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Writing Tips

I wrote some incomplete tips on writing well and making the writing more suitable for receiving criticism.

  1. Clarity – people need to understand what your idea is to criticize it. And avoid hedges and try to boldly stick your neck out. People often make their ideas fuzzier with a bunch of maybes which makes it less clear and harder to criticize.

  2. Permalinks – if people can’t find your writing, or can’t link to it on their own site, that really discourages responses.

  3. Organizing the writing – use named sections, bullet points, summaries, bold and italics, and links and footnotes to more details. And make different sections more self-contained and independent (like loose coupling in programming. so that e.g. someone can skim ahead, and still understand that section. Lots of writing assumes you read everything and read it in order, and most of the stuff that breaks if you don’t follow that reading pattern is unnecessary.

  4. Easy to read – simple sentence and paragraph structure, less punctuation, simple words, short sentences, short paragraphs. Avoid back-references (including limiting pronoun use. and out-of-order content. The easier to skim or read at high speeds with speed reading software or techniques, the better for all readers. Don’t use a thesaurus. Do keep repeating the same word over and over every time you want to refer to the same concept.

  5. Most blog comments and forums are moderated. I would provide a lot more feedback and criticism outside my own forums if it would actually show up. Lots of sites simply don’t approve critical comments, or don’t approve comments on old posts, or stop getting new content and don’t bother to approve any comments. Lots of sites also disable comments on old posts. Sites which are different need to clearly communicate this. But you can read the comment policy pages on tons of sites and find stuff like this which I ran into a couple days ago:

http://slatestarcodex.com/comments/

Among other problems, if you write the phrase “fake news” or “gamergate” your comment is automatically deleted. And GregQ got banned for debating gender bias in the tech industry (no reason for the ban was stated, but that was what he did).

So many sites just silently prevent posting that I often don’t even try.

  1. Be responsive to questions. Critics often need to ask for some clarifications and sources before they can explain their criticism to you. If you don’t respond to the initial phases of discussion before the critic provides significant value, that often prevents getting to the later phases where they could provide more value.

  2. Be clear about when you change your mind/position. State it and say why. And be clear about what you did and didn’t change your mind about. People often partially change their mind in discussions, without giving credit or thanks, and without being clear about what they are and aren’t changing about their position. If you decide you made a mistake, directly acknowledge it instead of trying to divert attention elsewhere.

  3. Explain stuff and talk about arguments and reasoning, rather than asserting stuff or appealing to authority.

  4. Try to write material that is reusable in the future. E.g. make it more canonical, more high quality so that it’s worth remembering and re-using, more focused on key issues instead of the quirks of a particular discussion, etc

  5. Put your ideas in writing. If you have a video or audio recording instead, and you think it’s important and serious and you want criticism, then provide a transcript. Writing has many advantages including being better for critics to quote.

  6. write and think in an objective, neutral way, not a biased-for-your-conclusion way.

  7. say things you would accept as a refutation of your idea, current unsolved problems, sources of potential error, etc

  8. write impersonally about ideas instead of people, especially people you're in a discussion with. talk about "the idea that..." instead of "your idea" or "John's idea". avoid "you".


a good thing to keep in mind for lots of writing is to clearly say:

  1. what problem you’re addressing

  2. for longer pieces, discuss previous attempts to solve the problem and what’s wrong with them

  3. what your idea is and specifically how it solves the problem


Elliot Temple on August 23, 2017

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