How to Write Usefully

  • Useful writing makes claims that are as strong as they can be made without becoming false.
  • For example, it's more useful to say that Pike's Peak is near the middle of Colorado than merely somewhere in Colorado. But if I say it's in the exact middle of Colorado, I've now gone too far, because it's a bit east of the middle.
  • It's also two other things: it tells people something important, and that at least some of them didn't already know.
    • Telling people something they didn't know doesn't always mean surprising them. Sometimes it means telling them something they knew unconsciously but had never put into words. In fact those may be the more valuable insights, because they tend to be more fundamental.
  • If a sentence doesn't seem right, all you have to do is ask why it doesn't, and you've usually got the replacement right there in your head.
  • The way to get novelty in writing is to write about topics you've thought about a lot. Then you can use yourself as a proxy for the reader in this department too. Anything you notice that surprises you, who've thought about the topic a lot, will probably also surprise a significant number of readers. And here, as with correctness and importance, you can use the Morris technique to ensure that you will. If you don't learn anything from writing an essay, don't publish it.
  • I believe the formula I've given you, importance + novelty + correctness + strength, is the recipe for a good essay. But I should warn you that it's also a recipe for making people mad.