Notes on writing advice: longer is better

For unknown reasons, articles about writing frequently viral on Hacker News and other smart sites despite having nothing to do with computers or science. Here are two recent examples:

The “Rules” of Writing
Advice For Aspiring Writers

Related to the wealth-individualism-intellectualism synthesis, writing combines individualism and intellectualism, which could explain the recent upsurge in popularity of writing, even among STEM people. Writing, especially creative writing and fiction, is very individualistic, almost to the point of being narcissistic, and showcases the merit and introspection of the author, as opposed to group efforts. In a society where everyone is being reduced to interchangeable cogs, writing is seen as way to stand out and hence boost one’s status.

I have argued that success at writing (in terms of viralnesss and other recognition) is even harder than advanced math, due to the complicated interplay of style, content, and reader tastes that makes some writing much more successful than others, but in a way that cannot be quantified (which is what makes it so hard). Also, most writing guides suck because what works for the author will not work for someone else, but also such guides focus too much on style and mechanics than the subtleties of what makes writing succeed or fail, and how reader tastes have evolved. Success at writing nowadays, unlike as recently as a decade ago, has less to do with style and substance and more to do with projecting competence. That is, one must first signal competence if one hopes to be successful. The reason why Terence Tao’s anti-Trump article “Is it common knowledge that anyone is fit to be US President” went viral despite having nothing to do with math was because he already established his credentials by being possibly the smartest mathematician alive. But also subtlety, nuance, and tact matters a lot too. In the past, one could just make a direct argument and have success, but that does not work anymore. You have to use puns, irony, in-jokes, (or in the case of Tao, axioms), and a conversational and circuitous tone, but also a sort of self-deprecating style, and you don’t want to argue too hard. You’re not making a legal case…you cannot just tell people, “this is how it is,” or even show them (but showing is almost always better than telling). Rather, you have to lead the reader down a windy path of anecdotes and dead-ends, where only the most persistent will make it to the end, which goes against the advice given by most writing guides, that say to be direct and avoid superfluous and hedging language.

Michael Batnick of Irrelevant Investor writes:

Make your point fast. The audience has the attention-span of a tsetse fly, so if you don’t hook ’em, they’re onto the next article.
Less is more. If you can condense a powerful message into five hundred words, you’ve got a reader in me.

If the strength and efficacy of writing is strictly and positively correlated with sparing the reader’s time, then the perfect piece of writing would be zero words, obviously, since you’re not costing the reader any time in not having to read anything. This is the problem with people who are held up as experts yet have no idea what they are talking about when their ideas are held to even the faintest scrutiny. Like evolution, the memetic propagation of bad advice online follows a similar pattern. As discussed in earlier articles, as evidenced by the huge viral success of Wait But Why and other examples of long-form journalism, longer is better. The reason is, although the typical reader is unlikely to slog though a rambling 5000-word exegesis in its entirely, the very fact the article is so long makes it seem like a substantive piece of work worthy of one’s attention (again, signaling), so that means more total readers and more viralness even if most readers don’t finish. Second: smartly-written, long articles are more likely to be shared by those invaluable high-IQ people who hold the keys to viralness, who have access to large social networks on Facebook and Twitter that average-IQ people don’t have (this is because, like wealth, social status is positively correlated with IQ). In other words, a high-IQ reader is worth much more than an average IQ one, so one better write for them in mind.

As for the objection that high-IQ readers are insubstantial enough in terms of quantity to matter, again, the success of sites such as Less Wrong, Unqualified Reservations (before it stopped updating), Wait But Why, Slate Star Codex, Shtetl Optimized, Marginal Revolution, Reference Frame, Not Even Wrong, Back Reaction, and dozens of other examples, is evidence a site catered to even the smartest, most discriminating of readers and covering the most complicated and esoteric of subjects, can be a success (not relative to TMZ or Vice, but enough to make a side income as a publisher and get a lot of status). In fact, paradoxically, smarter writing and smarter, more esoteric topics can be more successful than mainstream topics. Although mainstream topics such as personal finance and weight loss have more total traffic, there is vastly more competition and less reader loyalty. I guarantee when Scott wrote his viral “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup” article, which was shared over 10,000 times on Facebook, it got way more hits than the typical weight loss article (but the weight loss article would have monetized its traffic better though). This is also further evidence of how important HBD really is, even for things that nothing do with biology or sociology, such as writing.

But that’s not to say short-form writing cannot succeed. A notable example is the article I’m a neoliberal. Maybe you are too, which went viral despite its workmanship-like style and being in a list format. However, because short form is much more common than long form, long form may be necessary to stand out.

Don’t send your stuff to people you hope will share it, at least not in the beginning. Send it to family and friends for critiquing, but you only have one shot with a stranger, so make it count.

But the problem is close acquaintances are the least likely to give unbiased feedback. You have one shot with a stranger, but, guess what, there are billions of strangers. Because rejection rates are so high, it’s not uncommon for authors to send out the same manuscript to dozens or even a hundred or more publishers or agents.

Be patient. Don’t worry if you’re not an overnight success. It certainly didn’t happen for me that way.

Yes, like anyone actually goes into this expecting overnight success.

If your writing is good, it will get found. Look at my friend Nick Maggiulli for example. In just one year, he’s cultivated a dedicated following. I read every word he writes.

How? All authors go through publishers. Some use Amazon self-publishing, but that requires promotion too. Given that hundreds of thousands of books are published every year, promotion of some form is a necessity. Even Tyler Cowen, hugely influential economist and owner of the massively popular blog Marginal Revolution, still has to promote his new books on podcasts and other outlets.

I’ve never sat at a blank screen and wondered what to write about.

That’s cause your mind is blank.

This guy is quite a pinhead. On to the next.

Many guides say too to just write, and to keep writing, and that the more you write, the better you will become. I never liked this answer because doing something over and over again doesn’t lead to mastery, and there are many writers who keep writing and writing and never attain success, either due to poor technique or other factors. As the overused expression goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Overall, creative writing has a huge subjective element to it. You can take two pieces of identical writing and get entirely different responses by changing variables such as the author or the audience. Michael Crichton famously demonstrated this when he turned in an essay to his professor that he copied from Orwell and still got a ‘C’ (in order to demonstrate that his professor was intentionally giving him low marks). An essay under the nom de plume an influential person is likely to receive more acclaim than the same essay by someone unknown. Why is 50 Shares of Gray so successful even though it is stylistically poor? Why do so many competent writers struggle to get recognition? A lot of randomness.

it depends on:

-audience,and the expectation of the audience

-the expectation of the agent and publisher

-the role of the editor

-societal tastes and mores

-how much promotion the author does, and or the author’s connections

Skill, however, is less important. Active vs. passive voice or ‘show don’t tell’ is not hat important.

Being a competent writer means one can probably make a living ghostwriting or writing sales copy, but it’s not enough to be influential.

It’s easier to give a postmortem of why something is successful than to successfully replicate it, even if one knows the rules. Winning the lottery for example requires merely matching the correct numbers, but obviously that is very hard to do.