1 A 3 O R N

How-To Guides / Persuasive Writing

Created: 2020-12-20
Wordcount: 2k

I

When arguing that something is true, you should generally give the reasons that you think it is true, rather than the reasons that you think will convince your audience.

This is a good rule when speaking with anyone who you regard as a rational agent, rather than as a child, a subhuman animal, or a finite state machine. It's a rationalist rule, but it's not exclusive to rationalism; the Catholic Pieper articulates it in Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. Following it prevents many potential missteps. If you don't follow this rule, anyone who talks with you will fail to grasp the structure of your own beliefs, because you aren't telling it to them. And if you don't follow this rule, you hide from yourself the possibility of discovering that you are wrong, because you'll never find out whether the actual foundation of your beliefs is sound.

But it's a difficult rule to follow, even with the best intentions. It's hard to be vulnerable with the foundations of one's actual beliefs, for instance. But more foundationally, often we are ignorant of the reasons that we think a thing is true.

You can think that you think that evolution occurred because you've examined the evidence impartially and found that nearly all of it substantially supports evolution -- but in fact you might think that evolution occurred because you think that creationists are kinda cringe. You can think that you think that trans women are women who should be accorded all the rights of women because of your enlightened ethical understanding -- but in fact you think that because you're following a social movement of upper-class people from whom you fear exclusion. You can think that you think that Hell is a just concept which a righteous God could create because you've done a lot of ethics -- but in fact you think it because your mom told you it as a little kid.

And so on and so forth. It's really hard to find and enumerate the actual causal structure of events that lead to your possession of a particular belief. But it is also really important. If that causal structure that lead to your profession of a belief isn't causally entangled with the state of affairs you believe, then the belief is almost certainly false. But, because our brains are messy, introspectively opaque, narrative-flavored confabulators, it is -- again -- hard to identify the causal structure that leads to your profession of a belief.

The problem isn't exclusive to anyone. Everyone has it.

II

I've noticed that there's a big difference between it feels to write how-to guides / instructional manuals, and how it feels to write philosophical essays / persuasive works.

I say "how it feels" deliberately. The two are very different from the inside, even though they might look the same from the outside. They're related like taking a snooze on a bed and working out a math problem in your head on a bed can be related; near total identity externally, near complete opposition internally.

Let me explain terms.

By how-to writing, I mean writing like a machine-learning tutorial I wrote for students while working at a coding bootcamp. But I also mean things like a text of methods for how to solve differential equations; guides to growing salvia divinorum; a short explanation of how to change the oil in your car; a long and detailed explanation about how to incorporate a 503c3; a step-by-step guide to learning samadhi meditation; and so on.

When doing how-to writing, I find myself asking myself questions like the following:

  1. Have I sufficiently described the starting point? Have I specified all the things you need to have on hand or need to know to begin?

  2. Have I missed any steps? Are there things I'm forgetting to write down because I'm currently very familiar with each step?

  3. What are things that could go wrong? How can I stave off these problems, or address the most likely ones?

  4. How can I communicate the underlying causality of the things involved, so that the reader can take what I say further?

When I'm writing a how-to-guide, it's natural to ask myself these questions. It isn't a weird, effortful thing -- if I am writing such a guide, I'll in that very act be asking them.

(The only circumstance I wouldn't ask myself these questions is if I'm not really writing a guide, but writing a thing which is meant to resemble a guide -- if I'm writing, say, a Medium "tutorial" because I need to add some bullshit to my resume, or a self-help book which promises impossible goods because I want money. These are a kind of role-playing, where the product resembles an actual guide rather like TV-show medicine resembles the actual medical process. People can of course self-deceive about this, but it doesn't require enormous mental acuity to figure out that you're self-deceiving, unlike in the general case of self-deception. If you find yourself writing a complete guide to machine learning in production, but you've only finished an online MOOC ML tutorial -- well, you should probably stop.)

To return to the questions mentioned above, though. These questions are quite different from the questions I ask myself while writing persuasive essays.

By such persuasive writing, I mean writing like an essay I wrote attempting to persuade someone that billionaires don't always hurt the economy. But this also includes a Neoplatonic Ennead arguing for the existence and the nature of the One; an op-ed arguing that Black Lives Matter hurts black people more than it helps them; an attempt to persuade people that the cause of most human misery is coordination difficulties rather than vice; and so on.

When doing persuasive writing, these are the questions I find myself naturally asking myself:

  1. Is my writing style in itself pleasurable to read? Will people want to read it?

  2. Does either the content or tone make me seem like an asshole, or a snob, or a moron?

  3. If I introduce uncommonly known facts in my argument, are they from sources credible to everyone around me?

  4. Who are the authorities that disagree me, who I might wish to address? What likely-to-occur-to-the-reader counterarguments should I mention?

  5. Am I actually presenting good reasons for what I'm trying to explain? Am I right about what I'm saying, or am I fooling myself?

These are the questions I naturally ask myself while trying to write persuasively. Note, of course, that with the exception of the last, these are all questions of presentation and appearance. And frankly, it's hard to keep the last in mind.

While all of the first set of questions naturally drive me deeper into the subject matter, pretty much inescapably, and simply by virtue of doing what I'm doing, few of the second set of questions do. Your mind can skip over reality easily while writing a persuasive essay; while writing a how-to-guide, you'll have your ignorance rather quickly revealed to you.

As in so many cases, I don't think the solution we should reach for here is "try harder."

III

This distinction between how-to writing and persuasive writing isn't quite the same as some similar distinctions. To quickly clarify two cases:

  1. Plato distinguishes between sophistry, the art of making people agree with you, and philosophy, the love of wisdom and truth.

He connects philosophy with the kind of person who would hang around Socrates and talk about the One and the Many and Justice and Other Forms With Capitals. They're the kind of people who are curious, who want to know what really is, regardless of whether it will make them friends or give them power. And he connects sophistry with people who speak in public, who want to control the mob or the masses, who want to sway hundreds with their tongue. They're the kind of people who don't care whether or not what they say reflects what really is, so long as it gives them power.

The how-to / persuasion distinction isn't the same. Most sophistry and and most philosophy fall into the persuasive bucket; at the end of neither do you know how to do a new thing. And that's the important point of how-to writing.

  1. It also isn't the same as the classical / medieval distinction between the servile and the liberal arts.

On one side of this distinction you have the servile arts, which are useful, and not particularly noble-in-themselves, like agriculture and architecture. They're the kinds of things that you might have to do, as part of sustaining human life, but which are not themselves often enjoyable or "high". On the other side of this distinction you have the liberal arts, which are not-useful and noble in themselves, like logic, astronomy, or philosophy. You could say that how-to writing is like the servile arts, and persuasive writing is like the liberal arts.

Even accepting this distinction -- which, in my humble opinion, is shit -- the distinction simply doesn't cut along the same lines. A how-to-guide for how to set up your telescope seems very useful to the speculative arts, for instance.

IV

Here are some further salient differences between how-to and persuasive writing.

  1. The audience is clearer for how-to writing, to both writer and reader.

Persuasive writing is insidiously ambiguous in its intended audience. I'd guess that at least 60% of the writing that is ostensibly intended to convert people to a particular position is instead intended for people who already hold the position. If Dawkins wanted to convert theists from theism in The God Delusion he wouldn't have insulted them on every page; works of Christian apologetics are typically read by people who are already Christian; we all know who will read the latest Medium article about the racism and sexism of techbros in Big Tech, and it isn't a hypothetical actual racist sexist techbro in Big Tech. And this is true of more scholarly, academic works as well as the popular kind of works I've mentioned.

I'm not making a new point, of course. This slide in intended audience, where a work actually intended for fubarists pretends to be addressed to anti-fubarists, so that fubarists can read it and feel superior to anti-fubarists who haven't even bothered to educate themselves with such an easy text that clearly shows how they are wrong -- well, this slide is well known. But it's not going away anytime soon, and I think it has seriously bad effects.

In how-to writing, the audience is clearer. People who read how to do X are people who want to do X, and either never have done it or have not done it recently and need a refresher. More generally, you won't get a kick out of reading a how-to guide because of some semi-conscious sneering at an outgroup.

(As in every case, there are exceptions to the rule -- but in such cases the pathology seems pretty obvious.)

  1. Falsehood and incorrectness is more obvious in how-to writing.

In good persuasive writing, you give the actual reasons that you think what you think, styled to appear their best and attract the most readers. But it's incredibly hard to optimize for picking the actual reasons that you think what you think; it's only moderately hard to optimize for the style and attraction. So most of the optimization effort goes into the latter. The optimization pressure brought to bear by

In good how-to-writing, on the other hand, the goal is to give clear, unambiguous instructions. You can tell if you're actually doing that by trying to follow the instructions yourself, or by seeing if people who try to follow them succeed. This isn't an easy task -- anyone who has ever tried to teach knows that it is hard. But your failure is more obvious.

V

In the future, I'm going to try to make my persuasive writing resemble how-to guides more closely, if I can.

Why?

  1. Scientific articles condense the two kinds. They are explanations of what they believe to be so, together with the procedure they followed which lead them to believe that it is so. And, unsurprisingly, scientific articles are often convincing. The worst science -- bad psychology, sociology, etc -- are bad as they are because the articles in these journals fail as how-to guides; they cannot be repeated.

  2. Even for things for which you cannot perform experiments, good insights provide causal routes that would be useful in alternative worlds. I.e., a good book about revolution and coups is also a handbook to perform them, even if you need an alliance with the military which might, in this world, be hard to come by.