Can Good Writing Be Taught?

Epistemic status: Highly speculative; unburdened by any meaningful supporting evidence.

I’ve written something like 200 essays for school. Writing those essays did not teach me how to write. Writing for fun taught me how to write.

When I was in high school, I used to complain that the essays I was required to write were both boring and unhelpful, and I’d learn more by writing essays about whatever I wanted. But if my teachers had let students write whatever they wanted, I don’t think most of them would have gotten very far. I don’t think I would have gotten very far, either. There’s a big difference between

me: I have an idea! I will write about it!


teacher: Please have an idea and write about it.

me: What should I write about? I dunno, I guess I could write about X, I can probably force myself to come up with something to say about it.

Instead of writing something detached from ordinary life, like literary analysis, should high schoolers be taught to write something relevant, like emails?

In fact, I was taught how to write emails in high school (although that was only a small % of what we did), and the teaching was counterproductive. The way my teachers taught me to write emails was significantly wrong, and probably would have hindered my career if I had listened. (As a basic example, they said to always start an email with “Dear [name]”. Nobody starts emails that way in real life.) All the people with jobs who write emails somehow managed to un-learn the anti-lessons that they were taught.

But even if my teachers had taught me how to write emails correctly, it wouldn’t have mattered. If I have to slog through a purposeless assignment that I don’t care about, anything I learn from it doesn’t stick. I only learn from doing things if I’m doing them for a reason.

In conclusion, it’s impossible to force someone to learn good writing. They have to want to write.

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Existential Risk Reduction Is Naive (And That's a Good Thing)

I see many people criticize existential risk reduction as naive or arrogant. “What, you think you can save the world?”

I’m not going to dispute this. Yes, it’s naive and arrogant, and that’s a good thing.

There are countless movies about saving the world. Lots of people fantasize about saving the world (or, at least, my friends and I did when we were kids, and I still do). Ask any five-year-old child, and they can tell you that saving the world is awesome. But it takes a particularly subtle and clever mind to understand that actually, trying to save the world is a silly waste of time.

But actually, the five-year old was correct all along. Saving the world is, in fact, awesome! We should do it!

The mature, adult response is that you can’t save the world, and you should be content with contributing to society in your own small way. I could make some clever argument about scope sensitivity or universalist morality or something, but I don’t need to. You already know that saving the world is awesome. Everybody knows it, they’ve just forgotten.

Climate change is the only mainstream cause that at least has a plausible case for saving the world. And indeed some climate change activists think in those terms. Even though I believe it’s unlikely that mitigating climate change can save the world, it’s still admirable to try. I would like to see more people try. Ask yourself: What could destroy the world, and how do we stop that from happening?

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Low-Hanging (Monetary) Fruit for Wealthy EAs

Confidence: Likely.

Cross-posted to the Effective Altruism Forum.

Ordinary wealthy people don’t care as much about getting more money because they already have a lot of it. So we should expect to be able to find overlooked methods for rich people to get richer.1 Wealthy effective altruists might value their billionth dollar nearly as much as their first dollar, so they should seek out these overlooked methods.

If someone got rich doing X (where X = starting a startup, excelling at a high-paying profession, etc.), their best way of making money on the margin might not be to do more X. It might be to do something entirely different.

Some examples:

(Edit 2024-03-18: This paragraph did not age well…although the point about retaining equity is still valid.)

Sam Bankman-Fried increased his net worth by $10,000,000,000 in four years by founding FTX. He earned most of those zeroes by doing the hard work of starting a company, and there’s no shortcut around that. But, importantly, he managed to retain most of his original stake in FTX. For most founders, by the time their company is worth $10 billion or more, they only own maybe 10% of it. If Sam had given away a normal amount of equity to VCs, he might have only gotten $2 billion from FTX instead of $10 billion. In some sense, 80% of the money he earned from FTX came purely from retaining equity.2

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Do I Read My Own Citations?

It has often been said that scholars don’t read their own citations. Out of curiosity, I decided to go through one of my longer essays to see how many of my citations I read.

(I actually did this exercise a while ago, around the time I published the original essay. Today I was going through my personal journal and found my notes on the exercise, and I thought it might be worth sharing publicly.)

The results:

  • My essay cites a total of 37 academic papers.
  • For 9 citations, I read the entire thing top to bottom and took notes to help me remember.
  • For another 6 citations, I skimmed them but didn’t read carefully or take notes.
  • For the remaining 22, I only read the abstracts.
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Summaries Are Important

Every informative essay or research paper should include a summary at the beginning. Write your summary with the expectation that most readers will ONLY read the summary. The summary should tell most readers everything they need to know. The body of the article only exists to provide context and supporting evidence.

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My Experience Trying to Force Myself to Do Deep Work

Inspired by Applied Divinity Studies’ Unemployment Part 2

Many people, such as Cal Newport, say that you can only do about four hours of deep work per day. I am a lot worse at deep work than that.

When I worked full-time as a software developer, I tried pretty hard to avoid distractions and stay focused on work. At the end of each day, I made a quick estimate of how much I got done that day. I rated myself on a 5-point productivity scale. A fully productive day, where I spent the bulk of the day doing meaningful work, earned the full 5 points. My estimates were by no means objective, but according to my own perception, I scored 5 points on a total of 91 out of 602 work days (that’s 15%). A 5-point day usually meant I spent around four hours doing deep work, and most of the rest of the day doing important shallow work.

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How Can We Increase the Frequency of Rare Insights?

In many contexts, progress largely comes not from incremental progress, but from sudden and unpredictable insights. This is true at many different levels of scope—from one person’s current project, to one person’s life’s work, to the aggregate output of an entire field. But we know almost nothing about what causes these insights or how to increase their frequency.

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New Page: Convert Credences into a Bet

In response to a Facebook post, I created a page to make it easy to make bets with people. If two people disagree about a claim and they want to bet on it, they can use this form to calculate how much money each person should bet. Each person should input their best estimate of the probability of the claim being true, and the form will tell them how much to bet. The form ensures that the bet will be fair for both participants–they both expect to win the same amount of money.

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What Are the Best TV Shows (According to IMDb Episode Ratings)?

Recently, I was browsing IMDb’s list of top-rated TV shows:

According to IMDb ratings, Planet Earth II is the second-best TV show of all time, with 9.5 stars out of 10. But if you look at the ratings of each individual episode, they range from 6.8 to 7.91:

In general, the rating of a TV show usually differs from the average rating of that show’s episodes. What does the list of top TV shows look like if we sort by average episode rating instead of show rating? Perhaps voters have different motivations when they’re rating shows than when they’re rating individual episodes, and it could be interesting to see how the ratings differ.

So I downloaded the IMDb public database to find out2.

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