The truth is that it was never on track in the first place

Tuesday, February 25th, 2020

Paul Graham suggests that 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.

The root of the problem is novelty. When you tell people something they didn’t know, they don’t always thank you for it. Sometimes the reason people don’t know something is because they don’t want to know it. Usually because it contradicts some cherished belief. And indeed, if you’re looking for novel ideas, popular but mistaken beliefs are a good place to find them. Every popular mistaken belief creates a dead zone of ideas around it that are relatively unexplored because they contradict it.

The strength component just makes things worse. If there’s anything that annoys people more than having their cherished assumptions contradicted, it’s having them flatly contradicted.

Plus if you’ve used the Morris technique, your writing will seem quite confident. Perhaps offensively confident, to people who disagree with you. The reason you’ll seem confident is that you are confident: you’ve cheated, by only publishing the things you’re sure of. It will seem to people who try to disagree with you that you never admit you’re wrong. In fact you constantly admit you’re wrong. You just do it before publishing instead of after.

And if your writing is as simple as possible, that just makes things worse. Brevity is the diction of command. If you watch someone delivering unwelcome news from a position of inferiority, you’ll notice they tend to use lots of words, to soften the blow. Whereas to be short with someone is more or less to be rude to them.


You might think that if you work sufficiently hard to ensure that an essay is correct, it will be invulnerable to attack. That’s sort of true. It will be invulnerable to valid attacks. But in practice that’s little consolation.

In fact, the strength component of useful writing will make you particularly vulnerable to misrepresentation. If you’ve stated an idea as strongly as you could without making it false, all anyone has to do is to exaggerate slightly what you said, and now it is false.

Much of the time they’re not even doing it deliberately. One of the most surprising things you’ll discover, if you start writing essays, is that people who disagree with you rarely disagree with what you’ve actually written. Instead they make up something you said and disagree with that.

For what it’s worth, the countermove is to ask someone who does this to quote a specific sentence or passage you wrote that they believe is false, and explain why. I say “for what it’s worth” because they never do. So although it might seem that this could get a broken discussion back on track, the truth is that it was never on track in the first place.

The last bit reminds me of Scott Adams’ Loserthink.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    You can’t please everyone. The only way not to offend anyone is to withdraw entirely from human society.

    I figure it this way: if someone doesn’t care about my feelings, I’m not going to care about his. And I’ve observed that the people who get the most butthurt are also the most self absorbed.

    I rarely go out of my way to offend, but I even more rarely go out of my way to avoid offending.

  2. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Make them mad or make them laugh. Either will do for me.

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