Lucid vs normal writing: an example

Usually it’s hard to give writing advice, because finding/inventing examples is just so annoying. But this time I found a perfect example – two reviews of the same book.

The book is “Unlocking the Emotional Brain” – a form of therapy where you get rid of wrong beliefs by empathizing with them really thoroughly before thinking about how wrong they are. I can confirm that it works better than “get rid of wrong beliefs by not empathizing with them at all and just obsessing over how you’re not allowed to have those beliefs”.

The reviews are by Scott Alexander (link) and Kaj Sotala (link).

If you don’t want to read the excerpts, skip to the table below and then get back.

Scott’s review (lucid)

Scott’s review immediately begins with:

So in one of the book’s example cases, a man named Richard sought help for trouble speaking up at work. He would have good ideas during meetings, but felt inexplicably afraid to voice them. During therapy, he described his narcissistic father, who was always mouthing off about everything. Everyone hated his father for being a fool who wouldn’t shut up. The therapist conjectured that young Richard observed this and formed a predictive model, something like “talking makes people hate you”. This was overly general: talking only makes people hate you if you talk incessantly about really stupid things. But when you’re a kid you don’t have much data, so you end up generalizing a lot from the few examples you have.

Kaj’s review (normal)

A parallel portion of Kaj’s review begins on the second page:

UtEB’s first detailed example of an emotional schema comes from the case study of a man in his thirties they call Richard. He had been consistently successful and admired at work, but still suffered from serious self-doubt and low confidence at his job. On occasions such as daily technical meetings, when he considered saying something, he experienced thoughts including “Who am I to think I know what’s right?”, “This could be wrong” and “Watch out – don’t go out on a limb”. These prevented him from expressing any opinions.

From the point of view of the authors, these thoughts have a definite cause – Richard has “emotional learnings according to which it is adaptively necessary to go into negative thoughts and feelings towards [himself].” The self-doubts are a strategy which his emotional brain has generated for solving some particular problem.

[...] Richard had experienced his father as being assertive as well as obnoxious and hated. His emotional brain had identified this as a failure mode to be avoided: if you are assertive, then you are obnoxious and will be hated. The solution was to generate feelings of doubt so as to stop him from being too confident. This caused him suffering, but the prediction of his emotional brain was that acting otherwise would produce even worse suffering, as being hated would be a terrible fate.

Comparison table

The excerpts above provide a beautiful comparison, but I promised a table, so here we go:

Scott Kaj
So in one of the book’s example cases UtEB’s first detailed example of an emotional schema comes from the case study
a man named Richard of a man in his thirties they call Richard
sought help for trouble speaking up at work suffered from serious self-doubt and low confidence at his job
He would have good ideas during meetings He had been consistently successful and admired at work
felt inexplicably afraid to voice them when he considered saying something, he experienced thoughts including [...]
Everyone hated his father for being a fool who wouldn’t shut up Richard had experienced his father as being assertive as well as obnoxious and hated
Richard observed this and formed a predictive model His emotional brain had identified this as a failure mode to be avoided
something like “talking makes people hate you” if you are assertive, then you are obnoxious and will be hated

But honestly, you won’t get anything out of the table if you don’t reread the excerpts at least three times. C’mon.

Conclusion

Isn’t the first example so much more reada— ahem. This was supposed to be a show-not-tell, sorry. So, no conclusion here.

If you want to write like Scott, he has a post about his style of writing: Nonfiction Writing Advice. Steven Pinker’s Why Academics Stink at Writing might be even better, but only at the tactical level – giving advice like “don’t use ‘I would argue’”. Scott’s advice is more like “if your point is really complicated, give a dozen examples before stating the point itself”.

P.S.

What if by being less readable actually works in your favor in the long run? E.g. it forces people to read slower, or to reread several times, etc, and they remember your ideas better. Surely some people will give up, but it’s better to have a few dedicated followers, than a lot of readers who easily go through each of your casual and entertaining pieces but promptly forget everything.

Dammit.

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