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).