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In On Writing


Michael Nielsen on writing as an antidote to the illusion of understanding

Michael Nielsen on twitter:

One function of good notetaking is that it forces you to confront your own ignorance of things you thought you understood.

And also:

To convey the experience, I once said hyperbolically to a friend: “I believe I could barely think before I began to write seriously”. As the words hung in the air, I had quite a shock, as I realized I really believed it. Taking writing seriously made me a different person.

Michael expands and quotes David Chapman’s The illusion of understanding:

Unless you are a kitchen tool engineer, there’s no reason to actually understand how a can opener works. What everyone else needs is to know (1) what it is for and (2) how to use it. So most of the time “understanding” is really “comfort with.” It means you know how to interact with it well enough to get by, and you are reassured that it is not going to explode without warning. This comfort is provided mainly by familiarity, not understanding. Having used a can opener many times convinces you that you understand it, because you can almost always make one work, and you almost never cut yourself. Tellingly, Rozenblit and Keil found that their subjects did not overestimate their “how-to” knowledge, only their “how-it-works” knowledge.

Visakan Veerasamy adds:

“Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise, and everything precise is so remote from everything that we normally think, that you cannot for a moment suppose that is what we really mean when we say what we think.”
— Bertrand Russell in The Philosophy of Logical Atomism

Michael Nielsen on how hard it is to write well

Michael Nielsen on twitter:

I began serious writing in 2007, & was shocked by how difficult it was, & how transformative.

To convey the experience, I once said hyperbolically to a friend: “I believe I could barely think before I began to write seriously”. As the words hung in the air, I had quite a shock, as I realized I really believed it. Taking writing seriously made me a different person.

Early on, I asked a well-known science writer how many drafts he went through. He sighed, looked doleful, and replied “For the hard parts, sometimes 50 to 100”. I commiserated, but was secretly relieved: no, my process wasn’t irredeemably broken.

He then adds:

I‘d written a lot before then (a book, 50+ research papers, & theses). But in 2007 or 2008 I began to write pieces that were transformative. Mostly because I cared so much that I was willing to rewrite and rewrite, gradually sharpening the ideas.

There is an incredible comment by Grothendieck — perhaps the most creative mathematician of the last century — on what it is to be alone, to develop an idea from first principles that transcends community.

Michael links to his own post on Hacker News at the occasion of Grothendieck’s death:

Grothendieck’s comments on creativity have been very important in my life, especially the following quote (in translation from the French):

“To state it in slightly different terms: in those critical years [roughly from age 17 to 20] I learned how to be alone.

“This formulation doesn’t really capture my meaning. I didn’t, in any literal sense learn to be alone, for the simple reason that this knowledge had never been unlearned during my childhood. It is a basic capacity in all of us from the day of our birth. However these 3 years of work in isolation, when I was thrown onto my own resources, following guidelines which I myself had spontaneously invented, instilled in me a strong degree of confidence, unassuming yet enduring, in my ability to do mathematics, which owes nothing to any consensus or to the fashions which pass as law…

“By this I mean to say: to reach out in my own way to the things I wished to learn, rather than relying on the notions of the consensus, overt or tacit, coming from a more or less extended clan of which I found myself a member, or which for any other reason laid claim to be taken as an authority. This silent consensus had informed me, both at the lyé and at the university, that one shouldn’t bother worrying about what was really meant when using a term like “volume”, which was “obviously self-evident”, “generally known”, “unproblematic”, etc. I’d gone over their heads, almost as a matter of course, even as Lesbesgue himself had, several decades before, gone over their heads. It is in this gesture of “going beyond”, to be something in oneself rather than the pawn of a consensus, the refusal to stay within a rigid circle that others have drawn around one — it is in this solitary act that one finds true creativity. All others things follow as a matter of course.”

Very late in his life, Grothendieck asked for people to cease re-publishing his work, even brief excerpts (link). So I have mixed feelings about quoting the above. But I do so in the hope that it can help others as it has helped me.

Back to Michael on twitter:

For me, serious writing helped me understand & to some extent implement what Grothendieck was saying. An early example was The Future of Science. That looks simple and easy to read, but took a month of fulltime work to write, and much longer to distill the ideas.

It looks much easier to write than, say, The geometry of quantum computation. But the latter involved less thinking through fundamentals from first principles; it was more tied to conventional social mores, and so was in some sense much easier to write.

I realize that, ironically, this isn’t a terribly good description. At its core is a way of using writing to explore some very fundamental set of questions, approaching them as if from scratch, & pushing through to a novel clarity & simplicity. It’s excruciating & transformative.

Michael later added:

There were definite transitions in seriousness at 21 and 33. But I suspect that in ten years I’ll think that in 2020 I hadn’t yet started really seriously writing!

When I study good writers it is obvious almost immediately that they have hundreds or thousands of practices that would greatly improve my writing.

And that’s not counting all the less obvious practices!

A random example, which I was looking at not 10 minutes ago: Annie Lennox’s striking use of the biblical reference “song of songs” in “Love Song for a Vampire”. This is far beyond my writing practice at present!

(Link to the lyrics)

Come into these arms again
And lay your body down
The rhythm of this trembling heart
Is beating like a drum

It beats for you - It bleeds for you
It knows not how it sounds
For it is the drum of drums
It is the song of songs…

Once I had the rarest rose
That ever deigned to bloom
Cruel winter chilled the bud
And stole my flower too soon

Update

https://twitter.com/michael_nielsen/status/1376574168599195650

I once asked a well known writer how many drafts he went through. He sighed & said “for the really difficult bits, sometimes 50 to 100”. I can’t say how much that helped me — I realized I wasn’t terrible at writing, just that much apparently effortless writing was very hard work

https://twitter.com/paulg/status/1376580902889881600

I have probably hit 50 a few times, though probably not 100.

https://twitter.com/michael_nielsen/status/1376642606449389570

I deleted one chapter and started from scratch I believe 6 times (7 in total). Each overall draft was revised end-to-end maybe 5-10 times. So maybe ~50-60ish revisions for that chapter.

(It’s the one I had recently finished when I asked the question.)

Patrick McKenzie on writing being useful for 1-on-1 conversations and as proof-of-work in job searches

Patrick McKenzie on why writing is useful even if you don’t have an audience:

I think too many people are paralyzed by their ability to write or their desire to write. They say things like, “It doesn’t matter to write if I don’t have an audience to be able to ship those words to.”

I think that even if you have literally zero people who read what you write today, it is still worth writing that thing today. Because you will produce an asset that you can use in the future in 1-on-1 conversations. This is 180 degrees from how most people think about audience building or writing online and playing for the numbers.

If the only thing you got out of writing an essay is that the next time you‘re doing a job search — when you are writing cold emails to hiring managers for whatever the position is that you‘re going after — you can use that one essay that you wrote back in the day as a proof of work. Like, “Hey, I have clearly thought about this more than most people who are sending you a cold email with a link to a resume that you are going to skim for 30s.” That would already be the highest ROI on writing a piece that most writers will get.

Patrick McKenzie on the discovery process for his online brand

Patrick McKenzie on how he started writing online — and also what are attributes he looks for in a niche:

The selection of topics from my first several years of writing online is basically, “I‘m just going to blog about whatever is on top of my mind today”. And so in a day where I did a lot of accounting, I would write about accounting. In a day where I did a lot of optimization of the performance of my Java Swing app, I would write about the performance of a Java swing app, etc, etc.

It was sort of scatter shot, there was no rhyme or reason other than, “Well, if you enjoy my story, then here‘s the next update on it”. But if you weren‘t I bought into the patio11 story, then there was no particular reason to come into my blog on any given day. (Well, aside for maybe like you enjoy just the consumption of things that I write in my voice.)

After a couple of years, when I was looking back at both of my stats and what people were telling me — “This is clearly our best work” — I realized that I have a comparative advantage on the intersection between marketing and engineering.

I am a much better engineer than virtually all marketers. I am a much better marketer than virtually all engineers. And I wrote about that intersection very well. The more I wrote about things in that intersection, the better it did. The better I wrote long, meaty, detail-heavy posts in that intersection, the better they did.

That vs. the 200 words, “Well, I‘m trying to keep up my streak. So, I might as well write something today to say that I wrote something on Thursday.”

After I started operationalizing that and saying, “OK, I don‘t have a boss per se for my blog, I can still write about anything I want to write about. But when I‘m thinking of things to write about, I should probably be covering stuff that‘s in my ‘beat’ or adjacent to it.” And I should probably be writing in form factors that work for me — which tend to be 8000-word-effort posts.

Then, people started liking the output more. I started getting better at that variety of output. There was a compounding goodness to it. I had more of “brand developing” for myself, that is not “scare”. There was a virtuous cycle there. A tighter brand for my work caused more people to like it, cause them to come back more often and to recommend it to people. Cause them to, if things adjacent to that brand were discussed online, people would inject me into the conversation even without me being in that room, which gave me more opportunities to write, which gave me more… Circle all the way around.

I don‘t specifically regret spending a couple of years just in that experimental phase of throwing stuff to the wall on the Internet and seeing what sticks. But if I got to do over, I would probably have been actively looking for:

There are holes in the Internet, but there are some that are more valuable than others. It is extremely useful to me that the thing that happened to be my intersection is extremely commercializable for well heeled companies. Software companies, in particular. Companies that aren‘t going to run out of money to throw at the question of engineering plus marketing software anytime soon.

So, if I got to do over, I would be looking at: What are the opportunities that hit both my interests and my ability to write something well, and the expressed, known needs of relatively well heeled participants of the economy.

Patrick McKenzie on looking for where your niche currently meets online

Patrick McKenzie on finding where your audience currently lives and gradually injecting yourself in there:

The chicken-and-egg — the cold start problem — is a real problem.

Your audience exists somewhere. It is likely a combination of both:

  1. People who don‘t yet know that they should be friends
  2. But also folks that are already friends because they already are an audience elsewhere

So, if you find those places where your crowd (or the people who should be in your crowd) naturally congregates, participating in those spaces and then gradually injecting your stuff into those spaces works rather well.

Too few people remember it, but there was back in the day this forum called the Business of Software that was hosted by Joel Spolsky. There were yours truly and maybe 2,000 other people there who were building software companies all at the same time. If you use the magic math of participation on the Internet that implies there were a couple of hundred thousands people reading it. A lot of those two thousand people went on to do great things. Of the 60 people that read my blog on the first day that it existed back in 2006, I assume virtually all of them saw it because they had seen me, you know, participating on that forum for 6+ months. And they saw it when I posted. “Hey, I started a blog today and I’m going to launch a piece of software in a week here’s my post about it.”

The explosion of social media in the last couple of years makes this easier. Because you can sort of like interact with people who have large audiences on social media. The tricky bit of it gradually, and in an authentic way, introduce your pieces and replies about their pieces, or your thoughts into replies about their thoughts.

There’s some deep, deep social technology and nuance about doing that in a way that is both true to your values and not annoying for the person that you are sort of climbing onto and also not annoying for their audience. But I’ve seen many, many people do that, and do that relatively well.

There is also, by the way, people who have a standing invitation — like myself — “Please send me email. I like getting email. I like reading things that people have written etc.”