Learning to Write Better

From the SLD forums:

I just had a great victory. My daughter is having her friends over so we are making friendship cookies. . . . I was feeling miserable for the first time since starting SLD [Shangri-La Diet] like I wanted to eat a whole bunch of them and totally binge out. I ate a few crumbs that fell off and couldn’t get them out of my mind (I haven’t had this problem in 6 wks.). I went ahead and decided to eat just one of the yummy delights. . . . After one I was so very full I actually didn’t want anymore! DO YOU REALIZE WHAT THIS MEANS? I mean, wow! I can actually have just one cookie. I never ever ever have been able to do that before.

I like to think the Internet is improving my writing by showing me many examples of how to do it. This quote is half of a well-written few paragraphs. The other half would be the general rule that Michel Cabanac discovered: If your set point is lower than usual you will feel full sooner than usual, as this quote illustrates. (The Shangri-La Diet had lowered her set point.) Interesting idea + emotion-charged example = good writing. Blogs are another example. As I’ve said before, they are full of good writing. You don’t blog about stuff you don’t care about.

Books — part of the great wide non-Internet — suffer by comparison. I recently started reading a book about Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. I was favorably disposed: Chez Panisse is a great achievement, I am very interested in food and changes in food, it took place near my house, I had attended a nice reading given by the author. In spite of all this, I stopped after a few chapters. The book is very well written in a nuts-and-bolts way. However, it lacks emotion — the author didn’t care passionately about his subject and it shows. The book had come about because Alice Waters’s assistant had approached him and asked him if he was interested in doing such a book. He took a long time, he did a careful and thorough job, but no amount of time or care or editing could fix the problem that he didn’t feel strongly enough.

How Blogging Made Philip Weiss a Better Writer

Did the invention of the piano make the first piano players — the ones who started on harpsichords — better musicians? Probably. Long before blogs, I thought Philip Weiss was the best columnist in America. His weekly or biweekly pieces in the New York Observer were usually original, well-observed, and deeply-felt. He now tells how blogging made him a even better writer.

I had smart readers, whose comments were often better than my posts, and I felt more accountability to them than I had to my print readers. The flippancies and profanities I used to go in for began to vanish. The Internet is not the Wild West, it is more like a great ballroom. Yes, it permits disguise and anonymity, but it is, in the end, a social space in which one’s words have consequences. I felt a sense of responsibility when I finished an item and had my finger poised over the enter key. I stopped posting pictures of my dogs.

Why blogs are better written in general.

Librarians vs. Soft Censorship

The Shangri-La Diet was published because a paper I wrote was amplified by blogs. Here (from 2002) is something similar: one person’s opinion amplified by a listserv. A librarian persuaded HarperCollins to publish a book by Michael Moore (Stupid White Men) that they had decided not to publish.

“They [HarperCollins] said it would be ‘intellectually dishonest’ not to admit that Bush has done a good job, and that the other things in the book wouldn’t be believable if I didn’t at least give Bush that much,” says Moore. The author was certain that HarperCollins would cancel and destroy the book if he didn’t accede to its demands.

Andrew Gelman on Blogging (part 3 of 3)

What have you learned about blogging?

I’m surprised that there are no other statistics blogs. Chris Genovese used to do one but he stopped–and his blog was more personal than mine, less about statistics. I’ve tried to stay on topic (most of the time), since that’s what I have to offer. I have political opinions, cute stories about my kids, etc., but why should anyone care about this?

I’m also surprised there are so many blogs about economics. Especially since psychology is more interesting (to me). Is this just path-dependence, or maybe actually there are a lot of other blogs out there that I don’t know about. I read some econ blogs partly from clicking my link to Alex’s Marginal Revolution blog which links to others. There are also a lot of tech blogs and computer science blogs but this is less surprising given that it’s on a computer. I suppose there are also lots of blogs about current TV shows and so forth that I don’t really have interest in. As it is, I already read too many blogs. I’m trying to spend more time reading the newspaper. Regarding my own blog, first I was surprised that my students/postdocs/colleagues had so little interest in posting, second I was surprised at how few comments I get on most entries. I don’t always know what will get comments, actually. I’ve had some success using the blog as a sort of out-box where I can park my ideas, but it’s not a panacea. For one thing, it means I spend more time on the computer, which is hard on my hands and maybe degrades my general work productivity.

It’s fun having 1000 readers a day (whatever that means; as a statistical consumer I’m remarkably uncurious about where the numbers come from. One day my postdoc discovered that we had set a switch wrong on the counter, and it turned out we had 1000 rather than 500 per day) although it’s hard for me to think if that’s a lot or a little. Many of my favorite statistical ideas have had struggles with acceptance (for example, there are still a lot of statisticians, even Bayesians, who fit models without even trying to see if they produce replications that look like observed data) so the proselytizer in me wants that large audience.

Finally, I’ve learned that writing can be easier than reading. As is illustrated by the above response that I’ve spewed out.

Parts 1 and 2 of this interview.

Andrew Gelman on Blogging (part 2 of 3)

To me the most interesting effect of your blog is educational — when I read it I feel like I’m getting a painless lesson in advanced statistics. Any idea if it affects many other readers that way?

It’s nice to hear this, but it’s probably like the difference between watching baseball and playing it. A reader feels he or she is getting an education by reading the blog, but you really learn by doing. On the other hand, you (and many other readers) are active data analysts. So I suspect that you’re really learning from your own data analysis. But the blog could be helpful because you go back and forth–something on the blog can inspire you to try something, which then motivates a question which is answered on the blog, etc.

In any case, I certainly help the people for whom I directly answer questions. Years ago I decided it was less effort to answer people’s questions than to say No. (This was back when strangers would email me after reading Bayesian Data Analysis with questions about nonconverging Gibbs samplers and the like.) Anyway, if I’m answering a question anyway, I might as well do it on the blog.

One thing I’ve tried to avoid is the lazy pattern of answering the easy questions and ducking the hard ones. I notice this on some computer bulletin boards (for example, R-help): There are some people who pounce on any easy question that comes up (often to tell people to Read the Manual). But when you ask a hard question, you get responses from a different sort of person. That’s who I want to be. If it takes too much effort to be helpful in this way, I’d rather not try at all.

Part 1 of this interview.

Andrew Gelman on Blogging (part 1 of 3)

Long ago, scholars taught. Then they taught and wrote books. Scholarly journals began. Scholars taught and wrote books and articles. Now a few of them teach, write books and articles, and blog. For example, Andrew Gelman, a professor of statistics at Columbia University, whose blog is here. To learn more about this new form of scholarship, I interviewed Andrew.

What led you to start blogging?

I started the blog in 2004 as a way for the students and postdocs in my research group to communicate with each other–the idea was that we would post items on our recent research and half-baked ideas, and it would be an open forum for us to comment on each others’ ideas, also with the opportunity for outsiders to add thoughts. It also seemed like a good way to publicize our work. I decided to post daily, and I figured that on days that I had nothing to say, I could just post one of my old papers. (As it turned out, I actually have a big backlog of blog entries now.)

Have there been any unexpected effects of blogging?

The blog itself developed differently that I expected. My students and postdocs rarely posted on it (except when I went on vacation and explicitly asked them to do an entry per day) so it became much more of my own personal forum. I’ve somehow developed a fairly equanimous “blog personality” in which I can comment on research by myself and others. Beyond that, I wouldn’t say there have been unexpected effects. The most positive effects have been:

  • Commenters pointing me to software and research of which I’d been unaware;
  • Having to type up my vague ideas has forced the ideas into a less-vague state; it’s also helpful to have to justify my thoughts to skeptical strangers;
  • Publicity for my work; I think that my ideas may be reaching more people now than before.
  • But I anticipated all these effects.

    If those three positive effects went away or became small, would you stop blogging?

    If they all went away, and they weren’t replaced by something else positive, then I suppose I’d stop. I do have a feeling of accomplishment from publishing every weekday for over 3 years (for my own sanity, I generally keep a no-weekend-posts rule), but if I wasn’t getting anything out of it, I’d probably lose motivation and stop.

    Where Did Blogs Come From?

    The more I blog, the more I think about blogging. (And the more I enjoy blogs.) In an email to Tyler Cowen I wondered if blogs were a new art form. He replied:

    I’ve long been interested in early literary models for bloggers, including Boswell, Pepys, Julio Cortazar, and John Cage (having a co blogger and comments introduces an aleatoric element)…I’m always looking for others…

    I replied:

    My literary model is Scheherazade. When I think of more standard precursors of blogs, I think of diaries and epistolary novels. Improvisational jazz, too, the way bloggers riff on something they’ve read. Also the Watts Towers — especially for MR.

    I think the way bloggers inject emotion into non-fiction is something new in the world of expression. Robert Caro once said that he tried to inject desperation into every page of his bio of Lyndon Johnson. “Is there desperation on the page?” read a note to himself pinned near his typewriter.

    Non-fiction with emotion isn’t easy, in other words. Caro’s books are fantastic achievements because he manages to convey emotion page after page for thousands of pages. Not just Johnson’s desperation — as a friend of mine said, Caro seems to “hate” Johnson. He certainly hated the later Robert Moses.

    Blogging with emotion, however, is easy. Almost unavoidable. For post after post. Nobody blogs about stuff they don’t care about or feel strongly about. If you want to learn about something, find a blog about it.

    Addendum: Speaking of blogs and art, this NY Times Mag article is excellent.