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On Useful Writing and Novelty (13/30)
Trust the process.
The programmer, investor and writer Paul Graham argues that good essays should be “useful”. He believes that useful writing “tells people something true and important that they didn't already know, and tells them as unequivocally as possible.”
I think this is generally accurate except for the part about novelty. New ideas are extremely useful, to be sure. But it can be equally as valuable to read a piece which presents an important truth that you already knew in a way that makes it resonate more deeply than it ever has. There are many things that we ‘know’ on an intellectual level without truly knowing and understanding them at our core, such that we actually apply that knowledge to our lives. Sometimes it takes just the right presentation of an idea for it to make the leap from intellectual knowledge to the kind of foundational knowledge that counts.
This is part of why James Clear’s Atomic Habits did so well and has exponentially outperformed all the other books about habits. We all inherently know that good habits are important and that they compound over time; this is not a new idea. Yet James Clear’s writing made the importance and outcomes of good habits resonate for people in a way that no other book had. So much so, in fact, that many call it the most important book they’re ever read.
I’m not sure that I would’ve fully grasped this concept without embarking upon this adventure of 30 essays in 30 days. Part of the reason for taking on this challenge was to overcome some of the paralysis I had from questioning whether my writing was useful or novel enough. I was getting stuck in endless cycles of editing and second-guessing, exerting a ton of misdirected energy into trying to come to a groundbreaking epiphany.
I say misdirected for two reasons. The first comes from my discussion above about novelty not being required for writing to be useful. The second is that the process of writing in and of itself is what allows these ideas to develop and epiphanies to emerge. Writing allows latent connections to form and murky thoughts to crystallize into strong convictions. Without the inertia that comes from putting something onto the page, useful writing cannot occur. When I started this essay, as with most of the others, I didn’t have a clue where it was going to lead. All I knew was that I wanted to explore Graham’s idea of useful writing. These words are essentially my journey to forming my own thoughts on what makes writing useful.
This would suggest that aiming for novelty can inhibit writing that would be useful. Most writers, including Graham, reconcile this by writing a ton but publishing selectively. Graham has a simple strategy for ensuring that his writing is useful: “If you write a bad sentence, don’t publish it.” He quickly produces first drafts that explore any ideas that might be relevant to the topic at hand, then spends days carefully rewriting the essay, scrutinizing each sentence to ensure that it contributes to the usefulness of the piece.
There’s a lot of merit to this approach to writing, and I would agree that on balance it’s the most optimal one. A major drawback of publishing every day is that the first draft is basically what gets published. There is very little time to edit and refine the draft, and the editing that does happen usually occurs at the same time as the writing itself. This is far from ideal given the stark difference in the frame of mind that is required for each activity.
However, an upside to daily publication is that it forces the writer to consider what useful writing could look like within the constraints of a 24-hour deadline. For me, this helped free me from the notion that everything I wrote had to be revolutionary in order for it to serve a purpose.
At the end of this exercise there is no chance that I’ll continue to publish something every day. I still agree with Graham that the best and most useful writing is true, important, and clear, and that kind of writing is almost always the product of an unconstrained first draft followed by multiple separate sessions of intentional and ruthless editing. But publishing daily has helped me to develop my own thinking in a (marginally) public forum and redefine what makes writing useful for both the reader and the writer.
*Overall, I think Graham’s piece on useful writing is fantastic and extremely well thought out. It’s well worth the read.