Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Pesuade xor Discover"

Paul Graham considers the following issue: When writing, the plain truth (as you see it) will often be offensive to people. You can try and avoid this, but it doing so means being less concise, because you have to add disclaimers and write more indirectly. Is this worth it?

Maybe not. Maybe I'm excessively attached to conciseness. I write code the same way I write essays, making pass after pass looking for anything I can cut. But I have a legitimate reason for doing this. You don't know what the ideas are until you get them down to the fewest words. The danger of the second paragraph is not merely that it's longer. It's that you start to lie to yourself. The ideas start to get mixed together with the spin you've added to get them past the readers' misconceptions. [4]

That's not even the worst danger. I think the goal of an essay should be to discover surprising things. That's my goal, at least. And most surprising means most different from what people currently believe. So writing to persuade and writing to discover are diametrically opposed. The more your conclusions disagree with readers' present beliefs, the more effort you'll have to expend on selling your ideas rather than having them. As you accelerate, this drag increases, till eventually you reach a point where 100% of your energy is devoted to overcoming it and you can't go any faster.
(my emphasis).

I fully agree about the dangers there. I think it's important to treat writing as a means to figure out your view and that only at the very end should you be concerned with issues to do with communicating it to others. I think that to do otherwise is to limit yourself - a kind of premature optimisation, and from what I know of other's writing I think they most people get into those concerns far too early - either right at the start or early on in the process. This also seems to be the way writing is taught.

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