Why I Write

My Writing Manifesto: A Means to an End

中文翻譯版本

Time dedicated to writing is my single most valuable investment in learning.

Having written over four hundred pieces in the past few years, I write this manifesto as a guideline for my future writing — on how to write, what to write, and why I should keep writing.

The purpose of my writing is to think better and deliver value.

Better thinking means clearer, deeper, and more interconnected thinking, leading to effective actions in my own context of use.

Value delivered means changing people's perspectives practically and positively, catalyzing meaningful interactions with others.

My writing should be authentic and opinionated.

I prioritize writing things I'm intrinsically passionate about with long-term value.

Think Better

I write to think better. Better thinking means clearer, deeper, and more interconnected thinking.

Write for clear thinking.

When we read, the author thinks for us. We can read so much and still read ourselves stupid if we just repeat the author's mental process.1

Writing makes us realize we don't understand most things we thought we understood.2

To think clearly and internalize learning, we articulate and share the information we absorb with others.

Simple note-taking is insufficient because we can take notes without content comprehension.3

Explaining our thinking exposes our blind spots by pushing us to explore different narratives, shift perspectives, and discover connections.4

Concepts in our brain are stored in spatial structures, whereas writing is linear.

Through writing, we encode a network of ideas into a sequence of words using a hierarchy of phrases.5

This process serves as a forcing function for us to transform information into knowledge.6

Write for deep thinking.

Writing not only makes complex thinking easier. It makes it possible.7

Our limited working memory constrains complex thinking 8, and a writing surface offloads our cognitive workload to an external medium.

Writing augments our ability to memorize and visualize information9, helping us think the unthinkable.10

Writing itself is thinking. Ideas don’t come out fully formed. They only become clear as we work on them. 11

To think deeper, we must write.12

Write for interconnected thinking.

Standalone concepts are harder to retain in our memory.13

Writing helps us link new ideas to those we already know, improving memory retention.14

Memory is essential for discovering new connections. A constantly evolving network of writing creates a reinforcement loop to learn and retain ideas.15

A mesh of ideas enhances creativity. Insights oftentimes flash from finding surprising connections from new things to existing thoughts we retain in our brains.

Effective actions

Better thinking driven by writing must lead to effective actions.

Insights without action are just lifeless abstractions.16

We must act on our thoughts derived from writing.17

Applying better thinking to solve problems through actions makes writing and learning truly effective.18

Effective action, in turn, improves our thinking.

Action produces measurable outcomes for our thinking.19

Measurable outcomes are essential to form effective feedback loops.20

With direct feedback from actions, we can improve our thinking systematically.21

Action provides stronger feedback than note-taking.

Beyond note-taking, we need actions because taking notes offers weak feedback for our learning.22

After finishing a note, we may not review it for a long time, let alone apply it.

Moreover, feedback from note-taking is ambiguous because the result of good note-taking is not obvious.

Same for thought journals. Since my first annual review23 in 2016, I've noticed improvements in my thoughts and writing over time and used that as my benchmark for growth.24

However, like note-taking, these reflections only provide delayed and indirect feedback.25

Actions offer more timely and direct feedback, enabling systematic improvement in our thinking.

Effective actions should be meaningful and relevant to my context.

Effective actions towards a meaningful goal should be the outcome of better thinking.

I see myself not primarily as a writer but as a thinker and builder. Time taken in writing is time taken away from building.

Therefore, my writing must align with my own context of use26 to build better things. I build to create more value.27

Writing is a means to an end.

Deliver Value

Good writing delivers value. My writing should be useful and impact people's lives positively.

My writing should be useful.

Writing should consider the area under the usefulness curve.

I can write in a simple way, offering a bit of value to many people. Alternatively, I can write in-depth, offering more value to fewer people.28

While both ways can maximize usefulness, I should lean toward the latter and pursue the mental equivalent of sweating.29

I strive for truthfulness, yet when abstraction helps understanding, I should prioritize usefulness over truthfulness.

When opting for oversimplification, I should explicitly note the trade-off and provide references for further exploration.

My writing should have a positive impact on people's lives.

Positive impact means readers change their perspective on themselves or the world in a practically positive way.

Writing should inspire action and change what people know, believe, feel, or do.30

Meaningful interactions

My writing should be the catalytic surface area of meaningful interaction with interesting people.

Writing creates opportunities to be helped.

Public writing puts me in the arena 31, enabling people to see my imperfect work and give me feedback. 32

So much valuable advice, assistance, and resources I've received are only possible because I show my work.33

The secret of life is people are way more willing to help than we think.

Writing creates opportunities to help others.

Public writing signals what areas I'm interested in and have experience in.

This ensures that people seeking help in these areas are aware of how I can help them.

It's my pleasure to share my experience and opinions as a reference or data point.

Sharing decreases information asymmetry.

Writing creates connections.

Public writing invites people to connect with me.

Most importantly, many close friendships would not have existed if I had never shared my thoughts online.

Be authentic

My writing should be authentic and reflect who I am.

Authenticity is for the long game.

Being true to myself is the easiest because I don't need to fake to impress anyone.

If I build on an extension of myself, no one can compete with me in the long term.34

Focus less on competition.35 Different is better than better.36

Authenticity defines the value.

In the age of advanced technology, ideas outweigh skills.37 However, tools like generative AI cannot represent who I am because they lack the personal essence that defines me.38

“There are no unique messages, only unique messengers.”39

My work must reflect who I am because authenticity with genuine expressions creates unique value.

Writing should embrace vulnerability.

Independent thinking oftentimes leads to opinions we're reluctant to share.40

Presenting not well-established ideas puts us in a vulnerable position.

Being fully ourselves is weird and vulnerable.

So, if we feel zero vulnerability, we are not authentically ourselves.41

True authenticity involves embracing our quirks and vulnerabilities.

Be opinionated

My writing should be opinionated.

I should prioritize my opinion over summarizing others.

For second-hand information, I should add value by connecting ideas or sharing my thoughts.

I should make educated guesses with falsifiable explanations.

I must suppress the urge to dodge the responsibility of being wrong.

Owning my mistakes offers the most honest feedback for learning.

I should make public predictions to log my mistakes.

Predictions must be judged by their quality, not just by their outcome.42

I aim to make quality predictions with good explanations43 that are falsifiable.

I should avoid hedging to spark meaningful discussions.

Acknowledging fallibility in mind, I should state my conjecture more like the laws of physics.44

"Be truthful, not neutral."45

Hedged phrases like "this might be wrong, but I think" and "there can be no right answer" push arguments toward tautology and entail less practical value.

Tautological statements rarely spark meaningful discussion because there's no substance to debate.

Meaningful discussions are essential because they invite more readers to collaborate on the intellectual quest.

What to write

I prioritize things with invariant importance or incremental long-term value.

I should avoid chasing news or trends solely for broader audience reach.

I should wait for new things to unfold before commenting unless I'm genuinely intrigued and eager to explore firsthand.

I write about anything under the sun that interests me, and that shouldn't change.

But I must be selective, focusing on things that spark not just interest but also passion.46

Each article I publish aims to be the best on the internet at something47, however specific.48

How to write

Below are some learning I wrote before, and I will update this list regularly to make it evergreen.

  • Write with the door closed. Once ideas are formed independently, rewrite with the door open to gather feedback. [Stephen King on Write and Rewrite]
  • To write well, delete most of what you put on the page, as films often shoot 50 to 100 times more footage than what actually appears in the final cut. [Delete Most in Draft]
  • If you want to use an exclamation mark while writing, it means your words aren't strong enough on their own. Strengthen your sentences instead of compensating with a mark. [Drop Exclamation Mark]
  • The secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. [Sit Down to Write]
  • Write 5x more but write 5x less. [Write More but Less]
  • “A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes." - Ludwig Wittgenstein [Philosophical Jokes]
  • Marathon runners compete with no one but a time they want to be. Writers compete with no one but a standard they want to attain. Sustainable motivation requires following something we won't compete with. [Noncompetitiveness]
  • Stop every day right after we feel like we can write more. Save the excitement and carry it over to the next day to let momentum kick off tomorrow's work smoothly. [Running and Writing]
  • Set aside time to write regardless of how you feel that day. It doesn't matter if it's good or not. Sit down and type. Refuse to bargain with your subconscious that says, "I'm dry. Let's try tomorrow". [Writing like Shopkeeper]
  • Derek Sivers' writing advice: Try writing one sentence per line. [One Sentence per Line]
  • To get over perfectionism to write and publish more, try writing without capitalization and using the 10-Point Scale. [Get over Perfectionism]
  • Writing is thinking. You can write first then derive clear perspectives from your own writing. [Writing Is Thinking]
  • Kill your darlings. Fall in love with the problem, not the solution. [Kill Your Darlings]
  • When drafting, write FBR: Fast, Bad, Wrong. [Write FBR]
  • Regarding sharing creative work, the word "release" carries a double meaning. It signifies that the work is made available to the public and that the author is liberated from the pursuit of perfection. [Double meaning of Release]
  • Creators need immediate connections to what they are creating because so much creation is discovery. We discover nothing if we cannot see the process of our changes effectively. [Immediate Connection to Creation]
  • “Language can become a screen which stands between the thinker and reality. This is the reason why true creativity often starts where language ends.” - Arthur Koestler [Language and Creativity]
  • The But and Therefore Rule for Storytelling [The But and Therefore Rule]
  • No amount of technology will make a bad story good. [Technology and Story]
  • We have to learn to separate the facts from the story. [Fact and Story]
  • Best ideas emerge when we balance the inhale of beer mode with the exhale of coffee mode. On any given day, coffee mode lets us be more productive. But over the long arc of time, beer mode rewards serendipity and intellectual breakthrough. [Beer and Coffee Mode]
  • How to express your thoughts clearly? The 3x3 rules: make less than 3 points, explain in 3 ways, and repeat 3 times. [3x3 Rules]

Future

Some of my most fulfilling moments have been when friends and readers told me how my writing has positively influenced their lives.

Having a positive impact on others is such a meaningful honor.

Writing brings fulfillment to me. I believe my writing can also help bring fulfillment to others, whether directly or indirectly.

My mission is to enhance human fulfillment.

While building things towards enhancing human fulfillment, I will keep writing.

Read. Write. Build.


  1. ^

    From Schopenhauer in Parerga and Paralipomena Chapter 24 on reading and books. See [Read Yourself Stupid]: When we read, the author thinks for us. We can read ourselves stupid if we just repeat the author's mental process. People who just let their own thoughts wander can be more creative than those who just read.

  2. ^

    Related to the Illusion of explanatory depth (IOED). See [Illusion of Explanatory Depth].

  3. ^

    This reminds me of Tyler Cowen, who doesn't take notes. He writes a lot, and maybe that's how he takes notes: through writing and applying what he has learned. Also, see Tyler Cowen on Reading and this interview with Andy Matuschak on Tyler's writing obligations.

  4. ^

    Related to Mortimer Adler's words: "The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks."

  5. ^

    Rephrased what Steven Pinker wrote in The Sense of Style: "The writer’s goal is to encode a web of ideas into a string of words using a tree of phrases." See [Write Web to String] with Ted Nelson's critique.

  6. ^

    Information only becomes knowledge after we interpret and understand it. See [No Knowledge in Book]: There is no knowledge in books, only information. Information only becomes knowledge after we interpret and understand it.

  7. ^

    From Neil Levy in Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics Chapter 18 Neuroethics and the Extended Mind. See [Notes Make Intellectual Possible]: Taking notes on paper or screens doesn't merely simplify complex tasks like contemporary physics or other intellectual pursuits. Taking notes makes them possible.

  8. ^

    See [Working and External Memory]: Our working memory has a limited capacity for task-related information. To perform complex tasks, we should offload some mental load onto an external medium.

  9. ^

    Inspired by Douglas Engelbart's Augmenting Human Intellect. Pen and paper, as the third stage in the development of our intellectual capabilities, enable manual and external symbol manipulation. Refer also to Information processing theory.

  10. ^

    But we should remember that paper, as the media for us to think, is a "low-bandwidth channel." See Bret Victor's Media for Thinking the Unthinkable. The creation of great ideas requires great representation with powerful mediums, and paper might not be enough.

  11. ^

    See [Writing Is Thinking]: Writing is thinking. You write first and derive clear perspectives from your own writing.

  12. ^

    From Niklas Luhmann in Kommunikation Mit Zettelkästen: "Without writing, you cannot think; at least not in a sophisticated and scientific way."

  13. ^

    Because isolated concepts, lacking context or connection to familiar ideas, are more difficult to encode effectively in our memory. See How Memory Functions and Information Processing Theory- Memory, Encoding, and Storage.

  14. ^

    That's also why mnemonic link system can be helpful.

  15. ^

    See How the brain builds on prior knowledge.

  16. ^

    See [Actionable Truth]: Insight is the smallest unit of truth that is actionable. If you cannot act on it, it is just an abstraction.

  17. ^

    See [Action-Thoughts Alignment]: "There can be no happiness if the things we believe in are different from the things we do."

  18. ^

    See [True Learning]: True learning is understanding. True understanding is linking new information to existing knowledge and applying it to problems.

  19. ^

    Related to Brian Armstrong in this interview, "action produces information".

  20. ^

    Inspired by: Deliberate Practice.

  21. ^

    Feedback loops enable systematic improvement. See Thinking in Systems.

  22. ^

    See Note-writing practices provide weak feedback.

  23. ^

    My first annual review back in 2016: [2016 紀錄].

  24. ^

    Whenever I see how embarrassing some of my previous thoughts and writing are, I cringe. But I keep them as a record of progress to remind myself of the growth mindset and run my own race.

  25. ^

    That said, writing down your thoughts is still a great tool to think and as a measure of growth to align your direction with long term goal.

  26. ^

    In addition to building better things, my other focus is the lifelong goal of being a better person and living consciously.

  27. ^

    Inspired by Sam Altman's Value is created by doing, where he wrote: "Writing can be a marginal use of time, but being good at it is important. If you are already good at writing, maybe the marginal utility of writing is diminishing and you should create value by doing."

  28. ^

    Or, I can write very deeply on topics that only interest me, offering value primarily to myself, though that might be closer to note-taking.

  29. ^

    Inspired by Andrej Karpathy's on shortification of "learning".

  30. ^

    Writing that inspires no action is less meaningful. It's like you pitch an idea to a VC, and they understand you perfectly. But they just don't invest in you.

  31. ^

    See [Luck and Arena Razors]: When choosing between two paths, choose the one with a larger luck surface area and/or the one that puts you in the arena.

  32. ^

    Inspired by: Learn In Public.

  33. ^

    Inspired by: Show Your Work!.

  34. ^

    From Naval Ravikant in The Almanack of Naval Ravikant: "If you are fundamentally building and marketing something that is an extension of who you are, no one can compete with you on that." Also in my 2022 review: [2022 紀錄].

  35. ^

    Inspired by Finite and Infinite Games: A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

  36. ^

    From Sally Hogshead. Also, in my 2022 review: [2022 紀錄].

  37. ^

    See [Gen AI and Photography to Art]: Generative AI is to digital art as photography was to traditional art. The value of having good ideas grows when new technology lowers the need for technical skills.

  38. ^

    Though one may argue that DreamBooth and other techniques can represent oneself or that it requires taste to train a large language model, I won't say it can make people feel "authentic" in those works yet.

  39. ^

    From Jadah Sellner: “There are no unique messages, only unique messengers.” See [Unique Messenger not Message].

  40. ^

    See [Opinions Afraid to Share]: Do you hold opinions you're afraid to share with peers? If not, maybe you just believe what you're told rather than think independently.

  41. ^

    See [Marketing Cringe]: When marketing our work, we must feel a bit cringe. Zero cringe can be suboptimal because it either means we are not being authentic or we are tasteless.

  42. ^

    Good prediction should specify assumption with probability and remember the luck fool from Fooled by Randomness.

  43. ^

    From The Beginning of Infinity: a good explanation is one that accounts for observations while being hard to vary.

  44. ^

    See [No Hedged Words]: State your conjecture in a way that sounds like the laws of physics. Avoid mealy-mouthed allusions because ChatGPT can do all the hedged answers already. Solid and arbitrary statement sparks more comments and feedback.

  45. ^

    From Christiane Amanpour. I first heard about this line from Kara Swisher.

  46. ^

    Inspired by Douglas Hofstadter in Metamagical Themas: "I was beginning to wonder how long I could sustain it without seriously jeopardizing my research. I decided to divide up my long list of prospective topics into categories: columns I would love to do, columns I would simply enjoy doing, and columns I could write with interest but no real passion."

  47. ^

    From Robert Heaton's How to come up with blog post ideas.

  48. ^

    However specific, this can be done by creating an imaginary category. My [HyperLogLog] is the easiest-to-understand written introduction online to that algorithm. [Remove Labels], [I Don't Have Time], and [Let Go of Your Desire to Tell a Bigger Story When Listening] are the best articles that explore weird takes on those simple but less discussed ideas. See, you can be that specific.


Thanks to Angelica Kosasih, Scott Chen and Simon Tsai for reading the draft of this and giving feedback.