May 22, 2022
Unoriginal writing is useful: Curating ideas is useful, even if the ideas themselves are unoriginal. It can amplify under-appreciated ideas, and reinforce useful ideas.
You likely underestimate the novelty of your ideas. Things can end up seeming obvious if you don’t write at the right moment.
There are no unique messages, only unique messengers
— Jadah Sellner
Your own ideas mostly seem trivial to you because you have the right concept structures in place to support them. You wouldn't come up with these ideas otherwise. So it's easier to notice your own ideas in a dialogue: your friend has different concept structures and notices them.— Gleb Posobin in NYC, let's meet! (@posobin) February 1, 2019
This concludes, for the moment, an off-the-cuff list of things which would otherwise be too obvious to bring up in conversation.— Patrick McKenzie (@patio11) December 1, 2017
Meta thought: you radically underestimate both a) how much you know that other people do not and b) the instrumental benefits to you of publishing it.
the ultimate guide to writing online by David Perell
“Writing-falls-into three buckets: (1) trivial things that everybody knows, (2) things that everybody knows, [but nobody around you knows], and you have a unique perspective on, and (3) stuff that nobody knows so you have to do tons of research. Direct your energy towards the second bucket.
Shipping your work is scary. Every time you send a tweet, publish a newsletter, or promote an essay, you expose yourself to criticism. But just like cycling, the pain of writing is worth it. Sharing your ideas is a radical act of self-respect.
— David Perell
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.
— Maya Angelou
Writing Is Like Thinking in First Gear
“Think on paper.” It’s like first gear for thinking: you go slower but can climb much steeper hills. — Blake Scholl
Expect 80% of the ideas in an article to come after you start writing it. — Paul Graham
On Classic Style
I love it when people describe writing a blog, or writing on the internet, as “popularizing” economics or something similar. That is a sign they don’t understand what is going on, that they don’t understand there is such a thing as “internet economics,” and also a sign they will not be effective competition. It’s really about “the internet way of writing and communicating” vs. non-internet methods. The internet methods may or may not be popular, and may or may not be geared toward a wide audience, so they are not the same as popularizing. One point of the internet is to find an outlet for super-unpopular material. What’s important right now is to develop internet methods of thinking and communicating, and not to obsess over reaching the largest possible numbers of people. — Tyler Cowen
The four hours I spent writing Seeing the Smoke on a whim were more impactful than projects I spent months of my life on. I calculated that if just 1% of the 20,000 people who read that post the week it came out avoided catching COVID and infecting others during a period when the curve was steepening, the post probably saved several lives. To learn that my post impacted policy for 67 million Britons is a whole other level of bonkers.
— Monastery and Throne by Putanumonit
Writing Online Is a High Impact Activity
- Even if nobody reads it, being able to send people a link to something you wrote on a topic is very valuable.
- Writing online enables serendipity and opportunity people interested in the same things stumble on your work and this may lead to -opportunities aligned with your interests.
- You become ‘known’ for the thing you write about and thought of as an expert.
- Writing helps you think more clearly and build reusable mental models
- Writing online helps demonstrate your ability to think well to others.
Writing online is a superpower.— David Perell (@david_perell) February 18, 2020
The Internet rewards people who think well, learn passionately, and share their best ideas. Here’s how you should think about writing online.
1. The Internet is the largest legal wealth creation tool in human history." — John Doerr
- POP: Personal Observational Playful. From David Perell’s Write of Passage podcast
- Write for Yourself
> Depending on the article, you can either write for yourself or one other person. Thinking about thousands of people at once will drive you crazy because you won’t know what to focus on. Don’t let a stadium of perspectives paralyze you. Pick one obsessive person to write for, and let them be a proxy for the kind of reader you want to attract. When I write for myself, I think about what I would’ve wanted to know six months ago. I focus on ideas that would’ve surprised me or saved me time. — David Perell
Content strategy, 101
- Find a topic you’ve learned a lot about in the last two years.
- Create content for your two-years-ago self.
- Best resources
- 80/20 one-pager
- Common misconceptions
- How you’ve changed since learning
Boom - you’ve built an audience.
How to Write Funny by Scott Dikkers:
- Mike Nelson (of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” fame) has written some very funny essays and books in this style. John Hodgman and Sarah Vowell use (Location 574)
- Satire’s masters are Kurt Vonnegut, Leonard Wibberley, Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, and other luminaries of Satire dating back to ancient Greece and Rome. One standout genius who only published one novel (posthumously) is John Kennedy Toole, whose Confederacy of Dunces is a masterpiece of English Satire. (Location 619)
- Subtext is the most important part of your writing. Jokes by themselves without much Subtext are a fun yet somewhat empty experience. As a writer, you have one mission: to communicate ideas to readers. Your Subtext is where those ideas are. They’re not in your literal text. Your literal text is merely the delivery medium—a UPS truck. What you want your readers to get is the precious cargo inside—the stuff they ordered. Those are the core ideas you want to communicate. (Location 696)
You’ve heard of microaggressions. Now try microhumor. It’s things that aren’t a joke in the laugh-out-loud told-by-a-comedian sense, but still put the tiniest ghost of a smile on your reader’s face while they’re skimming through them.
Here’s a paragraph from my “about” page:
Topics here tend to center vaguely around this meta-philosophical idea of how people evaluate arguments for their beliefs, and especially whether this process is spectacularly broken in a way that may or may not doom us all.
There are a couple of things here that might qualify as microhumor. Take “especially whether this process is spectacularly broken in a way that may or may not doom us all”. It’s not really a joke. If I were a comedian and recited that sentence, you wouldn’t start laughing. But it’s kind of funny to be starting with what sounds like a pretty dry academic idea (“how people evaluate arguments for their beliefs” and whether the process is broken), and then confound expectations with an exaggerated (well, maybe) warning about it dooming us all. The phrase “may or may not doom us all” does the same thing on a smaller scale: “may or may not” is a pretty reserved, careful sounding phrase, whereas “doom us all” is obviously the opposite of reserved (I also like the similar construction “it might have sort of kind of been the worst idea ever”).
You can actually go a long way toward microhumor just with hedge words (“vaguely”, “sort of”), exaggerations (“the worst thing ever”, “doom us all”), and sometimes the combination of the two.
I think this microhumor stuff is really important, maybe the number one thing that separates really enjoyable writers from people who are technically proficient but still a chore to read. Think about it with a really simplistic behaviorist model where you keep doing things that give you little bursts of reward, and stop doing things that don’t. There are only a couple of sources of reward in reading. One of them is getting important insights. Another is hearing things that support your ingroups or bash your outgroups. And a third — maybe the biggest — is humor. Who ever had trouble slogging through a really hilarious book of jokes?
Let's say there's something you really really like, a book or movie or tv show or podcast or even just another twitter account— Gretchen McCulloch (@GretchenAMcC) February 22, 2020
And you don't think enough other people are appreciating it
So you wanna fix that
This is an advice thread on how to write an effective rec tweet
The Variable Schedule Reward Zettelkasten. A strategy for Memexing Twitter (to get better ideas, and build new relationships)— Conor White-Sullivan 𐃏🇺🇸 (@Conaw) May 18, 2019
Writing down the bones
Write a 750 word stream of consciousness first thing in the morning
Learning to write effective notes is tricky because there is a long feedback loop. You are writing for your future self, so you have to wait for the future. Then when your future self has an insight about how to write better notes, you have to pass that forward to another future version of yourself when they are next writing notes.
I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one — Blaise Pascal
Consider the following proposition:
In a study measuring whether implicit attitudes determine an outcome, you need to make sure the implicit attitudes aren’t serving as accurate proxies for underlying fundamentals.
This is the thesis of one of my more popular posts, Perceptions Of Required Ability Act As A Proxy For Actual Required Ability, but I don’t present it like that. Instead, I start by saying:
Imagine a study with the following methodology. You survey a bunch of people to get their perceptions of who is a smoker (“97% of his close friends agree Bob smokes”). Then you correlate those numbers with who gets lung cancer. Your statistics program lights up like a Christmas tree with a bunch of super-strong correlations. You conclude “Perception of being a smoker causes lung cancer”, and make up a theory about how negative stereotypes of smokers cause stress which depresses the immune system. The media reports that as “Smoking Doesn’t Cause Cancer, Stereotypes Do”.
Whether or not you understood or agreed with the abstract version thesis, you (hopefully) find the problems with the nicotine example intuitively obvious. Now if I give you the principle “in a study measuring whether implicit attitudes determine an outcome, you need to make sure the implicit attitudes aren’t serving as accurate proxies for underlying fundamentals”, that principle makes sense and you will tend to agree with it. Now we can move on to harder problems, like the actual study in the post, where it’s not as obvious and where a lot of people thought they’d proven that the implicit attitude determined the outcome.
If you’re going to be making a complicated point, start with a concrete example. If you’re going to be making a very complicated point, start with a lot of concrete examples. When I wrote Meditations on Moloch, probably the most complicated point I’ve ever tried to express on this blog, I began with fourteen different examples before I even started trying to express the underlying principle. I hoped that readers would be able to triangulate my point by finding what all fourteen examples had in common, and most of them did.
This is related to an idea I keep stressing here, which is that people rarely have consistent meta-level principles. Instead, they’ll endorse the meta-level principle that supports their object-level beliefs at any given moment. The example I keep giving is how when the federal government was anti-gay, conservatives talked about the pressing need for federal intervention and liberals insisted on states’ rights; when the federal government became pro-gay, liberals talked about the pressing need for federal intervention and conservatives insisted on states’ rights.
So if you want to convince someone of a meta-level principle, you need to build it up from examples that support it. And if you want the principle to be well-founded and stable under reflective equilibrium, you also need to present the examples that don’t support it and explain why you didn’t make your principle out of those instead.
And if you want to convince somebody that their meta-level principle is wrong, the quickest and most effective way to do it is to show that it proves too much, then provide them with a better principle that preserves the things they want but doesn’t prove things they don’t want.
But my point is that all of this has to be done on the object-level, with the excursions to the meta-level level being few, far-between, and justified with extensive application to the object-level. Otherwise you’re too likely to shoot off into the entirely abstract and end up sounding like Hegel:
The good is the idea, or unity of the conception of the will with the particular will. Abstract right, well-being, the subjectivity of consciousness, and the contingency of external reality, are in their independent and separate existences superseded in this unity, although in their real essence they are contained in it and preserved. This unity is realized freedom, the absolute final cause of the world. Every stage is properly the idea, but the earlier steps contain the idea only in more abstract form. The I, as person, is already the idea, although in its most abstract guise. The good is the idea more completely determined; it is the unity of the conception of will with the particular will. It is not something abstractly right, but has a real content, whose substance constitutes both right and well-being.
Please don’t end up sounding like Hegel.
And a free tip for this: use words like “me” and “you” instead of “a person” or “someone”. Compare:
“If someone does the calculations with this methodology, the result will probably be nonsense.”
“If you do the calculations with that methodology, you’ll probably end up with nonsense.”
I think the second sounds snappier and more concrete.
You’ll produce better work by doing lots of it than trying to make it perfect. I’m often surprised by how much better I get at something just by doing it over and over again or using it lots (e.g. video games, Roam Research. It helps with developing intuition.
- The Ultimate Guide to Writing Online by David Perell
I’m reminded of a famous story about a ceramics class: On the first day, the teacher divided the class into two groups. The group on the left side would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, while the group on the right would be graded on quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A.” Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: works of the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”
10. Be prolific.— David Perell (@david_perell) February 18, 2020
The structure of the Internet rewards people who publish all the time. Each article you publish is like a permanent wingman for personal and career opportunities. The more you share, the more you invite serendipity into your life.
Inspired by @tylercowen
Rewrite a passage of about 1000 words. Keep going until you are down to thinking about one last teeny decision, like a specific word choice or a decision about whether or not to remove a comma. Be as OCD about it as you can be. How long did it take you to get there? If you hit comma-level diminishing marginal improvements in less than 4-5 hours, you are not an advanced writer. Assuming you do care about your skills and the ideas/story the passage was about, if you can’t sustain 4-5 hours of rewriting (remember, this is about 4000-5000 words of first-dump writing), it means you can’t see potential areas for improvements and/or don’t know how to execute those improvements. Rewriting is NOT tedious, brainless grunt-work. It’s actually what I call “first-dump writing” that is tedious brainless grunt-work. Rewriting takes skill. If you merely schedule 5 hours to do rewriting work on a 1000 word piece, and don’t have the skills to fill those 5 hours, you cannot log them. When you are starting out on your 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, you will initially only be able to achieve about 10% rewriting. As you improve, so will your rewrite capacity. I estimate that it will take a serious writer about 20 years to hit 10,000 rewrite hours at an average pace. If you start at age 13 (a typical age for discovering a love for writing) and go like crazy, you could be a skilled writer/word-thinker in 10 years. So yeah, you can “arrive” as young as age 23.
The Two Types of Rewrites If you actually tried the exercise, you probably noticed that some of your rewriting was about the ideas (including/excluding ideas, compressing them, clarifying them) and that some of it was about the language (word choice, sentence structure, paragraph breaks…) > The first kind is thinker-rewrites. It is about the accuracy of the content with respect to the pre-verbal ideas you are trying to capture. > The second kind is writer-rewrites. It is about the precision with which you express the ideas. At the level of typing you cannot tease them apart. It is a subconscious mix. > But at the deliberate learning level, you can. To become a better word-thinker, you have to constantly be reading (reading like a writer, in the sense of Francine Prose) about more complicated ideas from different domains and even other media. Programming and math can help, as can visual thinking. You should constantly be picking up intellectual tricks, clever metaphors and frames, interesting ways of dissolving dichotomies, subtle rhetorical devices. Things like that. I won’t say more about thinking-rewrites, since this question isn’t about becoming a better word-thinker (my book IS about that, hint hint). > So let me elaborate on what I have seen of the path I have not taken, to the extent that I can see ahead from the fork in the road.
Writer Rewrites To become a better writer, you have to read people with a much better ear for language itself. The range of suitable input material is much narrower. You may pick up some decent thinking tricks even from a bad writer/thinker like Thomas Friedman (his success is more due to his boundless energy and enthusiasm), but you will pick up no writing tricks. Great fiction, poetry and some very precise kinds of philosophical writing are what you need to consume. Screeplays and plays are great too. The key here is that all these types of writing impose severe constraints on form, so it makes sense that to work with these types, you have to improve your formal precision with language. There are two main sub-skills: semantic precision and grammatical precision. Semantic precision is easiest to see at the word level. When I read a DFW passage, it is like looking at a pinprick-sharp photograph, compared to my own blurry photographs. He unerringly picks words to use that simply work 100x better than my choices. It’s like he has a 15 megapixel camera and a tripod, while I am using a 3 megapixel point-and-shoot. A bigger vocabulary isn’t enough. The skill lies in matching words to needs. > In fact his language is so precise that it makes his writing almost too rich to read. I’ve never finished any of his novels because they are too rich for me. My brain can’t handle it. And this isn’t just at the word level. His sentences, paragraphs and chapters are massively precise as well. James Joyce is another example. His prose has been described as having the precision of poetry (an amazing feat, given that typical good poetry is generally 100x more precise than typical good prose, and Ulysees is HUGE). Grammatical precision isn’t about knowing the rules. It is about knowing what to do where there are no rules. It is an instinctive sense of evolutionary direction in your chosen language and being ahead of the curve with respect to the Grammar Nazis. They codify, legitimize and enforce the rules you make up. Great writers don’t just push the boundaries of language and get away with it. They actually move the language itself and create and destroy jobs in the Grammar Nazi labor market.
- Step 1: Create a Mega Outline (brain dump)
- Step 2: Build an Archipelago of Ideas (organize the brain dump)
- Step 3: Outline
- Step 4: Write a 2nd Rough Draft
- Step 5: Re-write-every-sentence
- Step 6: 10-15 Sentence Article Summary
- Step 7: Send to Friends and Ask for Feedback
- Step 8: Write a 3rd Rough Draft
- Step 9: Turn Outline into a Full Post
- Step 10: Publish
- Avoid Adverbs
- Use TK to mark unfinished areas, as it doesn’t appear in any English word so you can do an easy find
- Avoid “I think,” “I believe,” “It seems,” and other weak phrasings
- Reword To Be
- Consider avatars
- Scrap intros
- Check for banned words
- Have a tone that is Playful, Observational, Playful
Start tweets with a headline capturing the one idea. Then explain it.
David Perell Tips - Rules for writing
- Use short sentences. Clarity is key. Make your sentences simpler than you think you should.
- Use simple words. If you wouldn’t use it in a bar, don’t write it.
- No cliches. They diminish the weight of your ideas and the power of your prose.
- Delete all extra words. Make your point and get out of the way.
- Be precise. Use statistics and examples instead of generalizations.
- Surprise the reader. It proves you’re entertaining them or teaching them something.
- How to Find Ideas
- Talk to friends. Conversations are inherently random, which sparks serendipity. You’re also forced to structure ideas on-the-spot, which makes it easier to write about those ideas.
- There are no original ideas. Everything is a remix. Great ideas occur when you make connections between existing ideas, and build upon them.
- Planning to Write
- Don’t try to write for an audience. Pick one person to write for instead. Then, imagine the questions they’d ask and the rebuttals they’d make.
- Before you start writing, put three things at the top of the page: (1) set the context, (2) outline the questions you’re going to answer, and (3) share your one-sentence answer to the question. Then, make sure every sentence relates to what you’ve written at the top of the page.
- Spend more time on organization than you think you should. It will save you time.
- If you have writer’s block, stop writing. Say the ideas out-loud and transcribe what you say instead.
- If you’re struggling with organization, draw out the ideas to see how they connect.
- Before editing, change the color and size of the font. It helps you see your writing differently, which makes editing easier.
- Edit in a different place from where you usually write.
- Read your writing out-loud.
- When asking friends for feedback, remember the CRIBS acronym. Ask them to tell you what’s (1) confusing, (2) repeated, (3) insightful, (4) boring, and (5) surprising.
How to Write Online Workshop
- You need a note-taking system
- Questions to ask
- Stories: What are your go-to stories?
- Insightful: In what ways do you surprise your peers?
- Memories: What’s a memory you don’t want to forget?
- Experiences: Write about once-in-a-lifetime moments
The Content Triangle
Think about how you would explain something in words - use voice transcription.
Myths of Writing Education
- Create a rhythm
- Link your sentences
- Eliminate antything that’s confusing
- Add colorful details
- Remove unnecessary words
Public <-> Private
Meet at the public (social media places) then build a relationship on private (e.g. email) platforms
Crossing the Public to Private Bridge
- Create value on public platforms
- Send audience to private platforms
- Store value with your email list
- Niche: You have a personal monopoly
- Distribution: Own your distribution
- Trusted: People don’t just know you, they respect you
- Lucrative: Long-term social and financial benefits
Get going. Then get good.