don't like to follow links (perhaps because they tend to end up with millions of tabs and hours wasted) and saving time and mental energy for the rest. The mention of "metaphysics of metaethics" is just thrown out there in the original - this might be sort of OK for a purely Lesswrongian audience, but it's confusing to readers who aren't able easily to guess the author's opinion on metaphysical arguments*.

Although less problematic, I'm not keen on "rather shocking" or the use of the word dissent. "Dissent" implies that consequentialism is dogma, and "rather shocking" is a borderline oxymoron; the word "shocked" suggests to me a necessarily extreme emotion or state of mind.

*OK I did say "needless to say". But that's really just a bunch of syllables, the kind one includes to (hopefully) improve the rhythm of a sentence.

comment by prase · 2011-10-12T11:25:31.348Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

"Dull to read" is a subjective evaluation I don't share. Moreover, it is exactly the sort of justification which is given (1) to arbitrary norms. When people are told (2) that they shouldn't do X, they easily convince themselves that X feels dull, even if there wouldn't be such a feeling without the (arbitrary) social norm. I don't know for certain whether this is the case of the passive voice, but I am generally skeptical about subjective justifications of existing norms.

As for obscuring reality and the Orwell's essay, see Vladimir_M's comment and the links included therein. One of the more interesting points is that the critics of passive voice generally don't use passive voice less often than the rest of the writers. Maybe I have been careful in this comment and thus am not entirely fair, but I have used passive constructions twice (numbered above) in positions where the active alternative would be much longer, while in the parent comment you have put three instances of passive voice ("justifications are attached", "link is explained", "mention is thrown"; two of them only to spare a short personal pronoun "I").

"Metaphysics of metaethics" is indeed confusing for me, but I usually don't understand anything containing the word "metaphysics", so I am not sure whether the alternative is any better. I agree with your objection to "shocking" and, to a lesser extent, "dissent". No problem with "needless to say".

comment by HumanFlesh · 2011-10-12T12:57:40.596Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I found this discussion of the passive voice helpful.

comment by prase · 2011-10-12T14:16:38.402Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

My objection to this class of stylistic advices is that they use tricky arguments to prove their point. Usually the authors choose an extraordinarily ugly piece of text (or even make it up, as is probably the case with the description of bicycles in your link) that abounds in the word or grammatical category they despise and want to argue against, then reformulate it in normal language, taking care to avoid the undesired thing, then pretend having proven a general rule that the despised part of language never should be used, save of course few exceptions which they rarely bother explicitly describing. The readers see two pieces of text, one ugly and one readable, and usually accept that the ugliness is caused by the expression they are advised to purge from their writing (which is even not always the case) and that the less they use it, the better (which doesn't follow).

Good writing is not achieved by avoiding everyday expressions and regularly used grammatical features. There are things to be avoided in writing or speech, for sure. But if you are going to ban the most frequent verb which also plays the role of copula and is part of passive and progressive constructions, you are constraining the expressive power of the language, limiting the effectivity of communication, and even making your writing harder to read. It has as much sense as saying you should never use the prepositions "in" and "on"; certainly you can rewrite any text so that the rule is satisfied - and since you are forced to search for alternatives interesting and novel expressions may appear as a by-product - but ultimately, because of artificial limits you have put on yourself, you are not free to say exactly what you want to say.

comment by HumanFlesh · 2011-10-12T16:09:33.973Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You are right. However, I don't think the advice was meant to be used to evaluate weather or not a given essay is boring. I found it helpful because it provided a simple rule that I used to change my writing habits. I had a vague sense that some of my sentences were stilted, but I didn't know how to remedy that problem. Not everyone will get the same utility from creative restrictions, but I find them inspiring.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-10-12T13:48:14.457Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Upvoted for precise thinking.

I agree that part of the problem with "if it can be known" is that "if it be known" is strictly superior.

On the other hand, an important fact in the critic's argument is that the consequentialist agent knows that strategy Y leads to horrible consequence Z. If he is simply unaware of this fact (but "it be known" by other people), then we would be entirely unsurprised to see him choose strategy Y - he is still a consequentialist, just a misinformed one - so no argument materialises.

Therefore I think that the use of active voice is clearer in this instance, because passive voice obscures the distinction between our knowing that strategy Y leads to horrible consequence Z, and the hypothetical consequentialist in question knowing this. Admittedly this distinction is not difficult to infer in the original piece, but numerous small inclarities can add up to make tedious prose.

On reflection, what you have said about the passive voice in general is true. Misuse of the passive voice to obscure agency when agency is politically or socially important is Orwellian; passive voice in general does not necessarily obscure anything.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2011-10-12T06:01:30.266Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Passive constructions change the focus. Sometimes they're better. It's only when they're used to obfuscate lack of specific evidence that I object. It's advised to mix in some passives when describing research, at least.

comment by Desrtopa · 2011-10-12T15:25:16.017Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Feel free, but it is not arbitrary as I understand the word, because justifications are attached: generally speaking passive voice is dull to read, and passive voice obscures reality.

Passive voice is not necessarily any more obscure than active. You convey the same information with the statement "Z has been Yed by X" as with the statement "X Yed Z." As it happens, this is the argument that Jonathan_Graehl used when I advocated revising to use active voice. If you carry the assumption that passive voice is vague or obscure, it can lead you to simply not notice passive constructions that are precise.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2011-10-11T23:52:47.872Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

it is not arbitrary as I understand the word, because justifications are attached

(Justifications don't matter at all, they can only communicate the reasons, which would be the same even in the absence of justification.)

comment by shokwave · 2011-10-12T02:41:50.580Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I regard the rejection of passive voice as quite an arbitrary norm

All things equal, prefer active - but if there is any benefit to using passive voice (eg the sentence is a few words shorter), things aren't equal, so use passive! I think that the voice being changed between active and passive helps make a sentence flow, but I've never read anything enlightening on the matter.

comment by Kevin · 2011-10-12T11:45:10.324Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe you should read more writings worth imitating? Try reading regularly from http://longform.org/ and watch for how the prose is entertaining.

comment by orthonormal · 2011-10-11T16:18:59.156Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Problems I Think I Have:

  • I over-formalize things.
  • I feel a need to anticipate and answer every possible objection, and so I lose the ability to say something simply the first time around.
  • I write overly convoluted sentence structures.

Possible Remedies:

  • I might be able to do NaNoWriMo, which would certainly train me to do without over-editing.
  • I've been wanting to do an FAQ on some issue that's very basic and brief at first, and only summons more material when you click on a sentence that you object to.
comment by r_claypool · 2011-10-11T18:03:09.375Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I write overly convoluted sentence structures.

YAKiToMe has helped me with this problem. Hearing the text as speech gives me a new perspective on what I have written; it makes the awkward stuff more obvious.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2011-10-12T06:04:09.859Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Is closing your eyes and listening to someone read a better test of intelligibility than reading aloud to yourself? I think so, in that it can be easier to fool yourself into thinking that you've understood something when you flyby-eyeball it.

comment by orthonormal · 2011-10-14T22:17:27.719Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm. On the one hand, I'd get pretty impatient with that really quickly, especially given how many words I use that wouldn't be in its dictionary. On the other hand, if it inspires me to err on the side of terse and simple English, that might be a good thing.

It does give me another good idea, though: I can print out a paper copy. With my academic papers, at least, I notice all sorts of things in print that I gloss over when it's on a screen.

comment by Armok_GoB · 2011-11-10T22:03:36.310Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

NOTE: My brain reacted way to much to the part about crockers rules, so I suspect I might be biased in a sadistic direction, but can't figure out how to compensate for it so I'll just leave that to you.

open posts in tabs

... Oooh, I remember these posts, as some of my absolute favourites as examples for everyone else (even possibly Eliezer himself) on how to write exiting, easy to understand posts!

... Well drat. But I guess this provides some evidence as well. Or maybe there was some kind of confused multi-directional cascade of attempted bias compensation in my brain that I didn't notice.

Edit: just now my brain made an association between the feeling inspired by your posts and the excitement I get when I'm about to enter a cage fight with some new exiting basilisk. This association could not be reproduced under controlled conditions.

At this point this post looks like nothing more than a verbose event log of my brain, rather than a comment on something.

Futher edit: After reading the rest of the thread I conclude I just have weird taste and my opinion probably shouldn't count.