Michael Nielsen on how hard it is to write well
Michael Nielsen tweeted:
I began serious writing in 2007, and was shocked by how difficult it was, and 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. (#)
Paul Graham then commented:
I have probably hit 50 a few times, though probably not 100. (#)
To which Michael answered:
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.) (#)
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. (#)
He then linked 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 lycée 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.
For me, serious writing helped me understand and 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 full-time 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, and pushing through to a novel clarity & simplicity. It’s excruciating & transformative. (#)
Michael later tweeted:
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! (reference)
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
In early 2022, Michael tweeted about the process of picking a title for one of his books:
For, e.g., my book “Reinventing Discovery” I wrote out a list of >100 possible titles. And I half-consciously considered far more variations still, nearly all terrible. But then when the title came to me it seemed so simple and obvious… (#)
Sometimes terms come easily, but often it’s like playing chess with an unbounded set of pieces, many of them unknown to you, on an unbounded board… (#)