3 Habits of Authors Who Don’t Tease Their Titles with Lists of Habits
How many times have you turned to an article in hopes of learning something really important by simply reading three aphorisms: four simple Python algorithms, ten habits of successful sociopaths, six preferences of functional idiots, seven sins of old vine zinfandels? You turned to this because you thought there might be a simple way to write an article that isn’t about a list. Alternatively, you turned to this because you just can’t resist a list. Admit it. You really did. Lists represent a promise that you can get something of real value from nothing more than bullet points.
I am in the middle of a year-long experiment with Medium. I’m posting stuff on Medium and seeing what happens. The Medium curators remain a cypher to me. Some of my worst tossed-off drivel gets curated while my best-researched most deeply philosophical gold is ignored. None of that matters because (with only one exception) more people read my uncurated items anyway. Meanwhile, my latest experiment relates to lists. How many views, how many reads?
Of course, I promised a list and I will provide one. So, if you don’t want to tease your titles with lists, you should consider the following.
1. Write about what occurred to you in the shower
Two points here. Point 1: most people who like to write tend to think about things. Point 2: the most important understandings of the world arise from the unconscious mind. The unconscious is, believe it or not, a massive neural network. Unlike the neural networks you read about at Google or MicroSoft, your neural network is actually made of neurons. Unlike those large corporations, your neural network is already trained (as those AI folks like to say). It does amazing things every day which you and I often reject as simple silliness.
Some authors, like Jonathan Haidt, have claimed that humans are not capable of solving a problem with more than six or seven variables (unknowns or options). In his book, The Righteous Mind, he uses selecting a refrigerator as an example, claiming that no human is capable of selecting the best of several refrigerators using reason. We select a refrigerator because we feel good about it, he writes. We do that because as mere humans, we have no other choice — too many variables.
After reading the book you may believe that liking the Republican agenda is really OK because you can’t assess serious issues anyway. Your brain just isn’t capable of understanding complex problems like that. The author uses snippets of real studies, frequently cherry-picking conclusions, in order to appeal to the readers’ hopes that there is something that may easily explain their ongoing persistent distress and confusion.
I used to work with engineers. My spouse works with community organizers. Both professions solve complex problems in order to accomplish the required (often apparently impossible) solution. Another term for “complex” might be “multi-variate” meaning that these people routinely solve problems with a large number of variables.
So you are choosing a refrigerator and you think about the differences between the various refrigerators (the variables). You consider color, efficiency, styling, inner volume, footprint, height, oops, you’ve just reached Dr. Haidt’s limit. You can’t think about anything else. Meanwhile, you really want to include the arrangements of the shelves and the versatility of the system for rearranging those shelves (two or maybe three additional variables). You want to consider the ice maker and the process for replacing the filter (two or maybe three again). The outside surface and its resistance to fingerprints and stains (good heavens, this is way beyond your capability).
Nonetheless, this is something ordinary humans do every day. You look over all the refrigerators and just as you’re ready to make a choice, your spouse says, “Hey, honey, let’s not make a decision now. Let’s sleep on it.”
Of course! You’ll do what engineers and community organizers and chemists and everyone else who routinely resolve multi-variate problems do: you’ll sleep on it. You’ll pass that multi-variate problem to your neural network. Google uses their neural networks almost exclusively for the purpose of solving massive multi-variate problems and you have that machine in your very brain. What Dr. Haidt tells us is not possible is certainly not possible using your conscious mind. He is correct in that regard. He is completely wrong in suggesting that you are limited to that device.
Your unconscious mind is processing multi-variate problems all the time. Its job, the reason it was selected through the evolutionary process, is that it is analyzing your environment continually and providing your conscious mind with information it needs so you can survive. Mixed in with that, is the constant random processing of whatever other signals and memories (neuronal states) are hanging out in your brain. Those random firings are coming up with all the best stuff. Let it happen and be ready when it yields its revelations. Write it down as soon as you are out of the shower and see if it turns into something interesting.
best curated shower article: Use Your Words
best uncurated shower article: I Voted for Trump in ‘92
2. Have a clever person review your title and article
Your title needs to capture the imagination and also express the essence of the article. The article needs to be comprehensible by someone who didn’t start with your initial revelation. That isn’t easy because you are too close to it. As an engineer, I’ve seen this over and over. I will confront a problem that seems insurmountable. I mull it over, scribble on my whiteboard and argue loudly with myself. I’ll sleep on it for multiple nights and then the solution presents itself. My unconscious mind provides the full solution and I produce the specification, the document that will show the solution to everyone else.
Then comes the design review. Other engineers will review the spec. They will identify everything that my unconscious presented unclearly. The unconscious is truly ingenious but its bounty comes forth like a dream: there are parts that don’t always translate correctly. As a result, the reviewers set those errors straight.
In the same way, you’ve just written your article. You feel good about it. Your understanding of its essence surpasses any other, but that isn’t what you typed. Your body copy must be adjusted for readers who didn’t start with your initial understanding. Explain it to a smarter friend (I find that I have lots of those). Ask your friend to mark up your body copy. Accept your friend’s ruthless criticism and fix all the parts that your unimaginable cleverness obscured completely.
Meanwhile, your initial title will provide no value to your reader as regards your intent. Discuss your title with that friend and come up with one that cleverly expresses your content.
With review your ingenious article becomes interesting and comprehensible.
best curated reviewed body and title: The No-Bernie Calculus
best uncurated reviewed body and title: The Purple Noose of Freedom
3. Write ecstatically, edit calmly
Also remembered as, “write drunk, edit sober” (mistakenly attributed to Ernest Hemingway). Write under the influence of your favorite consciousness-expanding drug (coffee, marijuana, rye, the joyous conclusion to a clog-dance) and type without review. Your initial draft should be as close to your unconscious mind as possible. Later, strip out the sentimental parts and craft the sentences.
The best concepts are born grown in the unconscious mind. There is a lilt and beauty to whole concepts extruded from that neural network. They could be muddled or they could be complete and correct. Later, you will distinguish between the two.
Abandon bullet points and focus instead on crafting complete concepts in sentences. The article should have a well-thought-out beginning (establishing the problem), middle (exposing the approach to its resolution) and end (proposing a solution consistent with the problem and general approach). I once heard a well-known author say the following (I so wish I could remember her name) “If you can’t write a good page, write a good paragraph. If you can’t write a good paragraph, write a good sentence.” Your sentence should be crafted. Take your time and assure that each sentence conveys every aspect of the concept and the underlying feeling in the most efficient way possible. Assure that each sentence is consistent with the outline of the article and the surrounding sentences.
best curated drunk article: The Junk of Gender
best uncurated drunk article: The Two Party State
So, it all depends on your goal. If you’re on Medium to make money, use lists, they seem to be very curatable. If you want to write good prose, I really think you need to expose your massive and deeply creative neural network. Write your masterpiece whether other people like it or not.
Julian S. Taylor is the author of Famine in the Bullpen the new book about bringing innovation back to software engineering.
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