The 9 Keys to Engaging Writing

The most engaging authors I know (Paul Graham, Scott Alexander, Jason Pargin) make their writing feel like a tight stand up comedy routine - they have a new dopamine-producing insight almost every sentence.

People keep doing things that give them little bursts of reward, and stop doing things that don’t. The more dopamine bursts your readers get out of effort they put into reading, the more engaged (and entertained) they will be.

You can maximize the reward/effort ratio in two ways:

  • Reduce the effort it takes to read your posts.
  • Increase the number of insights relative to word count.

Reduce the reading effort

Be brief. Don't use more words than you must, help the reader to get more out of your writing, faster, by putting in less work.

Use simple and clear language. Don't use fancy words to impress people with your vocabulary - impress people with your ideas instead. Make your writing easy to read by choosing words that communicate your ideas as simply and clearly as possible.

Increase the reward

Be insightful. You can do that by being genuinely educational, teaching useful mental models, explaining solutions to problems people have. Or you can simply share clever and unexpected ideas, anything that surprises your readers and makes them feel like they're getting smarter by reading you.

Use microhumor. Wit and jokes are designed to surprise and entertain people, to generate the sensation of "insight" in the reader's brain. You don't have to be an expert comedian and create laugh-out-loud jokes to take advantage of this - you can create simple and subtle micro-humor by using amusing turns of phrase, exaggerations, or weird metaphors. Jokes are a lot like the insightful ideas from the previous point, except they are novel and absurd rather than novel and true.

Use concrete examples. Readers feel the sense of insight every time the author supports an abstract idea with stories, studies, and real-world examples. Good examples make abstract ideas vivid, tangible, and easy to grasp.

Use metaphors, analogies, and thought experiments. They work just like examples, except instead of doing the research you can simply make them up. As a side benefit you can generate humor by making your metaphors more absurd, exaggerated, and weird.

Push emotional buttons. The evil version of that is intentionally igniting controversy, gossip, bashing the outgroups and supporting the ingroup (I'm not recommending that you do that, just mentioning that it works). The non-evil version is sharing polarizing ideas, strong opinions, and using examples/metaphors that invoke subjects which make people feel strong emotions.

Write with authority and conviction about the subjects you feel strongly about. Sometimes the author's curiosity and passion about the subject is enough to grab people's attention. Readers will care if you care.

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