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