"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." - Mark Twain
Done any writing?
I was was surprised at how much easier it is to write long points than short ones.
It's easy to make any point in 4,000 words. Much harder to do it in 400.
My most recent quest is to figure out how to write good and short... reasonably quickly. This is harder than it sounds. In a short piece, every word takes on much more meaning. You can get away with 40 sloppy words in a 4,000 word piece. You can't get away with 40 sloppy words in a 400 word piece.
Good/short/fast is a tough nut to crack, but if there's any way to do it, it's probably to start with a picture, and build your writing around it.
Let's look like at five popular posts. Keep in mind they're written for very different audiences, but they were all very popular with their target audience -
The Ultimate Productivity System by Sid Savara -
That image headlines Sid Savara's "Ultimate Productivity System" - the rest of the post fills out the details, and provides links to other relevant entries.... by working your way through the flow of that image, you can understand exactly how Sid makes decisions on productivity. Then, it's natural to follow the links in that article to related points.
Headling Chester Grant's "Low Skills Cause Procrastination" is this image -
...which captures the entire point more elegantly than any words could.
That said, you don't need to actual pictures to create pictures. Let's look at "Conversion of Expected Evidence," which Eliezer Yudkowsky opens with one of the most memorable points you'll ever read about probability and evidence -
Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld, a priest who heard the confessions of condemned witches, wrote in 1631 the Cautio Criminalis ('prudence in criminal cases') in which he bitingly described the decision tree for condemning accused witches: If the witch had led an evil and improper life, she was guilty; if she had led a good and proper life, this too was a proof, for witches dissemble and try to appear especially virtuous. After the woman was put in prison: if she was afraid, this proved her guilt; if she was not afraid, this proved her guilt, for witches characteristically pretend innocence and wear a bold front. Or on hearing of a denunciation of witchcraft against her, she might seek flight or remain; if she ran, that proved her guilt; if she remained, the devil had detained her so she could not get away.
Conservation of Expected Evidence could easily be a dull, academic topic, but writing about the Inquisitor who uses any evidence to damn the person he's investigating... it paints a picture that stays with you no matter what.
Just putting simple, imprecise numbers on something can help make a complex point really vivid. Take Derek Sivers's "Ideas are just a multiplier of execution" -
AWFUL IDEA = -1
WEAK IDEA = 1
SO-SO IDEA = 5
GOOD IDEA = 10
GREAT IDEA = 15
BRILLIANT IDEA = 20
NO EXECUTION = $1
WEAK EXECUTION = $1000
SO-SO EXECUTION = $10,000
GOOD EXECUTION = $100,000
GREAT EXECUTION = $1,000,000
BRILLIANT EXECUTION = $10,000,000
The rest of the post bookends that table - ideas can help, but don't amount to much without multiplication. The reader is naturally drawn to play around and multiply various idea/execution combinations.
Take Leo Babauta's "a brief guide to life" -
less TV, more reading
less shopping, more outdoors
less clutter, more space
less rush, more slowness
less consuming, more creating
less junk, more real food
less busywork, more impact
less driving, more walking
less noise, more solitude
less focus on the future, more on the present
less work, more play
less worry, more smiles
Leo strips away everything except pictures. Look at his first six points on the list - less TV, more reading, less shopping, more outdoors, less clutter, more space... all of those immediately call clear pictures to mind.
If you want to write a good short piece reasonably quickly, start with the picture. Then fill the words around it.
Made my first comment on your blog recently and as promised, i'm here to make direct contact via email, officially deleting my name from the list of 900 :)
I'm blown away by the depth of the posts you make in response to emails from other folks for advice, so i'm gonna try my luck seeking some insights from you about my situation.
I just graduated from university about one and a half years ago.
So fast forward to today. Till now, i still only manage a low 4-figures monthly income from the internet business.
The first three paragraphs discuss some plot points but is spoiler-free. The bullet points are more general thoughts.
Thanksgiving weekend we loaded up the family, a cousin, and headed to the theater to see Disney's new movie, Frozen. The movie tells the story of two princesses, Anna and Elsa, one of which has magical powers she must keep secret from her sister after an accident in their youth. Having to keep her power a secret, their relationship cools to the point that the sisters don't see each other until the day Elsa is to be appointed queen.
The coronation day arrives for Elsa and she's able to keep her magical powers secret until her sister declares that she is going to marry someone she just met. Hearing this, Elsa can't control herself and buries their port city Arendelle in snow, running away from the city and her only family, Anna.
Elsa escapes to a high mountain where she builds an ice castle where she'll live alone, but live with her powers known. Anna knows she must bring her sister back to Arendelle, at least to unfreeze it, and departs the city looking for her. On her quest she shortly adds Sven the reindeer, Kristoff the mountain man, and Olaf the talking snowman to her expedition. They arrive, are unable to convince Elsa and Anna suffers an injury that only an act of true love can heal.
That's a spoiler-free summary of what happens, there's more that occurs after Anna's injury but things become delicately arranged like a snowflake. Here are some other thoughts and criticisms.