A Novel Novel

I feel a little bit late to the party in terms of book-writing. Everyone else in my family has either written, or co-authored, at least one book. My father wrote a book on his experience with competitive swimming. My sister co-authored several books with my mother in a series that teaches children to improve their handwriting using quotes from influential historical figures. My mother has also independently authored a series of manuals for several versions of Microsoft Dynamics Navision. Heck, even my youngest sister is a published ghostwriter.

I’ve been publishing my writings for about ten years, including these, but all of it has been online. I’ve never experienced the feeling of holding in my hands a book I wrote.

That’s about to change.

The content of my new book is something I didn’t think would ever write about, though it had been sitting in the back of my mind for years. This is because, until a few weeks ago, I didn’t think there would be a market for it.

I was born lacking the machinery that lets people learn social skills naturally. (In short, I’m autistic.) But I was determined to prevent that fact from hindering me, so I spent a decade of my life through my teens working tirelessly on improving my social abilities, until I was not only adequate, but significantly above average. I’ve spoken with Congressional lobbyists and spokespeople, as well as received awards from the Toastmasters Club for public speaking and worked as a salesperson for a year.

Back then, I wished there were a book of all the social rules, so that I could just pick it up and learn. It would have made my life so much easier: most of the non-autistic people I talked to couldn’t actually explain what they were doing in social situations, or why what I was doing was so wrong. There was no such book, so I learned it all myself. Logged it all in my “mental Excel spreadsheet”, as my sister (an accountant) calls it. When I got nearer to the end of my journey, I considered actually writing up all this declarative knowledge about social rules that I’d acquired, but I decided against it: I’m not an expert, not a psychologist, I’m only a lowly autistic person, how could I know enough to write something useful?

(I should have recognized these arguments as what they are – Resistance – but I didn’t, because I hadn’t read The War of Art yet.)

Until recently, all this was just a kooky detail about how I got where I am today. I told friends about it, in conversations about how I see the world, but I didn’t explain it to anyone I didn’t know very well, and I certainly didn’t consider writing any books about it. I didn’t think anybody would bother buying such a book.

But then I moved to San Francisco, where I met dozens of other autistic people. I learned that the wish I’d had as a young person, that somebody would just tell me The Rules, wasn’t unusual at all. Before I left for SF, I figured on some level that people would teach themselves the rules to whatever level they felt was necessary, and so even if I decided to write The Rules, nobody would read it. But in making that assessment, I underestimated the amount I’d been helped by factors outside my control, like having parents who are well-versed in developmental psychology. I failed to consider the idea that maybe other autistic people wouldn’t have spent the time I had on gathering all the data, interpreting and analyzing it, and condensing years of experience in social environments into cohesive explanations of social rules. I failed to consider that they might not know how, or might not know it was even possible.

The thing that made me reconsider was a blog, Autistic Not Weird, run by Chris Bonnello. His posts about the struggles faced by autistic adults made me realize that a book on The Rules wouldn’t be redundant; instead, it could be the first of its kind in a niche market with huge demand and no supply.

I wrote the first draft in 8 days, then tossed it to a group of my friends, who made a slew of edits which added nearly fifteen thousand more words to the length. (A good thing, because I felt the first draft was too short at 25k words.) As they were making edits, I did an oil painting for the front cover, plugged it into Adobe Illustrator as soon as it was dry enough to photograph, and designed the remainder of the cover digitally, adding a back-cover blurb and an “About the Author” section.

In all, the first draft was finished in two weeks. I did this on a short time frame because I had six classes starting at the end of those two weeks, and I knew I would have much less time to write while I was busy taking them.

When I started writing this book, I had considered the idea of getting it from a blank page to publication within the two weeks I had available. I decided, ultimately, that waiting six months to finish the book would improve the end product. The most creative people are not those who precrastinate (rush to complete a task as soon as it’s available), nor those who procrastinate (don’t even start a task until the last minute). There is a sweet spot for creativity where you “procrastinate” just a little bit.

So, now a week into my classes, I’m allowing the passage of time to help my creative process generate new ideas. I’m keeping a list of everything I want to add, and I’ve been adding them gradually as I’ve had time.

I’m setting my goal for publication for December of this year (2020). It feels too far away, like a more reasonable time frame would be two months, but I need to remind myself that the quality of the book is not going to be judged by how long it took me to write it. And, the difference between two weeks and six months of writing time is not going to matter to the people I’m trying to help.

I hope to update this post in December, when I’ve successfully published the book. Here’s to all the work it has taken, and will take, to make that happen!

Why I Want to be Immortal

I keep a regular personal journal. This was my diary entry from Valentine’s day this year – slightly modified.

People ask me why I want to be immortal, like I must have had a traumatic childhood or something.

Today was Valentines’ Day. I decided I was going to cash in a favor to take my partner to a nicer dinner than we could otherwise afford. I read and wrote and got work done for the better part of the day, then when my partner finished work, we took some chocolate to my grandmother, dropped by home so we could get changed into some nice clothes, then went out.

We talked on the way there about taking joy in the merely real, the reasons that people fail to do this, and my partner’s views about science. We talked as we waited to be seated about the ideal setup for a restaurant waiting area. We talked as we ate about the public school system, about having children, about optimizing the world, about the design for my office in our future home, once we had our own. We talked as we drove home about assigning meaning to days, but for the most part we were too contented by our meals to talk about much of anything, so we just held hands and got lost in our minds.

After we got home, we cuddled, fell asleep, and woke up again just past midnight. Neither of us were very tired anymore, so we headed up to the loft my parents had recently added to our overly-tall living room to cuddle around my new kotatsu. My love brought sodas for the both of us. When I climbed the ladder, I saw that there was already a little arrangement there, with a pink rose in a pink vase with a heart charm tied by a white ribbon around its neck, a stuffed unicorn, and a box of chocolates. We shared chocolate and sat together, hand in hand.

As I sat in the loft which was the product of my parents’ desires to make this house really ours; as I sat at the kotatsu my mother had let me spend in excess of four hundred dollars on just because we’re both Japan fanatics who wanted a little Japanese heated table; as I held my plush unicorn that my beautiful girlfriend had bought for me as a surprise present; I told this to the love of my life.

“You know, people ask me why I want to be immortal. Maybe, wanting this makes me greedy. Like eighty-odd years isn’t enough for me. But whenever my life strikes a particularly beautiful chord, whenever something happens that makes me happy, eighty years to live seems too short. I want to have more of these moments, and I want everyone else to have more of these moments, and I think it’s incredibly sad that we only get a certain number.”

And she told me, that’s not greedy. Really, it’s the opposite. It would be greed if I wanted to have that at the expense of other people. Instead, I wanted to work hard at this and make it happen, not just for me, but for everyone.

I think people like to paint me as a Gilgamesh, once faced with death and running away ever since. But I at least hope that there’s some difference between running away from death and running toward life.

Can’t Bear to Hurt Your Characters?

I’ve been writing novels – or at least trying to write novels, with varying degrees of success – for about ten years. In general, I’m a very good writer, but I have a chronic habit of not finishing novels in particular. I begin stories, get a quarter or halfway through, and never finish them. Sometimes the story stopped being interesting and I forgot about it, but more often, I had no idea where to go next.

From the reader’s perspective, this writing looked like a bunch of elegant prose and interesting characters just sort of aimlessly drifting with no purpose. Any one chapter, or even a short string of chapters, might be interesting, but after an extended period of reading, you would be left confused. I was just as confused writing these driftwood stories.

Only recently did I realize what I was doing wrong, and I realized it by accident.

A few months ago, I decided to start on a novel – not an uncommon whim for me, to be sure – but the way I came at it was different. Instead of imagining an interesting scenario, or world, or set of characters, I wanted to tell a story about something. It had a moral, a plot, a purpose. (I wanted to write about three things: our relationships with others, our relationships with ourselves, and the relative importance of each.)

For the first time, I shaped the characters and the world around the story, not the other way around. Oddly, I wasn’t comfortable writing beyond chapter 1 without a very clear idea of all the major plot beats, especially the ending. I had never done that before: known the ending before writing much of anything.

Besides helping me gain a clear roadmap for where I wanted my story to go, this mindset also helped me to get over what I had known for a long time was my biggest flaw as a novelist: my inability to hurt my characters. I hadn’t known before how to fix that problem, but all of a sudden with this mindset shift, I stopped having a mental hangup about killing or hurting characters. It confused me at first.

After a short time, I realized a fundamental distinction between the way I’d been writing before and the way I wrote this new story. Before, I had been writing wish fulfillment. I started with characters or situations or worlds that I enjoyed imagining things about, and I wanted to share those imaginings with the world, so I wrote them down. It was never about telling a story, it was about sharing a cute scenario or a cool world or a neat character. And because it was about those things, I would be extremely reluctant to sacrifice the real purpose of the writing for the sake of a “plot”.

On the other hand, when the goal was to tell a story, I didn’t get too attached to any one story component, because the only reason those components existed the way they did was because the story required it; if the story had required something else, I would have come up with something else.

If you can’t bring yourself to hurt or kill your characters, ask yourself why they’re so precious to you. Is your writing shaped around a story you’re trying to tell, or is it simple wish fulfillment? There’s nothing wrong with writing wish fulfillment, by the way – but if you’re writing that type of fiction, it’s often best to know it. That way, you don’t feel compelled to add a plot to what should really be a fluffy one-shot.

De Formae

Latin: With Regards to the Subject of Beauty

How many beautiful things just evaporate into the wind?

One day on my way home from work, I descended the elevator onto the train platform, listening to music. I forget which song I was listening to, but whatever it was, it definitively clashed with the noise of the station. It was not ordinary station noise—footsteps, chatter, rustling of paper maps and bags. As soon as I placed the sound, I quickly removed my headphones and stuffed them into my bag.

There was a man playing a beautiful, haunting, nostalgic melody on an electric keyboard. He had a sign up next to him, a whiteboard on a stand. “I hope everyone is having a wonderful day!” it said. “Just trying to get my music out. Hopefully my music will be heard. Feel free to let me know what you think!” This was followed by his Venmo information and, below the sign, a red cloth bag. Until my train came I stood and leaned against a pillar, listening to the music. It was the most amazing music I’ve ever heard, and I wanted to record it, but after I had the thought to do so, I hardly had two minutes before my train came and I had to leave for home. I never did let him know what I thought, but I did drop a twenty dollar bill into the cloth bag.

My fiancé is an artist, but not like me. She didn’t “draw”, she did literally everything else. Anything on the border of that word was fair game—typography, topology, graphic design, architectural sketches, blueprints, you name it—but never proper art. At least, not anymore.

For a long while I had the nicest handwriting of anyone I knew (don’t be envious, it’s a thoroughly useless skill to be good at, in fact it winds you up addressing a lot of envelopes), but then I met her and that changed. Whenever she would come to visit, and for a while even after she was living with me, she would leave me little notes. “Good morning, love. Have a nice day today.” “So you know, I’m headed out to buy some groceries, I’ll be back in an hour or so.” “Hey, darling, would you mind putting a can of soda in the freezer for me so it’s nice and cold when I get home?” I used to keep all his notes. Then there got to be too many and I stopped. When we moved, I left them at my parents’ place.

My youngest sister is a writer—among other things—and I used to have frequent conversations with her when I had yet to realize that amateur fiction is something I am neither good at nor particularly enjoy. She has a way of beautifully crafting circular metaphors, where a person does a thing and the thing is blue, and then through the course of the story it shifts colors to gold and then to red but then finally, and usually this comes after the character dies, it shifts back to blue, and it’s wonderful and reflective and sad and I am not doing it justice with this poor artist’s description.

I used to want to write down her eloquent phrasings and plots, but then at one point, I was driving her to an event of some description, and she said something particularly eloquent, something about golden braids. I wanted to write it down but I couldn’t pull over to do so as we were pressed for time, and I asked if she could write it down for me and she said, no. I asked why and she said, maybe it’s better to let some words just become air.

There is so much beauty in this world and much of it is unobserved, or, perhaps worse, unnoticed. I wonder who else who heard that man at the station is still haunted by his music. I wonder who else saw my fiancé’s doodlings and notes and the way he organized our bedroom and thought of Sen no Rikyū’s ideals of simplistic natural beauty. I wonder who else read my sister’s metaphors and plots and was moved by their eloquence. It’s entirely possible that I’ll never know.

But why is it even my first impulse, when I see something beautiful, to capture it? Why is it humanity’s first impulse—for this I presume is the reason people put pretty birds in cages? We desire to possess what is beautiful. My justification involves a desire to experience the beauty more than once and my memory’s inadequacy at satisfying this desire, but it’s just that, isn’t it? A justification. If you have a seemingly different thought process but it still winds you up with the same result, chances are you wrote the bottom line before the arguments above it.

I’ve tried to deliberately give up this impulse to capture beauty, because I’ve noticed the capturing detracts from the observation. If you’ve already seen something a million times but are trying to preserve the memory for a later date when you’re liable to have forgotten many of the details, this is a good time for capturing. But if this is perhaps your only chance to see the beauty, just see it. “I want to look at it” clashes violently with “I want a picture” and leads to a poorer overall experience of the beautiful thing, and it seems to me that a faulty memory fully utilized is still better than that same memory half-assed plus a blurry photograph. If you don’t see it again you have one good memory; if you do, you can take the photo next time.

I think the man at the station knew that. Besides the message, he only had his Venmo information on the sign: nowhere people could find his music to listen to more, no Soundcloud or Youtube username. Perhaps my fiancé knew it too, though it’s possible she’s just dismissive of her talents: in a society built on self-deprecation and humility, and among humans for whom words shape reality, it’s not surprising that many people are chronically undervalued. I know my sister knew it. Recently, I learned. And now, you know too. I hope it is of use to you.

Book Review: The Humans

Matt Haig’s “The Humans” gains the dubious title of “most frustrating book I’ve ever read all the way through”.

Before reading this review, please read the book yourself and come up with your own ideas about it. I very much don’t want this review to spoil it for you, and I’m about to lay out and thoroughly dissect the plot. Despite the fact that some of its meta-elements frustrate me in particular, the book is immensely well-written and beautiful, and I don’t want to diminish anyone’s enjoyment of it before they’ve even gotten the chance to read the original.

That being said…

I’ve found a number of books frustrating. The overwhelming majority, I didn’t bother to finish. Some of these books were badly-written, some espoused ideologies I strongly disagree with, some were internally inconsistent. I won’t name the specific books on this so-frustrating-I-didn’t-finish-them list, because you’ll probably think I’m making a value judgement against those books, or that I want to make you feel bad if you enjoy them. I’m not, and I don’t: my frustration with these books is an attribute of me, not of the books. Likewise, my frustration with “The Humans”.

Here’s a quick plot synopsis – as a refresher for the bits I’ll be talking about; if you haven’t read the book, read it.

There is a highly advanced alien species who finds out that a particular human has found out a thing they don’t want him to find out. As such, they kill him and send one of their own to impersonate him, to delete the evidence, including that which happens to be represented within human brains. The aliens are not concerned with the fact that humans tend to call this “murder”. The one they send has a difficult time adjusting to life as a human for a number of reasons, but gets out of some tough scrapes using magi- I mean alien technology. In the process, he gets attached to the family of the man he’s impersonating, who he was sent to kill, and also somewhat to humanity in general. He has an existential crisis over it all, and ends up relinquishing his life in his hyper-advanced home civilization to spend the rest of his life as a human mortal.

Here are my two specific points of frustration with that.

#1: The author is so focused on the main character’s journey to the end state which he understands (poetic sympathy with the modern human condition) that he doesn’t adequately demonstrate the beginning state, and the whole journey is cheapened as a result. Essentially, he writes a story from the perspective of someone who comes from an entire society whose entire purpose in existence is math, and yet there isn’t much actual math in it. Not even for the purpose of making decisions. I know from experience that when you really care about the math, you sort of become the math. It isn’t just a tool you use, it takes over your thoughts. Part of the beauty of stories like HPMOR is that they’re really, honestly about science – you couldn’t remove the science without removing the story.

There is a fundamental disconnect when you try to write a book from the perspective of someone in love with math, without yourself actually being in love with math. Really being in love with math doesn’t look like having a favorite prime number. It doesn’t even look like recognizing the importance of math to the structure of the universe, though this is in fact a piece of insight more people could do to have. Really being in love with math looks like having the thoroughly amazing realization that the question “what should I believe?” has an empirically proven correct answer. It looks like finding beauty in a proof like an artist finds beauty in a flower. It looks like loving the universe more because of its mathematical roots; finding more joy, not less, in a rainbow once it has been explained.

In short, I’d like to see this book’s premise rewritten by a mathematician.

#2: The ending of this book generally makes the transhumanist in me want to scream.

I don’t think it’s terribly hard to see why death is a bad thing. A decent portion of humans have already decided on it. It would be even easier to decide that death is bad if you came from a society which didn’t have any such thing: the only reason that many humans think it’s okay is rationalization, anyway. You could make people rationalize reasons why getting hit on the head with a truncheon every week was actually a good thing, if they thought it was inevitable. (It makes your head stronger! And makes you happier on the days you’re not getting hit on the head! No, really!) But if I asked you, dear reader, who are presumably not subject to such a weekly annoyance, if you’d like to start, for all the amazing benefits, I think you’d say no.

And yet this alien, who comes from a society which has no such thing as death, and furthermore no such thing as permanent physical injury, accepts mortality in exchange for becoming one of The Humans.

I mean, I get it, humans are cool. That’s the whole “humanist” bit. I love humans too. I think we’re capable of greatness. But exchanging immortality for us? Without so much as putting up a fight?

I think I’d at least try to apply my superior intelligence to figure out exactly how the relevant bits of alien technology worked, and find out how to apply them in humans. Yet he fails to take a trip down that line of discovery. Further, the alien is small-scale altruistic without ever considering the concept of large-scale altruism. He spends a lot of time agonizing over the fact that he can’t help the humans since they’d realize he wasn’t one of them, and yet he spends a non-negligible portion of the book helping the family of the man he’s impersonating. I think if I had a magic left hand that I didn’t want anyone to know about, I would still go around using it to cure people. Just, when I got asked how it worked, I’d say “Science!” – it’s a curiosity-stopper for a lot of people. On the whole, if I was really intent on abandoning my home planet for Earth, I would at least try to steal as much useful stuff as possible before I left, and use it to the best of my ability.

So why didn’t the alien do this? Simply, because he was written by a human who had not thought of it. The writer must encompass his characters, and so no character can go beyond the knowledge of the writer. If you consider what an immortal alien would do, that doesn’t let you magically climb outside your own brain to generalize from knowledge that isn’t yours. If you accept death as the natural order, who says that an immortal alien wouldn’t accept it too?

I do. It doesn’t make any sense. I wouldn’t do that, and I grew up with death. Within the past year, two of my relatives have died, along with hundreds of thousands of strangers, and I find that completely unacceptable. I have reason to believe that an immortal alien would probably think a bit more like me than like Matt Haig – assuming the alien were capable of thinking like a human at all.

So, I suppose, this book is frustrating because it accepts what, to me, is unacceptable, without putting up a fight at all. It’s one long exercise in the Mind Projection Fallacy, and a demonstration of the fact that to write true science fiction you need to actually know science. I read it all the way through anyways because it’s beautifully written and incredibly interesting.

Intuition Is Adaptable

Or, why “X is counterintuitive” is just a way of saying “I haven’t seen any sufficiently intuitive explanations of X”.

As a kid, I was a huge science nerd. In particular, I loved Stephen Hawking’s work. He had a TV show at some point, which I watched whenever I got the chance. One of the first books I remember reading was “A Brief History of Time”.

The main reason I loved reading his writing is that it didn’t seem very complicated to me. Not in the way Richard Feynman’s work seems un-complicated—Feynman just seems like he’s dicking around all the time and happens to love dicking around in physics specifically, so much so that he got a Nobel Prize in it. (I’m aware this isn’t remotely what happened, but that’s the sense you get from reading his writing.) Instead, I found Stephen Hawking’s writing to be un-complicated in the way that I later found Eliezer Yudkowsky’s and Daniel Kahneman’s writings to be un-complicated: it just makes sense.

The best physical example of Stephen Hawking’s influence on kid-me is a sheet of sticky paper that’s still stuck to the wall of the library in my parents’ house, on which I wrote an explanation of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

You’d think I was joking, but…

The easy way to explain this is just to say that I was a genius, or if you don’t feel like giving me that much credit, you can say that I was able to do a lot of book-learning because I had no social life. (This assessment isn’t wrong, by the way.)

But I’m actually going to give myself even less credit than that. I don’t think I’m a genius, and I also don’t think that the extra time I gained by skipping recess to read the encyclopedia (I already told you I was a nerd, get off my back) actually contributed in any meaningful way to my comprehension of “A Brief History of Time”. I don’t think it had anything to do with me at all; rather, it was almost entirely a property of the authors.

Which authors are particularly poignant to you has a decent amount to do with you: I know a girl who thinks that Jen Sincero’s book You Are A Badass is the best book on the planet; I read the first paragraph and immediately put it back down again. But all other things being equal, a human brain is a human brain, and an intuitive explanation is an intuitive explanation.

Assuming you’ve got some very basic algebra, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’s Theorem will almost certainly make sense to you. (Whether or not you care is a function of your preferences in reading material, separate from whether or not you could understand it if you did care.) Even if you suck at math. I know, because at the time that I read the Explanation, I sucked at math. (I’ve since gotten much better through deliberate effort.) There are books in every discipline that make things make sense to people, that clarify cloudy issues, that provide intuitive explanations.

This is very good news for those of us who think we are just bad at something, and we have no way to get better. I grew up thinking I was bad at math, since I hate algebra and I hate trig and I’d always give up before I finished a problem and it was generally just the dullest drek on the planet. And yet, I have no difficulty calculating conditional probabilities with Bayes Theorem. All I had to do was read a good enough explanation. If you think you’re irreparably bad at something, don’t give up on it, just keep reading.

This is moderately poor news for those of us who are in the habit of writing explanations, though, because we can’t blame our readers’ lack of comprehension on the difficulty of the subject matter. It may partially be about the subject matter—neither all subjects nor all readers are created equal—but there is always some way that we could be better writers, better explainers, and thus have our explanations make more sense.

Personally, I choose to take this as a challenge. If no subject is imperceptibly counterintuitive, no subject is outside my domain, if I’m good enough. I just need to get stronger.

Book Review: Methods of Rationality

It’s high time I did a real review of my favorite book in the universe. I read it for the first time at the age of 13, and it triggered an utter obsession with cognitive science, rationality, and artificial intelligence that has not disappeared to this day. (It has, however, become more mature: I no longer write shitty romantic poetry about cognitive science.)

I will attempt to describe this masterpiece of literature; more than once since I will absolutely fail several times.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a 122-chapter parallel-universe Harry Potter fanfic in which Lily Evans married an Oxford professor, Michael Verres, and Harry was adopted and raised in a loving home filled to the brim with books. It is written by one Eliezer Yudkowsky, co-founder of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, who writes frequently for the blog Less Wrong, which I’ve cited here before, and is best known for popularizing the idea of Friendly AI.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a book about an eleven-year-old who knows both magic and calculus and wants to take over the world using Science so he can get more books.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a book that successfully taught a 13-year-old girl—who wasn’t and still isn’t a genius—the underlying fundamentals of cognitive psychology, quantum physics, artificial intelligence, and Bayesian probability theory. If you read it, you will also learn these things, without ever realizing you have learned them. It will simply make sense, in a way that makes you wonder how you ever didn’t understand it.

While reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, you will frequently have absolutely no idea whether Harry is the villain or the hero. You will frequently have absolutely no idea whether Draco Malfoy is the villain or the hero, either. This goes for most of the characters, with the exception of Hermione and McGonagall. It does not exclude Voldemort.

This book will make you laugh, cry, learn, and question human existence. It will make you very aware of the sound of snapping fingers, and the shape of the night sky. It will show you the best and worst of humanity, and make both understandable. If you let it, it will teach you some of the most valuable life lessons you might ever learn.

Find the completed book at hpmor.com. You can read it in however much time you like, but given the length, it takes a fast reader about three or four days to binge straight through, so you probably can’t read it any faster than that. In any case, when you do finish it, please leave a comment telling me what you thought! And of course, give the author some feedback and leave reviews on however many chapters you like.

As an end note, in case you might not have believed me, here is only one of the shitty romantic poems I wrote about rationality. Please be nice to the author, she was a little girl who fell in love with science, not a poet, and she was doing her best.

Be skeptical, not cynical;
be open, but not gullible.
Be curious, not clever;
no rationalization, ever.

Accept the truth for what it is;
and look for contradictions
in all arguments, yours included;
you’re more confused by fiction.

A word is just a label
before you know the referent;
a lie gets told a long time,
if someone’s to protect it.

Certain kinds of people
truth they wrongly construe,
but they’ll do it in the name of
who they think is watching you.

Humans tend to think
they could predict things in advance
but that’s some hindsight bias
when really there’s low chance.

Don’t explain all this all at once,
mind inferential distance,
plus the illusion of transparency,
and all peoples’ heuristics.

People don’t like weird ideas,
or saying they don’t know;
but even with our biases,
There’s a long way we shall go.

How to Not Write Academically

I’ve discussed before that English classes and tests through high school and college don’t measure how good you are at real writing. They measure how good you are at academic writing. As such, if your only experience with writing comes from English classes, your writing is probably very academic. Unless you’re looking to be a professor or researcher, you probably don’t want that, because you probably know that academic writing is generally boring to write and to read. Still, it’s hard to know what the hallmarks of academic writing are, or how to stop.

Today I’ll be telling you what academic writing looks like in detail, as well as how to stop doing the academic thing and start doing the real writing thing. I’ll also give some general writing tips and ways to “find your voice”, or, find your own unique and interesting way of writing.

One of the most common things I’ve seen from people who were taught to write academically is that they never use contractions. Things like “I’ve”, “don’t”, “it’s”, etc. Not using contractions is an easy way to add extra words and sound more formal, and given the word count minimums in many English classes, plus the formal tone of most academic writing, it can be easy for students to fall into this trap. The grammarians are up in the air as to whether or not contractions should be used in formal writing, but the agreement is that for informal writing (blog posts, for example), it’s completely fine.

Here’s another one: excessively complicated sentences, or passive voice. I group these together since they often combine to create a monster of incomprehensibility. When you’re trying to convey complex thoughts, it can be easy to let your sentences become complex as well, but for the sake of your reader, try to write as simply as you can. There are two simple hacks for this: use the passive voice as little as possible, and break your sentences when you can.

For example, let’s take what I wrote above: “try to write as simply as you can”. It’s in the active voice, it’s simple, and it says exactly what you should do. In a sentence that’s already pretty long, the simple phrase wraps it up. By contrast, if I’d said, “writing as simply as possible is important”, is in the passive voice, it’s complicated, and it’s not immediately actionable.

Here’s yet another one: academic writers don’t start sentences with conjunctions. Overall, a lot of people have the mistaken impression that using words like “and”, “but”, “so”, etc. at the beginnings of sentences is poor grammar, but actually, all major style guides say otherwise. The only reason almost everyone thinks it’s wrong is because we were taught so in school: evidently sometime in the 19th century, “some schoolteachers took against the practice of beginning a sentence with a word like but or and, presumably because they noticed the way young children overused them in their writing. But instead of gently weaning the children away from overuse, they banned the usage altogether! Generations of children were taught they should ‘never’ begin a sentence with a conjunction. Some still are.” (source)

Those four things are, I’ve found, the most common ways that people write academically by accident. Even so, there are a huge number of others, and which ones you in particular tend to use depends on who taught you English and how you learned. How do you get completely out of the academic writing mindset if you’re not sure exactly what you’re doing wrong?

I’ve got a simple trick for you that not only will help you stop writing academically, it will also help you find your voice (your unique way of writing). First, write something on a topic you know well. Then wait a while, probably a day or so, until you forget the specific words and phrases you used. Then, record yourself talking about the same topic and transcribe the audio. Finally, compare the two. How is your spoken word different from your written one?

You’ll probably find some obvious differences, like when you talk, you stutter and say “um” a lot more. But you’ll probably also find a lot of non-obvious differences. Maybe your writing sounds verbose and stuffy since you use words you never use when you talk. Maybe there are colloquialisms you use when you talk that you don’t use in writing. Maybe there’s something else entirely. Whatever it is, you’ll find out, and then you can use your own judgement as to how much of your speaking style you want to add to your writing.

For further reading, John T. Reed makes a lot of the same points in his book, Succeeding.

A lot of people accidentally fall into the trap of writing academically, since that’s almost exclusively what our public school system teaches. But if you can realize when you’re doing it and if you know how to stop, you can break the habit, and find your own unique style. Write for your reader, not for your high school English teacher who neither matters nor cares anymore.

English Classes Don’t Teach Writing, or, Why I’m Proud of My 3 on the AP English

I love to write. This is pretty obvious to anyone who knows me at all: the first paid work I did for someone outside my family was writing articles for SEO, I met my high school English requirements before I started 9th grade, and still I continued to write and read profusely and extensively throughout high school and college.

Writing for me has taken many forms. For long periods of time, I kept a daily journal. I wrote posts on many different blogs over time. I wrote long essays in the comments sections of YouTube videos, arguing with strangers. I’ve written everything from letters to politicians to novels.

I just write by virtue of existing. If I’ve got thoughts, they either come out of my mouth into the air or they come out of my fingers onto a keyboard. For the dramatic most part, I took no formal writing classes. I just read interesting stuff and I wrote what I thought, and I analyzed my writing in light of what I’d read to find ways to make it better.

And it was with that background that I signed up for the AP English Language and Composition. I was excited! I got to be in a class with tons of great writers, who loved to write just like I did! The syllabus included weekly the writing of a 2-3 page essay and the reading of 1-3 novellas! Honestly, it looked like a dream come true. If all writing classes are this awesome, why hadn’t I taken one sooner?

This enthusiasm continued throughout the first few weeks. At the time, I was also taking two other classes through the same online program, so I only took about two days to do the work. One day to read, and a second to write. I got good grades, and I was happy. My only minor quip was the fact that on our class homepage, my teacher posted the best essays for any given assignment. My essays were never on there.

I was a little bit bummed, but I figured, there had to be somebody better than me. And yet, when I downloaded their essays to try and learn from them, I noticed something very strange. Their essays all seemed to be clones of each other. They all followed basically the same formula, and it wasn’t even that interesting a formula. Besides their names printed at the top, there was no way for me to tell who’d written which essay. When I read books, I felt like the author was speaking to me in their own unique voice, conveying information that was important enough to them to have written a book about it. When I read my classmates’ essays, I just saw words.

I’d like to say I was completely disillusioned to the falseness of accomplishment in academic writing, and I went on to join such great writers as Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut in saying so. I wasn’t, and I didn’t. I was just confused.

The realization that getting good grades in an English class and being a good writer were totally different things didn’t come for me until many months later. In the meantime, I’d already begun to question what everyone in my life had been telling me for years: that I was a good writer. Over the course of the class, I didn’t just never get on the “best essays” list. I also got steadily worse grades. My literary analyses got bad marks. I occasionally got Bs on assignments. (Shut up, it was devastating at the time.)

As I do, I responded to all of this by buckling down and working harder. My two easy days for English class became three hard ones as I tried (and failed) to understand why my writing wasn’t good enough. My mental state was shot. I didn’t know what to think about myself. At the same time that my English class was telling me I was average at best, others continued to tell me that my writing was great. I started correcting them, because of course your English teacher knows more about good writing than your prospective audience. Who cares if it’s interesting, it got a B, so there must be something wrong with it.

But the class ended, and a few months passed. I kept writing, because that’s what I do, and I showed it to various people. Just like they’d been saying the whole time, they said it was great. And outside the environment of the class, I started to consider the concept that maybe the class wasn’t as important as I’d thought. After all, in real life, if you can captivate your audience with interesting work, what else is there? I got my final score on the AP test (think of it as a comprehensive final, and the only grade that matters; it’s scored on a bell curve from 1 at the lowest to 5 at the highest), and I got a 3. I wasn’t too surprised, but I also wasn’t too hurt.

At the time, I figured that I was just awful at rhetorical analysis, and that was the reason my score was low. It was a good reason for some time. But I’ve since realized that there’s a deeper problem going on here, and that is that good academic writing is not good writing.

Good academic writing feels impersonal, mostly because it’s wordy. Not in the sense that academics have a broader vocabulary, though most of them do; their sentences are just way too long for the thoughts they convey. Academic writing goes “During the upcoming period, this project will be continued”. Normal writing goes “This week I’ll continue my project”. The academic version has 1.5x the word count for the same thought, it’s in the passive voice, and it’s boring overall.

The purpose of all those words, so far as I can tell, is twofold. For one, it completely snuffs out the author’s individual voice and replaces it with the simple meaning of the words. And for another, it makes the writing super formal, because it overuses a construction that English-speakers use to make something more polite. For example: A rude apology is “Sorry.” A polite apology is “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t trying to hurt your feelings.” More words = more effort = more polite.

Plain old good writing, on the other hand, conveys a lot more about both the author and the subject. When an author lets themself write sentences like “I was excited!”, “Meh, it wasn’t a big deal”, “I was just confused”, and “Can you believe that?!”, it makes it way more obvious what the author is feeling. It makes it obvious that the essay didn’t just apparate into existence, somebody had to write it.

The main problem with using AP English as a gauge of my writing wasn’t that it isn’t a good gauge; it’s fine. It’s just a gauge of the wrong thing. AP English is designed to prepare students for academic writing (because the classes are designed by academics, so their subject matter is disproportionately biased towards things that would be useful for academics; but that’s a topic for another day). If you just want to be a good writer, you don’t take AP English. If you want to be a good writer, you do what I’d unknowingly been doing all along: read good writing, write what you care about, and fix your writing based on what you’ve read. So, since I do want to be a good writer, I suppose that’s what I’ll keep doing. See you again tomorrow!