Writing Essays

Collected quotes and advice on writing non-fiction. Especially about essays.

Advice from Paul Graham

Trying, by Paul Graham

To understand what a real essay is, we have to reach back into history again, though this time not so far. To Michel de Montaigne, who in 1580 published a book of what he called “essais.” He was doing something quite different from what lawyers do, and the difference is embodied in the name. Essayer is the French verb meaning “to try” and an essai is an attempt. An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.

Figure out what? You don’t know yet. And so you can’t begin with a thesis, because you don’t have one, and may never have one. An essay doesn’t begin with a statement, but with a question. In a real essay, you don’t take a position and defend it. You notice a door that’s ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what’s inside.

If all you want to do is figure things out, why do you need to write anything, though? Why not just sit and think? Well, there precisely is Montaigne’s great discovery. Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That’s why I write them.

In the things you write in school you are, in theory, merely explaining yourself to the reader. In a real essay you’re writing for yourself. You’re thinking out loud.

Writing a Blog

Tom Critchlow on “You’re not Blogging and that’s a Problem”

“So what’s the lesson here? Blog on topics you’re thinking about - but remember you don’t need to finish the thought to put the post live.

Here’s my best trick for writing blog posts. It’s simple: write a blog post, think about who cares about that topic, email it to them asking for their thoughts.

Could be an old boss, a friend, someone you met at a conference - it doesn’t matter. Write something they’d find interesting and email them a thoughtful email. Don’t send more than 5 of these per blog post.

it’s a great routine to get into because it forces you to write a blog post so that at least one person cares about it.

Advice from Monica Lent’s Blogging Newsletter

Examples of SEO catchy good titles for “React Router Typescript”:

She also mentions using the “keywords everywhere” chrome extension to evaluate keywords, and looking at adding about 10~20 longtail keywords.

TheSephist’s “How I Write”

Notes from How I Write, by @theSephist.

Usually, idea “sparks” are things like:

”[I will] keep it in my mental periphery so that the idea has the time and space to grow and snowball into something more interesting and meaty.”

He then goes on to discuss ‘expression callibration’, where he will usually collect material surrounding the idea he wants to write about (taking notes of relevant links, etc.) to then expand upon the topic and add adjacent ideas to it. He also discusses the idea and his thoughts on it with multiple smart people, to find the best fitting words to express it, the appropriate order for different points, and this way he can start thinking of a prototype of how he would write it down.

He writes an outline: a list of ideas in the order he wants to write about them.

“The rest is pretty straightforward drafting. I’ll just sit down and crank it out. At this point, if I’ve done my job right, it feels less like writing from scratch and more like filling in the blanks and expanding on existing ideas, because I’ve already figured out which topics I want to talk about, in what order, in what specific way, and I’ve marked it on my doc with headings.”

This approach to writing reminds me of the difference between generating text with an autoregressive transformer versus using diffusion-LM: In one you write one word/token at a time and can only look back, what’s written is written. In the other you roughly define how long your text is going to be, you start with a very noisy representation and polish it iteratively until you have a final product.

He mentions a thing that really contributes to his writing is: “Investing more time thinking about how to communicate an idea, rather than just settling on the first expression of it I think of”. I wonder if thinking of 3~5 ways to restate the main ideas of a post may help it sound better.

Advice From Google’s Content Policy (Yeah, really)

Linkbuilding for Small Businesses, Patio11

There is easily explainable value to linking to a post which is useful (“My readers will find this useful”), emotionally resonant (“Wow, this is emotionally resonant and I want to share this experience with other people”), well-written, funny, etc.

Linkbuilding for Small Businesses, Patio11

More Patio11:

This is very unfortunate to businesses, because it structurally inhibits value creation. Ideally, we want to create things we can keep. Your writing will, for the most part, favor timeless “evergreen” topics that will be equally relevant to your audience / potential customers years from now. (There’s a place in your business for seasonal promotions and announcements, of course, but that’s a relatively small portion of one’s ongoing writing efforts. Three years from now it will not matter whether the announcement of the 7th point release of your software was well-written or not.)

Extracts From Gwern’s About Page

I believe that someone who has been well-educated will think of something worth writing at least once a week; to a surprising extent, this has been true. (I added ~130 documents to this repository over the first 3 years.)

I am attempting to explain things to my future self, who is intelligent and interested, but has forgotten. What I am doing is explaining why I decided what I did to myself and noting down everything I found interesting about it for future reference. I hope my other readers, whomever they may be, might find the topic as interesting as I found it, and the essay useful or at least entertaining–but the intended audience is my future self.

I am attempting to explain things to my future self, who is intelligent and interested, but has forgotten. What I am doing is explaining why I decided what I did to myself and noting down everything I found interesting about it for future reference. I hope my other readers, whomever they may be, might find the topic as interesting as I found it, and the essay useful or at least entertaining–but the intended audience is my future self.

One of my personal interests is applying the idea of the Long Now. What and how do you write a personal site with the long-term in mind? We live most of our lives in the future, and the actuarial tables give me until the 2070–2080s.(…) It is a common-place in science fiction that longevity would cause widespread risk aversion. But on the other hand, it could do the opposite: the longer you live, the more long-shots you can afford to invest in. Someone with a timespan of 70 years has reason to protect against black swans—but also time to look for them.

Knowing your site will survive for decades to come gives you the mental wherewithal to tackle long-term tasks like gathering information for years, and such persistence can be useful—if one holds onto every glimmer of genius for years, then even the dullest person may look a bit like a genius himself. (Even experienced professionals can only write at their peak for a few hours a day).

As he writes more, the writing/research process becomes autocatalytic. He:

I originally used last file modification time but this turned out to be confusing to readers, because I so regularly add or update links or add new formatting features that the file modification time was usually quite recent, and so it was meaningless.

Source: Gwern’s About

Advice from Matt Might’s Blog

From Matt Might’s blog

“The secret to low-cost academic blogging is to make blogging a natural byproduct of all the things that academics already do.

Approach: Using a Note-Taking System as a Starting Point for Essays

Due to my love for note-taking systems (of which this very wiki is evidence), I collected a few quotes showing how some people leverage zettelkasten or personal wikis for essay writing. Related notes: Note-Taking Systems, Experiences with Digital Gardening.

Undirected Strategy

From Andy Matuschak’s Executable strategy for writing

As is, it works better with a Zettelkasten kind of note-taking space, but each separate note could be replaced with a new paragraph or header in a big note in a system like this personal wiki. Then I could maintain an “outline” folder for essays-to-be, where they could grow organically. This may start with my small ‘how to make a static site and host it on the web’ and grow slowly from there, as a growing place for posts before I publish them on my actual blog (or on this site’s blog, I guess).

Advice from ‘The Zettelkasten Method’, LeanAnki

From LeanAnki, Zettelkasten Method, I see he has this simple method for essay writing:

Of course an extra step would be ‘make sure you include actionable advice’. I like this approach, it’s simple and goes straight to the point. I like the way he combines it with note-taking/zettelkastening by linking zettels that have to do with the problem, and others that have to do with the solution.

This could be a way to write essays more freely, without being bound to the tutorial structure.

Advice from “The Zettelkasten Method”, LessWrong

From The ZettelKasten Method, LessWrong

“This idea of jotting down ideas while you’re out and about is very important. If you feel you don’t have enough ideas (be it for research, for writing fiction, for art – whatever) my first question would be whether you have a good way to jot down little ideas as they occur to you.”

Miscellaneous Advice and Methods

What is, what could be, call-to-action

This is the story structure behind every TED talk:

You can build this story arc in different lengths for different settings: the elevator pitch, the 15 minute explanation, the 1hr story.

Public Narrative

The public narrative has three steps, and is used a lot in speeches both in industry and Politics.

Writing to develop Abstraction

From Truth of Fact, Truth of Feeling

“Writing was not just a way to record what someone said; it could help you decide what you would say before you said it. And words were not just the pieces of speaking; they were the pieces of thinking. When you wrote them down, you could grasp your thoughts like bricks in your hands and push them into different arrangements. Writing let you look at your thoughts in a way you couldn’t if you were just talking, and having seen them, you could improve them, make them stronger and more elaborate.”

I love the idea of thoughts becoming persistent vs a thing that fades with human memory, and how that shaped future developments in history.

There is the sensation when writing a long piece, especially of non-fiction but I guess also in a novel, of moving around chapters, sections or paragraphs like they are self-supporting objects.

It is my opinion that we exercise a certain level of abstraction when dealing with a portion of a written text that is very similar to that which we apply to a method, class or module when we would restructure a big software project.

That is, being able to say ‘I will move the chapter on X nearer to the end, before the conclusion’ instead of having to hold the whole context and information of that chapter in your head to make the decision, is similar to knowing a certain function maps inputs to outputs in a way, without having to remember its exact implementation when deciding how to use it or where to put it.

Cicero and Rhetoric

Cicero, almost by the strength of his intellect and his oratorial skills alone, rose to the very pinnacle of Roman society. He wrote a lot about Rhetoric, and said that good rhetoric had three components: prove, delight and move.

“A clearly written work is one in which the reader knows, at all times, what the writer is writing about.
Brevity is the elimination of extraneous detail. In other words, brevity is saying only what is important.”

A quote for which I unfortunately lost the source.

Quintilian on writing

“Some, again, make the contrary practice their study, shunning and shrinking from all such charms… and approving nothing but what is plain, and humble, and without effort. Thus, while they are afraid that they might sometimes fall, they are always creeping on the ground.”

Advice from Steve Yegge (“You Should Write Blogs”)

Some of the stuff you write as part of your ordinary workday will be interesting and useful to others. All you need to do is keep an eye out for things you’ve written that might be worth publishing. Then the “I’m too busy” argument just evaporates, because it’s almost no effort to dump some document or email rant or whatever into your blog.

Steve Yegge - You Should Write Blogs

[Share on twitter]

24 Nov 2020 - importance: 7