Sunday, November 25, 2012

Writing with Less Writing

Ideas discussed:

  • People think all writing needs to be paragraphs, but that's not always the best way to express something.

  • What's the Appeal of Twitter? + Idea for new platform

  • At least include an outline in your article!

  • Bonus: What writing can learn from programming

My recent chart on learning programming did quite well and got upvoted on Hacker News and Reddit. I realized that one chart was able to encapsulate the important information from 3 previous blog posts. This makes me think there might be too much of a bias to write content in a specific form and style with paragraphs and connecting sentences, when sometimes another form would work better. A chart or diagram can display certain information in a faster and clearer manner than long paragraphs, making the paragraphs unnecessary. Different diagrams and styles can be used for different types of information.

Ways of presenting content

Content FormatGood for this type of contentZappable ExampleBenefits for readerExtra stuff that get stuck in
Paragraphs of TextLong connected argumentsMaybe Google and the Future of SearchEasy linear readConnecting sentences, stylistic phrases
TableRepeated categories of informationResources to Learn ProgrammingFast to referenceCertain cells just to match others in row. (Maybe use NoSQL-style instead ~)
FlowchartSimple decision guidePicking a Programming LanguageCan quickly reach relevant decisionsRandom Jokes
Outline-StyleHierarchical content of separate pointsAttempt belowCan easily skip subsectionsHopefully nothing

Even if content doesn't fit into a chart, it does not mean that standard paragraphs are necessary. Sometimes an Outline-style could do the trick.

Outline vs. Paragraphs

  • I often start with ideas in note-form before writing a post

  • Before publishing notes, need to refine and clarify ideas.

  • Also includes "textification" into paragraphs, which consist of things like:

    • Keeping to a writing-style (varying words, paragraph format)

    • Putting in filler words to build and connect sentences

  • This turns writing into nice essay, but it can obscure points for both the writer and reader

    • It becomes harder for the writer to revise essay when each change affects the continuity of the sentences and paragraphs. (Maybe writers should also aim for looser coupling!)

    • Certain articles (e.g. academic ones) may be so complicated, readers may feel need to create their own outline or diagram to follow it

  • Notes need to be refined before being published, but they can still be kept in an outline style, with several benefits:

    • Often quicker to write than figuring out how to "textify" content.

    • Easier for reader to follow overall flow of argument

    • Lets reader skip certain sections or examples and still follow argument (In fact, maybe the reader should be able to understand the argument heading without even reading the implementation!)

  • Outline-style can be better for reader and writer, though not sure about this example

Obviously, people know that concise writing or charts are often helpful. However, I think people still feel constrained by standard style expectations. That's why they need things like Twitter and even Powerpoint to permit them to write in shorter form.
While Twitter's limits may be overkill in cases where you actually want to say something, the fact that its so successful shows the power of letting people get to the point. Maybe someone should create a blogging platform that enforces a posts that are concise and include a diagram, outline or chart. This could help popularize a new style of writing.

I'm not arguing for eliminating essay-style text, I just think it might be worth putting more outlines and charts within writing. Even if much of an article needs to be in paragraphs, perhaps some of it would be clearer or more effective as a chart. And more articles should come with short outlines (or diagrams) that says what their main points are. This would let people decide if they want to read it or review what it said afterwards. Why should some one need to construct their own outline or argument diagram to analyze an argument?

Charts and outlines are really just a minor step. For more challenging material, one can go beyond such static content and create more interactive content. But that's for another post...

Stay tuned by following me on Twitter, RSS or Email. 


  1. will see how this post does, tho not expecting 80 upvotes:

  2. You need a logo for your website that will show up in facebook previews.

  3. how's this:

  4. ok, but maybe a lightning logo for the small logo that would go on tabs.

  5. in the favicon? but then u wouldnt b able to play tetris there.

  6. sometimes this F pops up on side and if u click on it, u can play tetris inside the favicon

  7. your google cache is only 5 days old. seems pretty good to me.

  8. why did you go with that flowchart instead

  9. that was a picture so it was auto-included.

  10. Thanks for the interesting observation. I have been writing a lot of non-fiction (working on a math/phys textbook) and I in order to make it more readable I decided to use a bullet list of concepts in each section. It is really much more compact to just list the concepts, instead of having to make full sentences.

    Also, I recently learned to use CmapTools to create concept maps. I think it is a great tool for teaching and showing the connections between concepts -- something that text is not very good at. For example, you can see the contents of the ENTIRE book in a single diagram:
    Imagine trying to explain all those connections in words?

  11. thanks. and Joshua, idk about cache but google returns results from latest post.