Practicing Brevity

by Raymond Arnold Jan 15 2017 updated Jan 15 2017

Wanna save the world? Write better TLDRs. And spend more time respecting your reader's time.

Wanna save the world? Learn to write shorter essays with good summaries.


(If the above all made sense to you, you can stop here and go read something else. If not, continue reading my ironically long essay)

Epistemic Effort: I tried to practice what I'm preaching, so I could experience pitfalls myself and adapt the content to reflect it. Spent 5 minutes of pure thinking about unforeseen consequences

I. Why brevity?

This week, there was some juicy drama/controversy in the EA community about intellectual honesty. I spent a lot of time discussing it. Then, when I was done discussing the juicy drama, I thought "I should actually get up-to-speed on recent developments across the EA blogosphere, instead of just participating in juicy drama, and proactively participate in the 'improve EA intellectual integrity' project".

I made a cursory attempt to do so. Then I remembered: there's a lot of content, and the most rigorous content is long, and then I felt overwhelmed and gave up.

I suspect I am not alone in this sort of thing.

Having more people up to speed on the latest developments is crucial, so we don't keep rehashing the same arguments. We need people checking each other's work (because even the most prestigious people and orgs make lots of mistakes and are much more uncertain than people realize). We need creative ideas for solving problems. We need more people understanding the problem-space so they can pick concrete things to work on.

To get there, I think we need better communication.

There's a lot of axes to communication (such as being rigorous, being attention-grabby and persuasive enough for people to actually read, etc). But one simple axis is "brevity."

II. Is the rest of your essay necessary?

Will people understand and be persuaded your summary? If not, why?

1). Do they understand why the idea is important?

If not, consider making the case in more detail, or telling a story (that can easily connect with via past emotions to make the case more salient). Depending on how complicated your idea is, you may need to approach this from multiple angles.

2) Do they understand the details of the idea well enough to execute on it?

Maybe, if you're teaching a complicated skill or concept, you really need a full essay to explain it at all. In that case, use the summary to explain what you hope they'll get out of the full text, so they can decide if they want that now.


Raymond Arnold

Potential issues (the results of my 5 minutes of thought)

1) Opportunity cost. Should people practice being brief, over other things (like maybe speedreading, or improving their ability to quickly read academic papers or statistics?)

1a) i.e. Academia isn't going to change, and if we want scientifically literate ideas, we will need to be better at understanding opaque, jargon-filled academic-ese, or mathy stats stuff. So maybe that's a better use of time?

1b) On the flipside, 1a is HARD to do for many people, whereas anyone can start practicing being brief without much startup costs

2) People have a limited time to write. Being brief costs time, and so does taking time to think through your ideas in more detail. (Even giving myself 5 minutes to JUST THINK feels kind of aversive to me).

Hmm. I still think brevity is a higher priority that these other things, because it will make all the other things flow faster (both for you, and for everyone around you)

Aaron Tucker

A few more thoughts on issue 1 besides the group vs. individual benefits.

Brief and well-written articles are still easier and faster to read than worse-written articles even if you're speed-reading. Insofar as people are concerned about group dilution, brevity is much better.

Alexei Andreev

Yes, yes, yes. I've recently realized these things too. Very much agree.

G Gordon Worley

I often find long-form writing that is not brief is valuable for giving the reader time to digest ideas before you throw the next one at them. At least when I'm reading I like to have some filler between the ideas to give me time to digest a thought and get to the next one. If you take away the transitions, stories, and evidence that resides between compact insights you eliminate the opportunity to think while reading. This is why I'm often disappointed my own writing feels as dense as it does and I often try to work on making it less dense so the reader has more space to think before I throw the next context-laden sentence at them.