Write Simple

March 11, 2021

Paul Graham recently posted Write Simply. I respect Paul Graham as a founder and an investor. His essays on startups are insightful, but I always felt like something was a little bit off. It turns out that this is because he presents opinions as facts, then disguises this with his writing style. His more recent essays have also strayed away from his original technical and startup-focused writing, and are much less compelling.

I largely agree with everything Paul says in Write Simply, but I thought it would be insightful to provide an edited version that says the quiet part out loud.

What follows is satire:

I try to write using ordinary words and simple sentences.

That kind of writing is easier to read, and the easier something is to read, the more deeply readers will engage with it. I write something, then I write something else, and you can tell that it follows because it came second, even though I didn’t justify it.

And the further they’ll read. Most readers' energy tends to flag part way through an article or essay. If the friction of reading is low enough, more keep going till the end because this style of writing makes people who went to Stanford feel smart.

There’s an Italian dish called saltimbocca, which means “leap into the mouth.” My goal when writing might be called saltintesta: the ideas leap into your head and you barely notice the words that got them there. You don’t notice that my essays are opinion pieces, because I present them like facts.

It’s too much to hope that writing could ever be pure ideas. You might not even want it to be. But for most writers, most of the time, that’s the goal to aim for. The gap between most writing and pure ideas is not filled with poetry. It turns out many failed programmers become fiction writers because they do not understand simplicity.

Plus it’s more considerate to write simply. When you write in a fancy way to impress people, you’re making them do extra work just so you can seem cool. My writing only seems cool to people who listen to rationalist podcasts.

And remember, if you’re writing in English, that a lot of your readers won’t be native English speakers. Their understanding of ideas will be way ahead of their understanding of English. So you can’t assume that writing about a difficult topic means you can safely use difficult words, like saltintesta.

Of course, fancy writing doesn’t just conceal ideas. It can also conceal the lack of them. That’s why the left writes that way, to conceal the fact that they have nothing to say. I have many things to say, and I don’t use fancy writing. I use simple writing to conceal the fact that I present qualitative opinions as quantitative facts.

Simple writing also lasts better. People reading your stuff in the future will be in much the same position as people from other countries reading it today. That sentence was so simple and intelligent that you didn’t realize it’s false and that I made it up. Any high school student could name several counterexamples. Use comparisons to introduce opinions framed as facts. It’s not vain to write this way, any more than it’s vain for a woodworker to build a chair to last.

Indeed, lasting is not merely an accidental quality of chairs, or writing. It’s a sign you did a good job. If I were simply lucky, how come YC is the only organization that successfully funds startups in batches?

But although these are all real advantages of writing simply, none of them are why I do it. The main reason I write simply is that it offends me not to. That’s why I waited until the third to last paragraph to introduce my main point. When I write a sentence that seems too complicated, or that uses unnecessarily intellectual words, it doesn’t seem fancy to me. It seems clumsy.

There are of course times when you want to use a complicated sentence or fancy word for effect. But you should never do it by accident.

The other reason my writing ends up being simple is the way I do it. I write the first draft fast, then spend days editing it, trying to get everything just right. Much of this editing is cutting, and that makes simple writing even simpler. Anyone who doesn’t write like me must not edit their work. I am an intellectual, and no one has made this observation before me.