I'm both surprised and flattered to get a number of concerned emails wondering where I'm at. I guess that's not-too-crazy: I used to post basically daily here, and now there hasn't been a post in almost a week.
So, where am I?
The answer is, I'm looking to do an order-of-magnitude quality improvement in my writing. Putting concepts on more solid ground, making them more actionable, writing in a more service-oriented fashion, covering things from first principles and background knowledge (so someone seeing something for the first time could put it into action right away), etc.
A problem with a lot of my writing in the past was that I wrote strictly about what interested me. This turned out some good pieces, but erratically and with no scope.
This resulted in an amazing regular readership of just absolutely marvelous people here who like to put together patterns and extract general principles from history, science, business, philosophy, etc. Which has been terrific and has greatly enriched my life, and I think a lot of readers and people in the dialog here have made some amazing gains too.
But this place was often closed off to new people. If a stranger wandered in, they often couldn't figure out what was going on.
For instance, the last time I wrote a somewhat definitive and comprehensive post about time tracking was, I think, 2010 or 2011. Since then, my time tracking has evolved a lot, and I reference the concept a lot.
But I never wrote a definitive guide.
Same with the Lights Spreadsheet -- if you read the 15 or so core entries on it and the half-dozen or so commentaries, you could put it all together. But I never wrote a single 2000-3000 word definitive post on how to do it, why to do it, common points of success/failure, etc.
All my writing and work has been very enjoyable and pleasant for me, and I've been so honored and thrilled with the core readership. But at the end of the day, I was only writing what I wanted to write, when I wanted to write it, and thus the work had limited and inconsistent value.
I'm working now on getting away from that and making the pieces go up an order of magnitude in quality, citing sources better, differentiating between idle conjecture and very well-researched and well-tested facts, and so on.
I've finished a couple new pieces in the new format. They're longer, more definitive, I think much more useful.
It's a struggle sometimes; instead of just dashing things off quickly, I have to really outline and think critically. Sometimes my head hurts doing it. I mean, literally, it's pushing me to the threshold of my ability.
But as much as it's a struggle, it's always at least meta-enjoyable to be looking to do better, the times when really flowing in the new style are like an epiphany, and I think the end product will be much more useful to you.
People who come less frequently and who don't want to dig hard to find core reference pieces will have core pillars to stand on and orient themselves. And this should make it easy to share with friends who don't want to dig through lots of pieces to extract principles, but who do want to improve their lives and their thinking.
There was never a perfect time to do this transition, but now is as good as any other point.
As the regulars here know, there had been some stability issues on the software here -- multiple emails going out if you were subscribed (one set of "Test" emails, people got 10 in a row in their inbox, which was unfortunate). Some people couldn't comment, sometimes I couldn't post.
I took that as a metaphorical omen that this is a good time to radically improve the quality of my writing, and to start from ground zero, so to speak. That's why I asked for feedback on what posts have been useful to you. (And, thanks for all of it.)
Getting a basic design and core infrastructure in place on a new domain is taking a little while. Also, the new writing process is tricky -- I can see how my writing is going to get much better and more useful over time, but there's an uncanny valley where things get a little less smooth and a little less natural/conversational as I try to be more thorough. I'm trying to work those kinks out, and I'm feeling like I'm quite close to having things I want to release and share.
I think you're going to love what's coming next. I'm really proud of some of the initial drafts I've done, and though they still don't quite measure up to what I'd like, I see how with a little evolution and practice, I'm going to be able to deliver things along the lines of TSR-quality (the pieces on Washington, Rothschild, Walton, etc) regularly -- as well as just very solid foundational things that can kickstart discussions by themselves.
Thanks again for spending time with me, for all of the excellent dialog, for all of the recent feedback, etc. A lot of changes are coming, changes I'm very excited about that I think will serve you well. Look for those shortly, and you have my gratitude and best regards,
I'm a new user but this article tickled some sensitive areas for me.
Scope and completeness are important but don't necessarily makes for more useful articles. Coming from the world of data science and coding I'd like to suggest you keep in mind two important concepts: reuse and hierarchy
reuse - bringing people up to speed could be done most efficiently by having well written introductory articles referred to.
Hierarchy - people with limited attention span know, comprehensive doesn't necessarily mean more useful. Sometimes the core or innovative essence of a piece could be lost in a sea of content added for the sake of completeness. I feel like the best way to go about this is to create a clear hierarchy of items, that would enable people to delve into whatever they like for as much as they like.
The book that single-handedly has had the greatest impact on my writing (as well as on my reading, speaking, and listening-- basically, all forms of communication), and one which I still frequently reference, is Sister Miriam Joseph's The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric: Understanding the Nature and Function of Language.
From the back:
"The Trivium guides the reader through a clarifying and rigorous account of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. A thorough presentation of general grammar, propositions, syllogisms, enthymemes, fallacies, poetics, figurative language, and metrical discourse--accompanied by lucid graphics and enlivened by examples from Shakespeare, Milton, Plato, and others--makes The Trivium a perfect book for teachers, students, writers, lawyers, and all serious users of language."
Dorothy Sayers: "Is the trivium, then, a sufficient education for life? Properly taught, I believe that it should be."
And this is the section in the book on Essays, which I think will be worth your while, as well as the while of other readers, although you do already employ many of the techniques.
Definition and a Brief History
The essay is difficult to define because it encompasses a wide range of writing. An essay can be broadly defined as a short prose work on a single topic. Michel Eyquem de Montaigne first used the word as a literary term with the publication of his Essais in 1650. The French word essais means "attempts" and suggests that the works offered by Montaigne were more informal and personal than an academic, philosophical work on the same subject. Francis Bacon, the first English writer to use the term, published a collection of aphorisms on a specific topic but later expanded the concept into longer works that were more developed in length and more personal in tone.
The invention of the periodical in the seventeenth century gave the essay a broad audience. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele wrote lively essays on the manners and quirks of their day and published them in the Tatler and the Spectator. The names of the periodicals suggest the mode of the writing. Addison and Steele observed and commented in a colloqiual manner that invited the reader in as a fellow observer. The American writer Washington Irving wrote a similar type of essay. During the Romantic movement in the early nineteenth century, the essay developed a familiar and informal tone. Writers often used autobiographical material and made it interesting through the use of whimsy, wit, and sentiment. Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, James Leigh Hunt, and Thomas DeQuincey are the most famous writers of the personal essay of this era.
The American Romantics, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, did not adopt the whimsical tone of the English essayists. Thoreau's nature writing uses autobiography, but the writing is less self-consciously literary. Both Emerson and Thoreau wrote formal essays elucidating their beliefs.
In the Victorian Age, the formal essay was more popular. Long book reviews and essays on historical, scientific, religious, and educational topics were written by Victorian writers including Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Walter Pater, Thomas Huxley, Matthew Arnold, and John Henry Newman.
The difficulty of labeling or defining the essay becomes more apparent when one thinks of Pope's "Essay on Criticism" and "Essay on Man," both of which are poetry. Also, the linear history from Montaigne to the Victorian writers ignores works like Aristotle's Poetics, which fit the concept of the essay.
The Familiar Essay
The familiar essay aims to please rather than to inform the reader. It stands between story and exposition, and, like the lyric, it is a subjective communication of thought and feeling, colored by the personality and mood of the author. A commonplace, even trivial, subject is made charming, amusing, or piquant when discussed in a chatty, casual, informal manner by a person who is delightfully whimsical, fanciful, belligerent, or even pompous. The style of the familiar essay is an essential element and should have a quality similar to that of a story, full of feeling, imagination, and vivid detail.
The Formal Essay
The style of the formal essay varies depending on the theme, purpose, and audience. It would include philosophical, scientific, religious, and historical writing.
The literary critical essay may, like Aristotle's Poetics or Dryden's "Essay of Dramatic Poesy," expound critical principles with a few illustrations for clarity; or it may apply critical principles in evaluating a particular work, as in a book review or a critical study such as a dissertation or a research paper.
A Brief Guide to Composition
Expository writing has as its primary aim to inform, to communicate ideas from writer to reader directly through words, not indirectly through character and situation. Clear expository composition is needed in all walks of life. It is the indispensable tool both of teaching and of being taught. Textbooks, class explanations, lectures, recitations, examinations are expository. So also are such practical matters as describing a process, writing directions, summaries, reports, business letters, social letters. Other, more literary forms of expression include the essay which defines a term or elaborates a general proposition, literary criticism, dramatic and art criticism, the formal and the familiar essay.
Before you begin to write, carefully think through your purpose and the means to gain and hold the interest of the particular readers you address. Find a common ground with them. Begin perhaps with a question or an unexpected statement. Do not write what is obvious, trite, or insipid to them--what anyone can see on the run. Penetrate into your subject. Divide and conquer. For example, the ordinary observer sees a drop of blood as a mere blob of red, and he has little to say about it. The expert looking through a microscope sees it divided into plasma and red and white corpuscles that indicate health or disease; she has much to say about it that is enlightening and valuable, pointing to remedies.
To discover the parts of the whole, their relation to each other and to the whole, is a prime means to advance in knowledge and a measure of intellectual power. Discover differences, contrasts. Distinguish meanings. Penetrate likeness; use comparison, analogy, metaphor, examples. Use other topics of invention, especially definition, cause and effect. The four causes equivalent in rhetoric to who, what, how, why help to open up a subject.
Divide, first to penetrate into your subject matter, then to analyze it into its parts, and finally to organize it into a whole having unity, coherence, and emphasis. These three principles should govern the construction of the sentence, the paragraph, and the whole work.
Outline your comparison, determine which topics are coordinate, which subordinate. Every division results in at least two parts. The subordinate topics should add up to the main topic which they divide, and the main topics to the whole composition. What sequence of topics will most effectively promote coherence and emphasis? The position of greatest emphasis is at the end; the next greatest, at the beginning; the least, in the middle. You can also emphasize an idea by repeating it in different words, or in the same words skillfully placed, and by giving it a greater proportion of space. Announce your plan early in your paper and keep your reader reminded of it by clear transitions from one topic to the next.
Clarity is the first requisite of style in expository writing. (Grammatical correctness is a prerequisite.) Help your reader to understand the abstract by providing concrete examples from which the reader can make the abstraction and so comprehend it thoroughly. The intellect is normally reached through the imagination, and therefore, even in workaday propose, figurative language is an effective means to promote both clarity and interest. The writer must achieve clarity and hold interest by avoiding monotony.
Variety is a cardinal principle of effective style. There should be variety in diction through the use of synonyms, in sentence length, in grammatical structure, and in rhythm. Variety in grammatical structure and rhythm are secured through omitting or adding conjunctions, through differences in word order, in sentence beginnings, in the use of simple, compound, and complex sentences, of prepositional and participial phrases, of clauses, of loose and periodic structure, of parallel structure. These structures may be clarified and emphasized by the effective repetition of words.
In the following passage from Washington Irving, the repeated he must emphasizes parallel structure, while each verb following it is varied, as is also the length of the sentence. Conjunctions are omitted in one clause and an extra one is added in another. This paragraph is developed by division.
The stranger who would form a correct opinion of the English character ... must go forth into the country; he must sojourn in villages and hamlets; he must visit castles, villas, farmhouses, cottages; he must wander through parks and gardens; along hedges and green lanes; he must loiter about country churches; attend wakes and fairs and other rural festivals; and cope with the people in all their conditions and all their habits and humor
In a periodic sentence the meaning is held in suspense until the end, as in this sentence from Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus:
Considering our present advanced state of culture, and how the Torch of Science has now been brandished and borne about, with more or less effect, for five-thousand years and upwards; how in these times especially, not only the Torch still burns, and perhaps more fiercely than ever, but innumerable Rush-lights, and Sulphur-matches, kindled thereat, are also glancing in every direction, so that not the smallest cranny or doghole in Nature or Art can remain unilluminated--it might strike the reflective mind with some surprise that hitherto little or nothing of a fundamental character, whether in the way of Philosophy or History, has been written on the subject of Clothes.
In the following passage from Stewart Edward White's "On Making Camp," the rhythm reflects the boy's unorganized and scattered efforts.
Dick was anxiously mixing batter for the cakes, attempting to stir a pot of rice often enough to prevent it from burning, and trying to rustle sufficient dry wood to keep the fire going...At each instant he had to desert his flour sack to rescue the coffee pot, or to shift the kettle, or to dab hastily at the rice, or to stamp out the small brush, or to pile on more dry twigs.
Condense your sentences. Pack much meaning into few words. Use words that are fresh, accurate, vivid, specific--like torrent, strode, sauntered. Vivid diction and imagery, effective combinations of words, especially of nouns and verbs, arresting phrases, metaphors, and allusions contribute to compression of style. Verbs, above all, are the key to a vigorous style.
To give your writing life and movement, use vivid verbs in the active voice. Put the verb idea into the verb rather than into an abstract noun with an empty verb like occur. Cut out deadwood--needless words that dilute your thought and make your style insipid, dull, wordy. Prefer the specific expression to the general, the positive to the negative, the definite to the indefinite.
And this is just a taste of the gems to be found in this book.
Perhaps I have violated copyright by typing this up? Apologies for any typos, I didn't double-check.
I am very excited about this new direction in your writing. I first came across your blog years ago, thought it was cool, then eventually stopped reading. A few months ago, I decided to check in on you to see how things were going. I got benefit from it, but I felt like there was a deeper level I wasn't getting things because there were just some basic assumptions and foundational work that I wasn't aware of.
I remembered how much I liked your blog before, so I dug through your archive, read Ikigai, started reading Dalio's Principles and other texts you recommended, and filled the gaps. After that, I felt like I got a lot more out of your new posts.
I am but one data point, so take this reply with that in mind. I'm excited to see what you come up with next.
Once you get caught up, what will the schedule be like? Will daily posts continue?
<i>now there hasn't been a post in almost a week</i>Oof. Does that mean you've now lost a bet? But with that said, I definitely look forward to the new pieces -- sounds great!
Ok here is the post on the bet. It says to write every day. However if Sebastian has been writing every day since then he would have a backlog of items to post so I am a little confused how he has still kept the bet and missed a week of posts...
Yeah, dude, you got me checking your website 3,4,5 times per day, for the past 6 days, so excited I've been.
Awesome, looking forward to the change.
I just subscribe by email so I get it instantly :-)
Please think about the people who can't get emails from SETT because of bugs. :(
Brief update: I'm working on longer-form writing that's more focused and deep. I've finished around a dozen pieces but haven't struck the tone I want yet. I don't know when the next iteration will come, but it's going to be terrific.
I've gotten lots of inquiries as to how I'm doing -- very well, thank you. Well, that's not 100% true. It's a difficult metamorphosis. Some days, things go exceedingly well. Others, it's frustrating. I'm studying technical materials and looking to seriously improve. There's been some results that are remarkable to me, but other days it's really tough.
My average time for writing a moderate-length piece used to be maybe 30 minutes, plus or minus 20. Now I'm up around 7 hours, plus or minus three. Lots of outlining beforehand, carefully citing facts and sources, footnoting, getting deeper points, and then editing afterwards.
Sometimes it's tough, because I'm putting a lot of work in, but I'm losing that natural free-flowing tone that I was able to strike when just writing.
The potential if I can nail this style is A+ work. But right now, I'm doing C- execution at that A+ style. The building blocks are all there, but it's slightly wooden and tough still. I think some of the core readers here will really love it, but the general public won't dig it. The stuff I'm writing is coming in at the 2500 to 7000 word range per piece, but doesn't quite move fast enough. Deep-thinking-love-to-critically-analyze people will dig it, but I can do better. I want to get that musical sense, that really grand and enjoyable tone.
After a long day in the sun at the 2010 Crossfit Games in LA, I've flopped into my Aeron in the RV, which is parked near my old stomping grounds in Hollywood. I found an amazing parking spot right near the Farmer's Market that has no street cleaning and is always empty at night. You'd be surprised how important things like street cleaning become when you live in an RV. Anyway, I don't have enough energy left to pull myself out of my chair, so it's time to tally up the survey results from a couple weeks ago and share what I learned.
This one was totally unexpected. Around a third of the people who responded said that they want more Life Nomadic. To be totally honest, I didn't know people were that interested in it. The site, when it was separate, never developed the same sort of following this site has.