Paul Graham on What Makes an Essay the Best

Paul Graham on What Makes an Essay the Best
5. General

Paul Graham on What Makes an Essay the Best

Welcome to the fifty-fifth edition of ‘3-2-1 by Story Rules‘.

A newsletter recommending good examples of storytelling across:

• 3 tweets
• 2 articles, and
• 1 long-form content piece

Let’s dive in.

𝕏 3 Tweets of the week

You can almost feel and hear the crash no?

That one simple visual packs so many insights! All through the smart use of colour, the map, and the size of the bubble. Very cool.

Happens. All. The. Time.

📄 2 Articles of the week

a. ‘We need to talk about astrology’ by Adam Grant

I included this piece not because of the topic, but because of Adam’s engaging writing style.

He uses surprising stats with a sprinkling of some biting humour:

Astrology is a $12 billion industry, and it’s gaining popularity with younger generations. I was shocked to learn that four in ten Americans don’t know that astrology is not at all scientific.

I know what you’re thinking. That’s exactly what a Scorpio would say!

Nice try, but I’m an Aries.

He addresses the creepy feeling we all get when we read the daily horoscope and feel that “yes, this is exactly talking about me!”:

Then why is my horoscope so accurate?

That’s an illusory correlation. Many studies have shown that if you read a horoscope that you think is yours but has actually been randomly assigned to you, you’ll probably still think it resonates. That’s especially true if you’re into astrology: believers are significantly more likely than skeptics to buy into bogus horoscopes.

That’s the Barnum Effect (also known as the Forer Effect). Astrologers write horoscopes to be just specific enough that they feel personal, while still being vague enough to be open to interpretation.

He ends on a funny note and also uses a callback:

Capricorn, I hope you don’t unfriend me for this. But if you do, I’ll get over it. I’m actually a Leo.

b. Collection of writing advice from David Perell’s How I Write Podcast guests

This one is actually a very long tweet, but makes for a great collection of insights on writing well.

Some of the advice is contradictory (e.g. #2 and #3) – which illustrates the principle that there’s no one right way to do this! You need to try multiple techniques and figure out what works best for you.

📄 1 long-form read of the week

a. The Best Essay by Paul Graham

Paul Graham is known for his clearly written essays. This topic – of what constitutes the best essay – intrigued me.

He initially grapples with the definition (I liked the elephant in the rowboat analogy!):

The best essay would be on the most important topic you could tell people something surprising about.

That may sound obvious, but it has some unexpected consequences. One is that science enters the picture like an elephant stepping into a rowboat. For example, Darwin first described the idea of natural selection in an essay written in 1844. [1] Talk about an important topic you could tell people something surprising about. If that’s the test of a great essay, this was surely the best one written in 1844.

Then focuses his attention on the writing piece…:

Instead of asking what would the best essay be? I should have asked how do you write essays well? Though these seem only phrasing apart, their answers diverge. The answer to the first question, as we’ve seen, isn’t really about essay writing. The second question forces it to be.

…While maintaining that it is key to pick a topic/question where you have a “way in”:

How do you get this initial question? It probably won’t work to choose some important-sounding topic at random and go at it. Professional traders won’t even trade unless they have what they call an edge — a convincing story about why in some class of trades they’ll win more than they lose. Similarly, you shouldn’t attack a topic unless you have a way in — some new insight about it or way of approaching it.

I liked the phrasing of converting ideas from “vague to bad”:

Once you’ve got a question, then what? You start thinking out loud about it. Not literally out loud, but you commit to a specific string of words in response, as you would if you were talking. This initial response is usually mistaken or incomplete. Writing converts your ideas from vague to bad. But that’s a step forward, because once you can see the brokenness, you can fix it.

As they say – writing is rewriting. And that includes a lot of rereading:

At least half of essay writing is rereading what you’ve written and asking is this correct and complete? You have to be very strict when rereading, not just because you want to keep yourself honest, but because a gap between your response and the truth is often a sign of new ideas to be discovered.

You need to be ruthless on the edits:

If you’re willing to do a lot of rewriting, you don’t have to guess right. You can follow a branch and see how it turns out, and if it isn’t good enough, cut it and backtrack. I do this all the time. In this essay I’ve already cut a 17-paragraph subtree, in addition to countless shorter ones. Maybe I’ll reattach it at the end, or boil it down to a footnote, or spin it off as its own essay; we’ll see.

In general you want to be quick to cut. One of the most dangerous temptations in writing (and in software and painting) is to keep something that isn’t right just because it contains a few good bits or cost you a lot of effort.

Finally, to ensure you have good material, it’s important to consume a wide breadth of content, while also acquiring depth through actual problem-solving in that domain:

The quality of the ideas that come out of your head depend on what goes in, and you can improve that in two dimensions, breadth and depth.

You can’t learn everything, so getting breadth implies learning about topics that are very different from one another. When I tell people about my book-buying trips to Hay and they ask what I buy books about, I usually feel a bit sheepish answering, because the topics seem like a laundry list of unrelated subjects. But perhaps that’s actually optimal in this business.

While breadth comes from reading and talking and seeing, depth comes from doing. The way to really learn about some domain is to have to solve problems in it.

That’s all from this week’s edition.

Photo by Unseen Studio on Unsplash

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