Category Archives: writing

The Good and Bad of Enumerated Lists

Writing by enumeration–writing a ‘list of n things’–restricts you to a structure that is easier to produce and is easier for readers to follow and comprehend, but limits free thought. That’s one of many points that Paul Graham makes in an essay discussing the merits and disadvantages of writing enumerated lists.

One obvious negative that Graham points out is that, in most situations, lists of n things are used by lazy writers not even attempting to stretch themselves, or read by readers who don’t fully trust the author to produce an appealing-enough short-form essay. And of course, there’s the sound advice to almost always avoid lists with ‘the’ before the number, as a list is rarely exhaustive and instead you’re likely being fooled into believing it is (read: linkbait).

Because the list of n things is the easiest essay form, it should be a good one for beginning writers. And in fact it is what most beginning writers are taught. The classic 5 paragraph essay is really a list of n things for n = 3. But the students writing them don’t realize they’re using the same structure as the articles they read in Cosmopolitan. They’re not allowed to include the numbers, and they’re expected to spackle over the gaps with gratuitous transitions (“Furthermore…”) and cap the thing at either end with introductory and concluding paragraphs so it will look superficially like a real essay. […]

Another advantage of admitting to beginning writers that the 5 paragraph essay is really a list of n things is that we can warn them about this. It only lets you experience the defining characteristic of essay writing on a small scale: in thoughts of a sentence or two. And it’s particularly dangerous that the 5 paragraph essay buries the list of n things within something that looks like a more sophisticated type of essay. If you don’t know you’re using this form, you don’t know you need to escape it.

As a purveyor of fine hyperlinks since 2008, I also feel that posting (to) a list of n things is also, in most situations, lazy link-blogging. However there are always some that will make the cut and get posted, and Graham’s essay helps one see why they might have been especially appealing.

Successful Science Article Pitches

Article and book pitches — both successful and unsuccessful — can give you a small insight into an editor’s selection process and the sales-side of a writer’s mind, as well as help you learn to write more effectively. As such I’ve started to collect sites featuring proposals and pitches.

A recent addition to this list is the pitch database from The Open Notebook; a collection of writer-submitted pitches for science articles that have been accepted for publishing in many of my favourite places, such as Ars Technica, Atlantic, Lapham’s Quarterly, This American Life and Wired.

Of particular note is a pitch from David Dobbs, writer of the Neuron Culture blog. Pitching Atlantic editor Don Peck, Dobbs wrote an extensive pitch for The Orchid Children that led to the publication of a fantastic article, The Science of Success. Those who follow Dobbs’ blog will know that this in turn led to a book deal for The Orchid and the Dandelion, Dobbs’ forthcoming book.

On Titles, or: Titles: Is There an Optimal Solution?

As a co-editor of the open-access journal Theoretical Economics, Jeff Ely has seen his fair share of academic papers and their associated titles. Inevitably Ely has constructed a theory on how to title a paper (or anything else, for that matter) for maximum exposure, impact and intrigue.

In his hilarious tongue-in-cheek article detailing this theory, Ely offers his priceless advice on how to decide on an academic paper’s title. The conclusion: keep it as short as possible (one word, preferably), avoid colons and avoid questions.

A paper titled Law and Finance is guaranteed to be the seminal paper in the field because if it were not then that title would have already been taken. You can go ahead and cite it without actually reading it. By contrast, you can safely ignore a paper with a title like Valuation and Dynamic Replication of Contingent Claims in a General Market Environment Based on the Beliefs-Preferences Gauge Symmetry even if you don’t know what any of those words mean. The title is essentially telling you “Don’t read me. Instead go and read a paper whose title is simply Valuation of Contingent Claims. If you have any questions after reading that, you might look into dynamic replication and then beliefs, preferences, and if after all that you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, check here for the low-down on gauge symmetry.”

Two pieces of advice follow from these observations. First, find the simplest title not yet taken for your papers. One word titles are the best. Second, before you get started on a paper, think about the title. If you can’t come up with a short title for it then it’s probably not worth writing.

The absolute worst thing you can do with your title is to insert a colon into it. […] As in, Torture: A Model of Dynamic Commitment Problems. Or Kludged: Asymptotically Inefficient Evolution. In the first case you have just ruined a seminal-signalling one-word title by adding spurious specificity. In the second, you just took an intriguing one-world title and turned it into a yawner.

The second worst kind of title is the question mark title. “Is the Folk Theorem Robust?” This says to the reader: “You picked this up because you want to know if the folk theorem is robust. Well, if I knew the answer to that I would have told you right away in the title. But look, all I could do is repeat the question, so you can safely assume that you won’t find the answer in this paper.”

via @TimHarford

Learning storytelling from a Sitcom writer

What is a story? How can you tell better stories?

There is a wealth of knowledge and research into story telling, story structure and techniques for enhancing narrative. The classic text is The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, but this tome has been is criticised for being dense and academic. Syd Field‘s book Screenplay has influenced the writing of many recent movies, but Field has been criticised for never producing a successful script himself.

If only a successful writer would set out clearly and accessably the theory behind writing a good story.

Enter Dan Harmon the creator of the superb TV series Community. He learned his craft developing short episodes for the internet TV station Channel101. Channel101 runs a monthly screening of low budget (or zero budget), five minute episodes. They’re often over the top, vulgar, and hilarious. Check out (not at work!) the ridiculous Laser Fart, the viral sensation Chad Vader, and the teen drama pastiche The ‘Bu.

Despite the silliness of the episodes they exhibit a compelling writing style that Harmon attributes to his understanding of storytelling. Harmon wrote a series of articles to teach perspective submitters to Channel101 how to write a well structured story. The basis of these articles is a series of eight elements that should be included in every story. The eight points are:

  1. You – Who are we? A squirrel? The sun? A red blood cell? America? By the end of the first 37 seconds, we’d really like to know.
  2. Need - something is wrong, the world is out of balance. This is the reason why a story is going to take place. The “you” from (1) is an alcoholic. There’s a dead body on the floor. A motorcycle gang rolls into town. Campbell phrases: Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid.
  3. Go – For (1) and (2), the “you” was in a certain situation, and now that situation changes. A hiker heads into the woods. Pearl Harbor’s been bombed. A mafia boss enters therapy. Campbell phrase: Crossing of the Threshold. Syd Field phrase: Plot Point 1.
  4. Search – adapting, experimenting, getting shit together, being broken down. A detective questions suspects. A cowboy gathers his posse. A cheerleader takes a nerd shopping. Campbell phrases: Belly of the Whale, Road of Trials. Christopher Vogler phrase: Friends, Enemies and Allies.
  5. Find – whether it was the direct, conscious goal or not, the “need” from (2) is fulfilled. We found the princess. The suspect gives the location of the meth lab. A nerd achieves popularity. Campbell phrase: Meeting with the Goddess. Syd Field phrase: mid-point. Vogler phrase: Approach to the Innermost Cave.
  6. Take – The hardest part (both for the characters and for anyone trying to describe it). On one hand, the price of the journey. The shark eats the boat. Jesus is crucified. The nice old man has a stroke. On the other hand, a goal achieved that we never even knew we had. The shark now has an oxygen tank in his mouth. Jesus is dead- oh, I get it, flesh doesn’t matter. The nice old man had a stroke, but before he died, he wanted you to take this belt buckle. Now go win that rodeo. Campbell phrases: Atonement with the Father, Death and Resurrection, Apotheosis. Syd Field phrase: plot point 2
  7. Return – It’s not a journey if you never come back. The car chase. The big rescue. Coming home to your girlfriend with a rose. Leaping off the roof as the skyscraper explodes. Campbell phrases: Magic Flight, Rescue from Without, Crossing of the Return Threshold.
  8. Change – The “you” from (1) is in charge of their situation again, but has now become a situation-changer. Life will never be the same. The Death Star is blown up. The couple is in love. Dr. Bloom’s Time Belt is completed. Lorraine Bracco heads into the jungle with Sean Connery to “find some of those ants.” Campbell phrases: Master of Both Worlds, Freedom to Live.

They sound simplistic. But in the article Harmon dissects well known movies and Channel101 episodes explaining how they conform to this structure.

Story Structure Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

As a member of a public speaking organisation I frequently tell stories in front of an audience. Reading these articles has changed my approach to story telling. Rather than beginning with a blank page I plan the progression of my story using Harmon’s eight points as subheadings, and attempt to give the correct emphasis to every point.

For more insights from Dan Harmon you can check out his website or twitter. And I highly recommend his appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast (bad language a plenty).

Robert Gottlieb on the Art of Editing

The author-editor relationship is an intimate one, and Robert Gottlieb, editor of many well-loved books and of The New Yorker for five years, knows this more than most. One of the best insights into this relationship comes courtesy of an interview with Gottlieb in The Paris Review where the ‘questions’ are actually anecdotes provided by some of the writers with whom he has worked over the years.

With comments from the likes of Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, Michael Crichton and Robert Caro, the one thing that particularly struck me in the interview is how Gottlieb continuously describes how to be a good editor, one must also be a good reader, writer and author.

He’s humble about the craft, too:

The fact is, this glorification of editors, of which I have been an extreme example, is not a wholesome thing. The editor’s relationship to a book should be an invisible one. The last thing anyone reading Jane Eyre would want to know, for example, is that I had convinced Charlotte Brontë that the first Mrs. Rochester should go up in flames. The most famous case of editorial intervention in English literature has always bothered me—you know, that Dickens’s friend Bulwer-Lytton advised him to change the end of Great Expectations: I don’t want to know that! As a critic, of course, as a literary historian, I’m interested, but as a reader, I find it very disconcerting. Nobody should know what I told Joe Heller and how grateful he is, if he is. It’s unkind to the reader and just out of place.

A quote I missed on first reading the interview (but saw highlighted on his Wikipedia entry) is this brief comment regarding his approach to editing:

You have to surrender to a book. If you do, when something in it seems to be going askew, you are wounded. The more you have surrendered to a book, the more jarring its errors appear.

Many (all?) of The Paris Review’s The Art of… interviews are online and worth spending some time with. Gabrielle from The Contextual Life provides a highlight of some of the best interviews, dating back to Ernest Hemingway’s 1950s interview.

via @RebeccaSkloot