Over the years I've made a habit of writing down all the good writing advice I've read. I'll try to categorize it here. Some of the advice here is my synthesis of the advice I've read, but most of it is direct quotes. ## All writing #### High-level advice - In general, the goal of the author is to minimize the amount of brainpower needed to understand the text, while maximizing how enjoyable it is to read. ###### [Steven Pinker's "The Sense of Style"](https://www.amazon.com/Sense-Style-Thinking-Persons-Writing/dp/0143127799) > The key to good style, far more than obeying any list of commandments, is to have a clear conception of the make-believe world in which you’re pretending to communicate. There are many possibilities. A person thumb-typing a text message can get away with acting as if he is taking part in a real conversation. A college student who writes a term paper is pretending that he knows more about his subject than the reader and that his goal is to supply the reader with information she needs, whereas in reality his reader typically knows more about the subject than he does and has no need for the information, the actual goal of the exercise being to give the student practice for the real thing. An activist composing a manifesto, or a minister drafting a sermon, must write as if they are standing in front of a crowd and whipping up their emotions. ###### [Julian Shapiro's "The Creativity Faucet"](https://www.julian.com/blog/creativity-faucet) > Visualize your creativity as a backed-up pipe of water. The first mile of piping is packed with wastewater. This wastewater must be emptied before the clear water arrives. > > Because your pipe only has one faucet, there's no shortcut to achieving clarity other than first emptying the wastewater. > > Let's apply this to creativity: At the beginning of a writing session, you must write out every bad idea that reflexively comes to mind. Instead of being self-critical and resisting these bad ideas, you must openly accept them. > > Once the bad ideas are emptied, strong ideas begin to arrive. > > Here's why: Once you've generated enough bad output, your brain starts to reflexively identify which elements cause the badness. Then it begins to avoid them. You start pattern-matching novel ideas with greater intuition. > > Most creators never get past their wastewater. They resist their bad ideas. > > If you've opened a blank document, scribbled a few thoughts, then walked away because you weren't struck with gold, then you too didn't get past it. > > \[Neil Gaiman and Ed Sheeran, users of this technique] know they're not superhuman. They simply respect the reality of human creativity: The brain has a linear pipeline for creativity, and the pipe needs clearing. In every creative session, they allot time for emptying the wastewater. ###### I'm having trouble sourcing this one > The best cure for writer's block is to just write anyway, even if it's shit > > When we talk about writer's block, it usually means that my subconscious realizes something is wrong. If you continue writing you will often figure out what the issue is > > If you're a new writer, most likely your job in writing is to turn yourself into the person who can write great novels, because you aren't yet. Or if you are, it's going to take many many drafts and revisions. Harry Potter was 13 drafts.  > > "Writing the chapter the wrong way will put it into my subconscious, and the next day my subconscious will tell me why it's wrong. 9 times out of 10 I set that chapter aside, write a new one, and that chapter goes in the book and it's good" ### Sentence length ###### [Eugene Wei's "The rhythm of writing"](https://www.eugenewei.com/blog/2017/7/20/the-rhythm-of-writing) > One of the simplest ways to improve one's prose and to keep a reader's attention is simply to vary sentence length. The longer the text, the more sentence length variation is desirable, so regardless of methodology, the goal would be the same, to make monotonous stretches of similar sentence lengths more visible to the writer. > ... > \[A benefit of reading your text out loud is that] the cadence of breathing and speaking tends to mimic the frequency of the brain's ability to process words and sentences. ###### [Gary Provost](https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/373814-this-sentence-has-five-words-here-are-five-more-words) > This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important. Some examples: 1. "The sun was setting as Sarah walked along the beach. She enjoyed the feeling of the sand between her toes. The waves crashed against the shore. The seagulls cried overhead." 1. "As the sun set, Sarah strolled along the beach, savoring the sensation of sand between her toes. Waves crashed against the shore while seagulls cried overhead." 2. "He picked up the book and started reading. He couldn't put it down. He was completely engrossed. Hours went by unnoticed." 1. "Picking up the book, he began reading and found himself unable to put it down. Completely engrossed, hours slipped by unnoticed." #### Word choice ###### [Scott Alexander's "Nonfiction writing advice"](https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/02/20/writing-advice/) > If two sentences in a row start with the same word, it sounds unwieldy. If three or four do, it sounds bizarre. If it’s a whole paragraph’s worth, people start questioning their own sanity and trying to claw their eyes out. > ... > This is hard and really deserves a book-length treatment. Without the book, all I can say is to realize that any repetition of words and structures will stand out to your reader, and make sure that their standing-out emphasizes your point instead of just being confusing. Some examples: 1. "She opened the door. She saw him standing there. She felt her heart race. She couldn't believe he was here." 1. "Opening the door, she saw him standing there. Her heart raced, and she couldn't believe he was actually here." ## Fiction #### Word choice ###### [Steven Pinker's "The Sense of Style"](https://www.amazon.com/Sense-Style-Thinking-Persons-Writing/dp/0143127799) > Even when both the actor and the target of an action are visible in the scene, the choice of the active or passive voice allows the writer to keep the reader focused on one of those characters before pointing out an interesting fact involving that character. **That’s because the reader’s attention usually starts out on the entity named by the subject of the sentence. Actives and passives differ in which character gets to be the subject, and hence which starts out in the reader’s mental spotlight**. An active construction trains the reader’s gaze on someone who is doing something: __See that lady with the shopping bag? She’s pelting a mime with zucchini__. The passive trains the reader’s gaze on someone who’s having something done to him: __See that mime? He’s being pelted with zucchini by the lady with the shopping bag__. The problem with the passives that bog down bureaucratic and academic prose is that they are not selected with these purposes in mind. They are symptoms of absent-mindedness in a writer who has forgotten that he should be staging an event for the reader. He knows how the story turned out, so he just describes the outcome (something was done). But the reader, with no agent in sight, has no way to visualize the event being moved forward by its instigator. She is forced to imagine an effect without a cause, which is as hard to visualize as Lewis Carroll’s grin without a cat. Some examples 1. "A firefighter rescued the cat from the tree." 1. "The cat was rescued from the tree by a firefighter." 2. "The teacher gave the students a challenging assignment." 1. "A challenging assignment was given to the students by the teacher." In both examples, the active voice focuses on the person performing the action (the firefighter and the teacher), while the passive voice shifts the focus to the entity receiving the action (the cat and the students). ###### [Brandon Sanderson on Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6HOdHEeosc) > You want to communicate the most information in the fewest number of words possible. If you can communicate more information with the same amount of words, or the same information with fewer words, that's always preferable. Aside from that, that's your style. > > "I saw a dog walk by me". > > Unless you're specifically trying to draw attention to the fact that you saw the dog, the first two words are unhelpful – it's assumed you saw the dog! So just write "a dog walked by me" to save two words. > > If you haven't said what kind of dog it is, you can communicate more information with the same number of words by saying the breed. "A poodle walked past me" > > You can probably already tell that "A poodle walked past me" is much better writing! > To ground your reader in a world that feels very real, try to move them as far down on the pyramid of abstraction in as few words as possible. More words are bad, they take time for your reader’s brain to process and take them out of the book. Being more specific is good, it grounds the reader in the story. For example “he stumbled a little bit” is strictly worse than “he stumbled” because it is more words but no less abstract (no new information). > A simple way of converting a tell into a show is to add a sensory detail. For example, replace "she stood in the battleship's engine room" with "the hum of the battleship's engine rumbled through her feet". An example 1. "He was nervous before his presentation." 1. "His hands trembled and sweat beaded on his forehead as he prepared for his presentation." ###### [Stuart Armstrong's Comment](https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/06/21/the-art-of-writing-randian-monologues/#comment-108369) > To have characters go outside without something very abrupt and boring like “And then he went outside”, focus on something relevant to the story, and weave the transition into it. > > "His doubts didn’t leave him as he stepped outside. Nor did they weaken during the long bus ride home, instead growing with each passing street-light. By the time he was standing at his own front door, he was almost determined to ditch the whole thing. But his dirt-smudged hallway, his half-repaired windows, and his drenched mattresses, familiar yet depressing sights, all urged him to reconsider.” #### Keeping reader attention ###### [Keith Johnstone's "Impro"](https://www.amazon.com/Impro-Improvisation-Theatre-Keith-Johnstone/dp/0878301178) > The audience will always be held when a status is being modified. > ... > I repeat all status exercises in gibberish, just to make it quite clear that the things _said_ are not as important as the status _played._ If I ask two actors to meet, with one playing high, and one playing low, and to reverse the status while talking an imaginary language, the audience laugh amazingly. We don't know what's being said, and neither do the actors, but the status reversal is enough to enthral us. If you've seen great comedians working in a language you don't understand you'll know what I mean. ###### [John Truby's "The Anatomy of Story"](https://www.amazon.com/Anatomy-Story-Becoming-Master-Storyteller/dp/0865479933/) > Once you set up a hero and an opponent competing for the same goal, you must build the conflict steadily until the final battle. Your purpose is to put constant pressure on your hero, because this is what will force him to change. The way you build conflict and put pressure on your hero depends primarily on how you distribute the attacks on the hero. In average or simple stories, the hero comes into conflict with only one opponent. This standard opposition has the virtue of clarity, but it doesn't let you develop a deep or powerful sequence of conflicts, and it doesn't allow the audience to see a hero acting within a larger society. KEY POINT: **A simplistic opposition between two characters kills any chance at depth, complexity, or the reality of human life in your story. For that, you need a web of oppositions.** ###### [Brandon Sanderson on Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6HOdHEeosc) \[Paraphrased for brevity] > A really powerful sensation in readers is, wanting to know or see something and feeling themselves getting progressively closer to it. For instance, in the book Inferno, readers are teased that something exciting is at the center circle in hell, and in every chapter of the book they moved one circle closer to the center. > > Books inherently cause this because the reader can see the pages going up and up and the amount of book remaining going down. Perhaps a way to exaggerate this would be to have the pages count down > One of the best ways to do a "twist ending" is to actually give a better payoff than the one you promised. For instance, in Mistborn, the payoff is going to be "we steal the lord ruler's Atium reserve and leave" which turns into "we overthrow the empire".  > > Very rarely in fantasy do you run into problems when you give the reader more than they expected. On the other hand, not fulfilling your promises is **not** a virtue. ###### My Buddy Prism on Discord > I think a sense of whimsy and memorable characters are the most important aspects for fun stories. #### Characters ###### [John Truby's "The Anatomy of Story"](https://www.amazon.com/Anatomy-Story-Becoming-Master-Storyteller/dp/0865479933/) > The most common place to use dialogue to express moral argument is when an ally criticizes the hero for taking an immoral action while trying to win the goal. The ally contends that the hero's actions are wrong. The hero, who hasn't yet had a self-revelation, defends his actions. > Great storytelling **isn't just conflict between characters. It's conflict between characters and their values**. When your hero experiences character change, he challenges and changes basic beliefs, leading to new moral action. A good opponent has a set of beliefs that come under assault as well. The beliefs of the hero have no meaning, and do not get expressed in the story, unless they come into conflict with the beliefs of at least one other character, preferably the opponent. ###### [John Truby's Youtube Video](https://youtu.be/luS17BjFOiI) > It is extremely important, that no matter what story you tell, that you begin with the great character weakness of your hero. It's not obvious here, but he means that literally. He says the first scene should establish your hero's character flaw. ###### [Donald Maass's "The Emotional Craft of Fiction"](https://www.amazon.com/Emotional-Craft-Fiction-Beneath-Surface/dp/1440348375) > Select a moment in your story when your protagonist is moved, unsettled, or disturbed. This might occur when he's facing a difficult choice, needing something badly, suffering a setback or surprise, having a self-realization, learning something shocking, or feeling in any way overwhelmed. Write down all the emotions inherent in this moment, both obvious and hidden. > > Next, considering what he is feeling, write down how your protagonist can act out. What is the biggest thing your protagonist can do? What would be explosive, out of bounds, or offensive? What would be symbolic? What can your protagonist say that would cut right to the heart of the matter or unite others in understanding? Go sideways, underneath, or ahead. How can your protagonist show us a feeling we don’t expect to see? > > Add a detail of the setting that only your protagonist would notice, or that everyone notices but your protagonist sees in a unique way. > > Finally, go back and delete all the emotions you wrote down at the beginning of this exercise. Let actions and spoken words do the work. Do they feel too big, dangerous, or over-the-top? Use them anyway. Others will tell you if you've gone too far, but more likely, you haven't gone far enough. > Writing out what characters feel ought to be a shortcut to getting readers to feel that stuff too, shouldn’t it? You’d think so. After all, it’s through characters that we experience a story. Their experience is ours. Actually, the truth is the opposite. Put on the page what a character feels and there’s a pretty good chance that, paradoxically, what the reader will feel is nothing. > > The feelings that writers first choose to write are often obvious, easy, and safe. These are the feelings writers believe they ought to use if their stories are going to sell. They work only with primary emotions because that is what everyone feels, which is true, but this is also a limited view. > > So how does one create emotional surprise? Is it possible to be both artful and accessible? Can emotions feel right and connect with us even when we don’t see them coming? Certainly > Select any moment in your story when your protagonist feels something strongly. Identify the feeling. Next, ask your protagonist, “What else are you feeling at this moment?” Write that down, too. Then ask, “Okay, what else are you feeling now?” Write that down. > > Now begin to work with that third, lower-layer emotion. Examine it in four ways. > 1. Objectify it by creating an analogy: What does it feel like to have this feeling? > 2. Make a moral judgment about it: Is it good or bad to feel this? Why? > 3. Create an alternative: What would a better person feel instead? > 4. Justify this feeling: It’s the only possible thing to feel at this moment and here is why. > > Look around the scene, too. What is your protagonist seeing that others don’t? Add one detail that only your protagonist would see, and see it in his own unique way. > > Write a new passage for this moment in the story, one in which your character feels deeply (and in detail) this third-level emotion. > > An important part of this method is the lengthy discourse that I mentioned. Why delve so deeply? One reason is to create a longer passage for the reader. That in turn creates a period of time, perhaps fifteen seconds, for the reader’s brain to process. That interval is necessary. It gives readers the opportunity to arrive at their own emotional response, a response that we cannot know > > Be obvious and tell readers what to feel, and they won’t feel it. Light an unexpected match, though, and readers will ignite their own feelings, which may well prove to be the ones that are primary and obvious. Third-level emotions. That’s the effective way of telling. ###### [Film Crit Hulk's Tweet](https://twitter.com/FilmCritHULK/status/1112263195274600449) > \[Talking about ATLA]: God they're so good at fleshing out psychology on this show. It's never just "plot" - it's all understanding and enriching motivations and changes and inner conflicts (PS prospective writers, that's the main subject to study if you want to be good at writing) ###### [Brandon Sanderson on Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6HOdHEeosc) \[Paraphrased for brevity] > Ways to make the audience root for a character: > 1. Make them likable or nice. > 2. Show them having the same feelings the readers has (liking their family?) > 1. That's one reason spider-man is a lot of people's favorite superhero. The story always starts with him being down-on-his-luck romantically and too shy to talk to the girl next door, reading comic books and playing videogames and being unpopular/bullied in school and having a shit job and living in a shit apartment, which when you consider the target audience of the comic book genre is probably pretty relatable. > 3. Show people liking them > 1. This is a really handy and surprisingly useful technique > 4. Establish rooting interest > 1. Make the character have a motivation that's interesting to us. > 2. It's best if they want something out of life that they can't really have (or there are obstacles in their way to getting it). Connects to their flaws, handicaps, or limitations > 3. Establishes a personal connection to the plot (luke doesn't really want to become a jedi or to take down the empire until they kill his parent figures) > 5. Promise future progress  > 1. Establish a flaw that they have that they're going to fix or a journey that they're going to go on. Often driven by a sense of mystery (Will they be able to become the thing that we know they can become? Will spiderman become a superhero?) > 2. The important thing is that you signpost that the character needs to change in some way so the reader knows. > 6. You can imagine that each character has three "sliders" of likability, competence, and proactivity. Often your main character should be deficient in one of these three at the start of the story and the story is about them "increasing that slider" > 1. If the character moves on any of the scales, it creates a sense of progress throughout the story > 2. Spiderman's journey is him just becoming super competent through the course of the story. That's actually one thing that's sort of not super common in superhero movies. Tony Stark is always a badass, and once he makes the suit he's just instantly even more of a badass. Miles Morales spends the first four fifths of the movie being really bad at basic spiderman stuff including web slinging. He starts as Frodo and ends as Aragorn. > 7. A common way of showing growth is to show that what the character wants is not what they need. For example, Spiderman thinks he wants to be cool and famous, but what he needs is to learn that with great power comes great responsibility. > 8. Or you can just have a ton of competent characters doing cool things. In Ocean's 11 there's no change in competence, the fun is just to watch awesome people doing awesome thing > 9. Motivation is really the most important part though. Establishing character motivations early is a really important thing. Often, when I get feedback from alpha readers that confuses me, it's because I haven't properly established character motivations. > 1. This can cause stilted dialogue, which often happens when a character's motivation is contrary to their dialogue/actions.  > 10. An easy way of making characters seem three dimensional is to give them multiple, conflicting motivations. Think of Kaladin being conflicted about whether he should become a surgeon or a soldier > 11. Easy example: have a character who dreams of travelling, but they can't because they're broke or disabled. Instead show them going through significant lengths to get a stamp to put in an atlas or something and show the audience all the other stamps they have to show all the other places they would have gone if they didn't have this quirk. This establishes a *huge* amount of empathy and motivation. If they get invited on an adventure and has to go despite their handicaps or limitation the reader will be rooting for them. > 12. Another example is "My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die". The idea of some kid wanting to avenge his dad and already having prepared in his mind what he'll say when he meets the man who killed him, but having slightly given up hope of his dream, is actually sort of relatable and extremely empathetic. It's actually so empathetic that he seems like the main character more than Wesley does. > 13. If your character has a quirk, it should connect to their motivation because that makes it much more interesting.  > 14. People tend to be really empathetic to characters who try hard but fail but reasons outside their control. ###### [Eliezer Yudkowsky's "Intelligent Characters"](https://yudkowsky.tumblr.com/writing) > **All characters in your story should be "level-1 intelligent", since it is the minimum required for them to be believable characters**. This means they should have an "inner spark of optimization" > > Writing characters with an inner spark of life and optimization: not characters that do super-amazing clever things, but characters that are trying in routine ways to optimize their own life in a reasonably self-aware fashion. > > **If you create a character you truly respect, you will hesitate to model them as stupid**.  Professor Quirrell’s cynicism (though not, so far as I know, his intent to kill) is based on a mixture of two cynical friends of mine, Robin Hanson and Michael Vassar. I respect Hanson and Vassar enough that even when they are wrong I generally consider them as being persuasively wrong. When I mentally hold Professor Quirrell to the standard of my model of Hanson and Vassar, my brain makes Professor Quirrell generate persuasive cynicism, and insert as many grains of truth as possible even though I disagree with his conclusions. > > You can simply write a character as if they are BBC’s Sherlock, or Miles Vorkosigan, or any other person for whose thinking __you__ feel a visceral respect. Your own literary voice will take over and shine through, and the vast majority of your readers will not notice the similarity unless you tell them… __if__ you sympathized enough with Sherlock or Vorkosigan to have felt their inner lives, and you are generating them in their new role by continuing to lead that life from the inside. If you just use pattern completion to fill in the catchphrases that you saw on television, then yes, people will notice. > > Or, to go back to the even simpler cheat, **you can check for intelligence by imagining yourself in the character’s shoes. What would you do if you became a vampire? What would you do if a vampire and a werewolf were both in love with you? If the answer is something you’ve never seen in a story before, you may have a plot on your hands**. > > Every Level 1 Intelligent character wants to toss your precious plot out the window, and will seize any available chance to do so. **You must craft their situations so that their optimizing responses drive the plot in the direction it needs to go**. If they must make mistakes, have them be intelligent mistakes; ideally, have the reader not see it either on a first reading. ###### I can't find the source for these ones > Most well-written characters have something they want—or something they __think__ they want. The more fascinating characters also have something they don’t want you to know. The best ones also have something they’re not pulling off nearly as well as they think. #### Style ###### [Frederick Reiken's essay in "A Kite in the Wind"](https://www.amazon.com/Kite-Wind-Fiction-Writers-Their/dp/1595340726) > Many authors write characters that feel "flat", like the reader isn't really __seeing__ them. This is often caused by a failure to invent the main character, visually and in relation to some objective external context. He has not "conceived of the fictional construct as an other", and is in effect stuck inside the character, usually right behind the character's two eyes. What has happened is an author-narrator-character merge. > > When this happens, the main character is nothing more than a narrating device, and hence not much of a character at all. > > The three parts must be separated. They are: > > 1. The author is a human being who exists outside of the book's textual universe. > 2. The narrator is a construct of language, invented for the purpose of presenting and translating the novel's action such that a reader can stay oriented with the narrative's sentence-by-sentence flow.  > 3. The character is the actual character, you know this part > > You might think that when the narrator is the book's protagonist, for example in all first person novels, there is no distinction to be made between narrator and character. Wrong! The key to a successfully executed first-person novel lies in the relationship between that first person as narrator and as character. > > Here are 5 examples of psychic distance, in order from most to least distant, from John Gardner's The Art Of Fiction > >1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of the doorway. >2. Henry J. Warbutton had never much cared for snowstorms >3. Henry hated snowstorms >4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms >5. Snow. under your collar, deep inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul. > >Most third-person narratives proceed with constant modulation of the psychic distance, moving like a camera eye between longrange establishing shots and very limited, close-range character point of view, and then back out to longer-range shots again. But in a case in which the author has not fully imagined the point-of-view character - often because the author has not fully imagined the character as a bona fide other- the ANC relationship gets structured to there is little or no psychic distance between narrator and character, no way for us to see the character moving through a setting or situation, and hence, though unintentionally, what I am called a merged effect. With regard to Gardner's examples, we might say that in the case of a problematic merge, the psychic distance never becomes greater and usually stays continuously at what we see in example 3. That is, the most we get is a sense of being inside the character's head, but we never actually see him. ###### [Brandon Sanderson on Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6HOdHEeosc) \[Paraphrased for brevity] > When writing dialogue, a good goal is to be able to write dialogue without dialogue tags and still have it be clear to the reader who’s saying what, especially in conversations with multiple people. You can do this by giving characters consistent word choice, sentence length, propensity to use metaphors and what type of metaphors they use. For example, if someone grew up on a dock they might say “gutted like a fish“. You can also vary the types of arguments they make and what they’re arguing for. That makes dialogue really really good. > > Additionally you should try to communicate character details through their internal experience rather than just saying them directly. For example “of *course* she doesn’t want to get her shoes dirty“ rather than “she hated her because she was a prep”. This is a lifelong journey for most writers especially in first drafts. > > If you can do this, you are going to sell books *fast*. You want opening chapter to be full of almost no infodumps, dialogue that snaps off the page and tells you who they are from the way that they talk, and gets across setting and character though these kinds of contextual clues, then you’re doing better than 99% of people who are trying to get published or who are self publishing. If you can practice one skill, do this one. #### Worldbuilding ###### Me > After adding a magical mechanic, you should see what measures you can take to have the population of your world “exploit” it. Your society will not feel real if your changes have had no second order effects ###### [Brandon Sanderson on Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6HOdHEeosc) \[Paraphrased for brevity] > it’s almost always better to expand on what you already have than to build something new. For example, if you have three main religions in your fantasy that are fleshed out and all based on a common stem, that’s better and more interesting than having 10 unrelated religions. > You should tend to introduce as little worldbuilding as you can to get the scene across #### Theme ###### [Eliezer Yudkowsky's "True Moral Conflicts"](https://yudkowsky.tumblr.com/writing/moral-conflicts)F > A true and untainted ideal is not necessarily an ideal whose advocates are all pure, or an ideal whose policies have no downsides. A true ideal is a goal that is worth optimizing for despite it all, that is still a warm bright feeling even in a complicated world. If you cannot let yourself feel that warm bright feeling and talk about it in public, you will not be able to put it into your story, and you will not be able to have your readers sympathize with your ideals. Look within yourself for the morals, ethics, aesthetics, virtues, the features of reality that you still treasure. You have created a true moral conflict when you bring two such high ideals into opposition, balanced so that you’re not sure of the right side yourself; or when you find a moral question within the high ideal whose answer you are not sure of, and around which you can construct a story #### Plot ###### [David Deutsch's "The Beginning of Infinity"](https://www.amazon.com/Beginning-Infinity-Explanations-Transform-World/dp/0143121359) > In some stories the plot is not important: the story is really about something else. But a good plot always rests, implicitly or explicitly, on good explanations of how and why events happen, given its fictional premises. In that case, even if those premises are about wizards, the story is not really about the supernatural: it is about imaginary laws of physics and imaginary societies, as well as real problems and true ideas. This section is a little lacking without context on what Deutsch means by "good explanations". I think is the most important component is the property of being "hard to vary while still doing the job": > Good explanations are often strikingly simple or elegant. > \[Good explanations] are distinguished by being hard to vary while still fulfilling their functions > ‘Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.’ That is how Mozart’s music is described in Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus. This is reminiscent of the remark by John Archibald Wheeler with which this book begins, speaking of a hoped-for unified theory of fundamental physics: ‘an idea so simple, so beautiful, that when we grasp it…how could it have been otherwise?’ > > Shaffer and Wheeler were describing the same attribute: being hard to vary while still doing the job. In the first case it is an attribute of aesthetically good music, and in the second of good scientific explanations. And Wheeler speaks of the scientific theory as being beautiful in the same breath as describing it as hard to vary. ## Nonfiction #### Keeping reader attention ###### [Scott Alexander's "Nonfiction writing advice"](https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/02/20/writing-advice/) > Finishing a paragraph or section gives people a micro-burst of accomplishment and reward. It helps them chunk the basic insight together and remember it for later. You want people to be going – “okay, insight, good, another insight, good, another insight, good” and then eventually you can tie all of the insights together into a high-level insight. Then you can start over, until eventually at the end you tie all of the high-level insights together. It’s nice and structured and easy to work with. If they’re just following a winding stream of thought wherever it’s going, it’ll take a lot more mental work and they’ll get bored and wander off. > Your brain gets bored if it has to focus on the same thing for too long. But you can get around that by making an activity look like many different things. Sometimes this is as simple and as dumb as putting Roman numeral one, Roman numeral two, etc at natural breaks in the article, and then your brain thinks “Oh, I guess there are two different things here”. But other times you actually have to vary the reading experience. > 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. > ... > 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? #### [Steve Sailer's comment](https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/02/20/writing-advice/#comment-329310) > A useful Dave Barry technique is to make the last word in the sentence the funniest. ###### [Steven Pinker's "The Sense of Style"](https://www.amazon.com/Sense-Style-Thinking-Persons-Writing/dp/0143127799) >"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones." Good writing starts strong. Not with a cliché (“Since the dawn of time”), not with a banality (“Recently, scholars have been increasingly concerned with the question of …”), but with a contentful observation that provokes curiosity. ###### [Julian Sharpiro's "Writing Better"](https://www.julian.com/guide/write/intro) > Hooks are half-told stories. Tease something fascinating, but don’t fully reveal the details. > > How to generate hooks: > > 1. Ask yourself, “If someone else wrote my intro, what are the most captivating questions they could pose to make me excited to read this?” > 2. Write those questions down. Even if you lack the answers. > 3. Rank your questions by how much they interest you. > 4. The top questions become your hooks: Pose them in your intro and don't reveal their answers. > Ask feedback-givers to highlight every sentence that gives them a dopamine hit — the little moments of "that was interesting." For each hit, increase a counter at the end of the corresponding sentence. Like this (3). If there are sections without dopamine hits, make those sections shorter or inject more insight and surprise into them. > Use paragraphs of five sentences or fewer. This cushions paragraphs with white space, reducing the perceived reading workload. Short paragraphs also provide readers more opportunities to pause and reflect on your ideas. #### The flow of ideas ###### [Scott Alexander's "Nonfiction writing advice"](https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/02/20/writing-advice/) > If you’re writing three paragraphs that are three different pieces of evidence for the same conclusion that you’re going to present afterwards, make damn sure your readers know this. > ... > Use strong concept handles. The idea of concept-handles is itself a concept-handle; it means a catchy phrase that sums up a complex topic. ###### [FullMeta_Rationalist's comment](https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/02/20/writing-advice/#comment-329411) > English teachers say that every essay should have a thesis. I have a personal rule that goes further: each paragraph should have a “mini-thesis”. It doesn’t always have to actually exist on paper, but it should at least be implied. > > As a test during editing: In the side margins, annotate each paragraph with its mini-thesis. If I can’t construct a concise mini-thesis for each paragraph, it signals that I’ve written a “run-on paragraph”. I.e. a single paragraph which deserves to be split into two or more paragraphs. > > As a second test: concatenate together all the mini-theses (and the thesis itself) into a single paragraph. Does it serve as a logically-organized summary of the larger essay? If not, this signals that the audience won’t find my argument very cogent. ###### [Steven Pinker's "The Sense of Style"](https://www.amazon.com/Sense-Style-Thinking-Persons-Writing/dp/0143127799) > A bare syntactic tree, minus the words at the tips of its branches, lingers in memory for a few seconds after the words are gone, and during that time it is available as a template for the reader to use in parsing the next phrase. If the new phrase has the same structure as the preceding one, its words can be slotted into the waiting tree, and the reader will absorb it effortlessly. The pattern is called structural parallelism, and it is one of the oldest tricks in the book for elegant (and often stirring) prose: > > Note, too, how parallel syntax can allow a reader to make sense of even the most unintelligible of the garden path sentences: __Though the horse guided past the barn walked with ease, the horse raced past the barn fell.__ > People learn by integrating new information into their existing web of knowledge. They don’t like it when a fact is hurled at them from out of the blue and they have to keep it levitating in short-term memory until they find a relevant background to embed it in a few moments later. Topic-then-comment and given-then-new orderings are major contributors to coherence, the feeling that one sentence flows into the next rather than jerking the reader around. > One way to fashion an outline is to jot your ideas on a page or on index cards more or less at random and then look for ones that seem to belong together. If you reorder the items with the clusters of related ideas placed near one another, then arrange the clusters that seem to belong together in larger clusters, group those into still larger clusters, and so on, you’ll end up with a treelike outline. #### [onyomi's comment](https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/02/20/writing-advice/#comment-329345) > “the uneven U”: basically, if you can categorize sentences from 1-5, with 1 being a bland statement of detail/fact and 5 being an abstract, synthesis-oriented statement, then most paragraphs and subsections and chapters and books ought to follow a roughly “4-2-1-3-4-5” ish (“uneven U”) pattern. The idea is that each new paragraph or subsection or chapter should introduce and/or connect to some big ideas in the section preceding, move into the weeds to corroborate, and then move to some higher level of synthesis by the end. ### Communication ###### [Scott Alexander's "Nonfiction writing advice"](https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/02/20/writing-advice/) > 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. > ... > You sound a lot more credible, and your opponents a lot less persuasive, if you’re the one who brings the possible counterarguments up yourself. This is true _regardless_ of how effective your countercounterarguments are. ###### [Steven Pinker's "The Sense of Style"](https://www.amazon.com/Sense-Style-Thinking-Persons-Writing/dp/0143127799) > A considerate writer will also cultivate the habit of adding a few words of explanation to common technical terms, as in “Arabidopsis, a flowering mustard plant,” rather than the bare “Arabidopsis” (which I’ve seen in many science articles). It’s not just an act of magnanimity: a writer who explains technical terms can multiply her readership a thousandfold at the cost of a handful of characters, the literary equivalent of picking up hundred-dollar bills on the sidewalk. Readers will also thank a writer for the copious use of for example, as in, and such as, because an explanation without an example is little better than no explanation at all. For example: Here’s an explanation of the rhetorical term syllepsis: “the use of a word that relates to, qualifies, or governs two or more other words but has a different meaning in relation to each.” Got that? Now let’s say I continue with “… such as when Benjamin Franklin said, ‘We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.’” Clearer, no? No? Sometimes two examples are better than one, because they allow the reader to triangulate on which aspect of the example is relevant to the definition. What if I add “… or when Groucho Marx said, ‘You can leave in a taxi, and if you can’t get a taxi, you can leave in a huff’”? > Chunking is not just a trick for improving memory; it’s the lifeblood of higher intelligence. As children we see one person hand a cookie to another, and we remember it as an act of giving. One person gives another one a cookie in exchange for a banana; we chunk the two acts of giving together and think of the sequence as trading. Person 1 trades a banana to Person 2 for a piece of shiny metal, because he knows he can trade it to Person 3 for a cookie; we think of it as selling. Lots of people buying and selling make up a market. Activity aggregated over many markets gets chunked into the economy. The economy now can be thought of as an entity which responds to actions by central banks; we call that monetary policy. One kind of monetary policy, which involves the central bank buying private assets, is chunked as quantitative easing. And so on. > > As we read and learn, we master a vast number of these abstractions, and each becomes a mental unit which we can bring to mind in an instant and share with others by uttering its name. **An adult mind that is brimming with chunks is a powerful engine of reason, but it comes with a cost: a failure to communicate with other minds that have not mastered the same chunks**. Many educated adults would be left out of a discussion that criticized the president for not engaging in more “quantitative easing,” though they would understand the process if it were spelled out. A high school student might be left out if you spoke about “monetary policy,” and a schoolchild might not even follow a conversation about “the economy.”