Tag Archives: lists

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.

Writing Tools, Not Rules, for Better Writing

“Tools not rules” are what’s needed to teach good writ­ing, says The Poynter Institute’s vice pres­id­ent Roy Peter Clark in Writ­ing Tools – his acclaimed book com­pil­ing fifty of his favour­ites.

To accom­pany this book, Clark released his fifty writ­ing tools to improve your writ­ing on his blog, and here are some of my favour­ites:

  • Get the name of the dog and the brand of the beer. Dig for the con­crete and spe­cif­ic, details that appeal to the senses and help read­ers see the story.
  • Pay atten­tion to names. Inter­est­ing names attract the writer — and the read­er.
  • Know when to back off and when to show off. When the top­ic is most ser­i­ous, under­state; when least ser­i­ous, exag­ger­ate.
  • Learn the dif­fer­ence between reports and stor­ies. Use one to render inform­a­tion, the oth­er to render exper­i­ence.
  • Take interest in all crafts that sup­port your work. To do your best, help oth­ers do their best.

That last one, espe­cially.

For those want­ing a more aes­thet­ic­ally pleas­ing present­a­tion, the fifty writ­ing tools ‘cheat sheet’ (pdf) is what you’ll want. Where­as those want­ing some­thing a bit more sens­ory will take great pleas­ure in the fifty writ­ing tools pod­cast series (that unfor­tu­nately only made it to tool num­ber 32).

Myths About Introverts

As intro­verts are a minority—a mere twenty-five per­cent of the population—there are many per­sist­ent mis­con­cep­tions about the intro­vert per­son­al­ity among the majority. After read­ing The Intro­vert Advant­age, Carl King decided to com­pile a list of myths about intro­verts, explain­ing why each mis­con­cep­tion is false:

  1. Intro­verts don’t like to talk.
  2. Intro­verts are shy.
  3. Intro­verts are rude.
  4. Intro­verts don’t like people.
  5. Intro­verts don’t like to go out in pub­lic.
  6. Intro­verts always want to be alone.
  7. Intro­verts are weird.
  8. Intro­verts are aloof nerds.
  9. Intro­verts don’t know how to relax and have fun.
  10. Intro­verts can fix them­selves and become Extro­verts.

The list itself is fairly obvi­ous and ped­es­tri­an, but it’s King’s short descrip­tions that are truly insight­ful. For example, here are the explan­a­tions for myths four, five and six:

Intro­verts intensely value the few friends they have. They can count their close friends on one hand. If you are lucky enough for an intro­vert to con­sider you a friend, you prob­ably have a loy­al ally for life. Once you have earned their respect as being a per­son of sub­stance, you’re in.

Intro­verts just don’t like to go out in pub­lic FOR AS LONG. They also like to avoid the com­plic­a­tions that are involved in pub­lic activ­it­ies. They take in data and exper­i­ences very quickly, and as a res­ult, don’t need to be there for long to “get it.” They’re ready to go home, recharge, and pro­cess it all. In fact, rechar­ging is abso­lutely cru­cial for Intro­verts.

Intro­verts are per­fectly com­fort­able with their own thoughts. They think a lot. They day­dream. They like to have prob­lems to work on, puzzles to solve. But they can also get incred­ibly lonely if they don’t have any­one to share their dis­cov­er­ies with. They crave an authen­t­ic and sin­cere con­nec­tion with ONE PERSON at a time.

via Link Banana

Science Journalism’s Manifesto for the Simple Scribe

“To make some­body read it”. That is the only reas­on for writ­ing, accord­ing to the renowned Guard­i­an edit­or Tim Rad­ford, author of the “mani­festo for the simple scribe”.

This mani­festo, pre­vi­ously dis­trib­uted to edit­ors at Elsevi­er and Nature, con­sist­s of twenty-five writ­ing tips that col­lect­ively tell a sci­ence writer all they need to know to write con­sist­ently good copy.

Many, if not all, of Radford’s tips are rel­ev­ant to writ­ing styles oth­er than sci­ence journ­al­ism. Some favour­ite quotes:

You are not writ­ing to impress the sci­ent­ist you have just inter­viewed, nor the pro­fess­or who got you through your degree, nor the edit­or who fool­ishly turned you down, or the rather dishy per­son you just met at a party and told you were a writer. Or even your moth­er. You are writ­ing to impress someone hanging from a strap in the tube between Parson’s Green and Put­ney, who will stop read­ing in a fifth of a second, giv­en a chance.

No one will ever com­plain because you have made some­thing too easy to under­stand.

If in doubt, assume the read­er knows noth­ing. How­ever, nev­er make the mis­take of assum­ing that the read­er is stu­pid. The clas­sic error in journ­al­ism is to over­es­tim­ate what the read­er knows and under­es­tim­ate the reader’s intel­li­gence.

Remem­ber that people will always respond to some­thing close to them. Con­cerned cit­izens of south Lon­don should care more about eco­nom­ic reform in Sur­i­n­am than about Millwall’s fate on Sat­urday, but mostly they don’t. Accept it.

Focus Points for Entrepreneurs

When someone asked for advice on How to become a mil­lion­aire in 3 years on Hack­er News, seri­al entre­pren­eur Jason Bap­tiste took the task ser­i­ously provid­ing thirty-sev­en things to focus on when start­ing a com­pany, includ­ing:

  • Mar­ket oppor­tun­ity
  • Inequal­ity of inform­a­tion
  • Sur­round your­self with smart people
  • Your primary met­ric shouldn’t be dol­lars
  • If you do focus on a dol­lar amount, focus on the first $10,000
  • Get as many dis­tri­bu­tion chan­nels as pos­sible
  • Be a mas­ter of inform­a­tion
  • Be so good they can’t ignore you
  • Give your­self every oppor­tun­ity you can
  • Look for the access­ory eco­sys­tem
  • Make the illi­quid, liquid
  • Don’t be emo­tion­al
  • Don’t leave things up to chance
  • Raise rev­en­ue, not fund­ing
  • Don’t get com­fort­able
  • Don’t skimp on the import­ant things
  • Keep the momentum going
  • Listen to (or read the tran­scrip­tions of) every Mix­ergy inter­view you can
  • Learn how to fil­ter

Jason goes into great detail for each item on his list, start­ing his post with the cla­ri­fic­a­tion that these tips are for mak­ing a suc­cess of a busi­ness endeav­our in “a short time frame” (i.e. not spe­cific­ally for mak­ing a mil­lion dol­lars in three years).