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Weekly 3: Good Writing vs. Clutter, Dunbar Number + Imagination & Bullshit


Idea Journal Weekly 3

November 5 · Issue #7 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

#1. The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its essential components.
In his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser suggests that most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information. 
Clutter in writing can take multiple forms: “the unnecessary preposition appended to a verb (‘order up’), or the adverb that carries the same meaning as the verb ('smile happily’), or the adjective that states a known fact ('tall skyscraper’).”
Zinsser recommends asking several questions to help identify superfluous words in your writing: 
  • Is each word doing new work?
  • Can any thought be expressed more simply? 
  • Are you hanging on to something that isn’t doing new work just because you like the way it sounds? 
One way to test whether a word is clutter is to put a pair of brackets around it, and then reread the sentence as if it weren’t there. If you’re still able to get your point across without it, then it’s clutter and can be removed.
#2. Humans became the dominant species on the planet because of our ability to cooperate in large groups. According to one theory, our power of imagination is what made this large-scale cooperation possible.
As historian Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book Sapiens, humans are social animals that have used their ability to “cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers” to rule the world.
And yet, evolutionarily and even today, research suggests that there is a natural limit to how many people a person can know intimately: about 150 people, or the “Dunbar number,” named after anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar
Under this threshold, groups of people can maintain themselves through intimate acquaintance and sharing rumors. Above Dunbar’s limit, it’s hard for groups of people to cooperate effectively without formal hierarchies and laws. 
In order to reach the levels of large-scale cooperation necessary to create everything from ancient empires to religions and the modern corporation, humans have relied on common myths rooted in our imagination. 
As Harari points out, from this perspective, the tales that modern lawyers and businesspeople tell are much more strange than those of tribal shamans.
#3. If you believe life is short, then avoid experiences that waste your time.
Entrepreneur and Silicon Valley oracle Paul Graham writes that having kids is what finally made him realize that life is in fact short: 
“If Christmas-as-magic lasts from say ages 3 to 10, you only get to watch your child experience it 8 times. And while it’s impossible to say what is a lot or a little of a continuous quantity like time, 8 is not a lot of something. If you had a handful of 8 peanuts, or a shelf of 8 books to choose from, the quantity would definitely seem limited, no matter what your lifespan was.”
Once you know that life is short, arguments in the form of “life is too short for x” are increasingly important. His term for the category of things that life is too short for is “bullshit.”
Philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote a long and influential essay in 1986 exploring the nature of bullshit, but Graham offers a characteristically succinct definition: “It’s the junk food of experience.” 
Graham suggests that one way to help distinguish between bullshit and those experiences that actually matter to you is to ask the following question: will you care about it in the future? 
Quote of the Week: "A coherently designed product requires no adornment; it should be enhanced by its form alone."
- Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, designer of the Porsche 911, referenced in a Porsche press release announcing his death.
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