Setting and scene

Lately I’ve been struggling with setting. As many people have noted, excessive fiddling with getting things ready, or “just so”, before feeling one can begin to do something is simply a form of procrastination. It’s a form of hiding from doing the work. Steven Pressfield describes this as the “resistance” which shows up just when you are finally facing the real work that you are called to do.

I tell this story not because I think a method approach, in which you inhabit your characters and their behaviors, is the best way to write fiction. (If this were true, a lot more authors would take a swing at romance novels.) But instead because it’s an extreme example of a more general point that I’ve been emphasizing recently: when it comes to cognitive work, setting makes a difference.

~ Cal Newport from,

Setting is real, and it is important. But there’s a second part to finding (or creating) the optimal environment: Scene. Where are the others who are also doing the same work? It could be the other painters or authors like you, and you’re all living in a neighborhood and regularly gathering and conversing at the local cafes. (The archetypical writers scene of the 1900s was in Paris.) If I’ve imagineered a certain niche of work that I want to do, how do I find (or create) the scene?


Thank you I. Asimov

Over in my Open + Curious project, I’ve been working intentionally to improve my writing. For Open + Curious the more recent articles all begin with a clear posit (a statement which is made on the assumption that it will prove to be true) and then go on to explain why I believe that to be true; that’s their finished form. I was generally writing each piece, editing it to find and hone a single line of thinking, and then finishing up by crafting the leading posit. Yes, I know, “Craig discovers the essay.”

I’m reading I. Asimov and this advice leapt off the page:

What I do now is think up a problem and a resolution to that problem. I then begin the story, making it up as I go along, having all the excitement of finding out what will happen to the characters and how they will get out of their scrapes, but working steadily toward the known resolution so that I don’t get lost en route.

When asked for advice by beginners, I always stress that. Know your ending, I say, or the river of your story may finally sink into the desert sands and never reach the sea.

~ Isaac Asimov


I’ve now written thousands of posts where I’ve led with a quotation from something. I’m forever writing some observation about what I’ve quoted, and then trying to pivot to what I actually want to say. Unfortunately, this style has begun to feel constraining.

Going forward, I’m going to see what happens if I think of what I’m quoting as giving me a direction. This piece starts with my thoughts about my writing for Open + Curious, and then looking “in the direction” of Asimov’s quoted contribution, beyond that I “see” this gibberish about my writing process. Sorry, maybe that’s all too meta? It’s noisy in my head.


Work ethic

Hedonistic adaptation ensures that I continuously cycle back and forth between, “If this isn’t nice I don’t know what is!” and rage-quitting all my self-assigned should’s. Two things help temper my intemperance: Journalling provides me with some—albeit subjective—perspective, and reading about the reality of people’s actual lives and work ethics relaxes my self-criticism.

A truer answer would have been that he was fiercely private and deeply caring. He often let other people talk, entering a conversation with a single considered sentence. He didn’t smile unless he was really pleased, and his biggest laugh was a small chuckle. His eyes would squeeze shut and his head would tip back and after he chuckled, he would look at you with delight.

~ Alison Fairbrother from,

Without Internet cheating, I can’t name a single one of E. L. Doctorow’s works. But I have this diffuse idea that he is (was?) A Real Writer. Someone who got things written, and maybe had a few ideas worth sharing. Darn it if reading Fairbrother’s piece didn’t tug at the ‘ol heart strings, and I might have gotten something briefly stuck in the corner of one of my eyes.

But I came away with a recalibration: I now have this diffuse idea that he was A Real Writer, got things written, had a few ideas worth sharing, and it was made possible by his family and his work ethic.

(Also, maybe help this autodidact out by hitting reply and telling me one thing of Doctorow’s I must read.)


Never reaching the sea

What I do now is think up a problem and a resolution to that problem. I then begin the story, making it up as I go along, having all the excitement of finding out what will happen to the characters and how they will get out of their scrapes, but working steadily toward the known resolution so that I don’t get lost en route.

When asked for advice by beginners, I always stress that. Know your ending, I say, or the river of your story may finally sink into the desert sands and never reach the sea.

~ Isaac Asimov


Should have read the label

There is a part of you that will *become* your job/profession.

~ Toby Nagle from,

That’s number 7 from his 10-point listicle.

Also: I’ve taken to using the word “listicle” only when I mean it as a compliment. Versus, my perception that everyone else means it as derogatory. I think that being able to organize one’s writing into a coherent, ordered list of things all of which are on roughly equal footing, shows a significant level of comprehension and integration. Most short writings which have a numbered list of points are crappy click-bait, and people rightly derogate them. This is not that, so there. (English is a mess, but ain’t finger-painting fun?i)


Taking note

As it happens, my journalism often requires I read a mountain of material. For any given Wired column, for example, I might read dozens of white papers, reports, and news articles. I’ll also do ten or twelve interviews and transcribe them. When I’m researching a longer feature for a magazine? This number quickly grows to scores of documents, and several dozen interviews. And with a book — like my last one, Coders — we’re talking about literally hundreds and hundreds of documents (books, papers, etc) and several hundred transcribed interviews.

~ Clive Thompson from,

I love when people take the time to explain some of the effort which goes into writing, then writing well, writing articles well, and writing books well. I’m still on level, “writing” and knowing what goes into writing well (let alone writing articles or books well) keeps me from developing any delusions of grandeur. I read Thompson’s article (which I hope you can read on Medium if you wish to click through) and I loved it. That’s enough to make the reading worth doing. Being able to quote, share, reflect and sometimes integrate what I’ve read? Priceless.

Also: Thank you for reading. I don’t take your attention for granted. :^)



The paragraph above has a topic sentence, then three fragments. Yes, fragments. Like this and the one before it. A fragment is a non-sentence; it does not have a subject and main verb. Students are taught that fragments are errors. Hogwash! Writers use fragments all the time. Your English teacher may not like it and the college admissions office may not either. But, learn to use the fragment.

~ Mylinh Shattan from,

Shattan is writing about writing, and mentions how sentence fragments can hold imagery. I’ve been wondering if this isn’t a critical skill for spoken conversation. Speaking a fragment feels like throwing up a sign post: “Exampleville 15” is helpful in that it gives a definite distance. Deep in a conversation, if I drop in a fragment, it can be a way to indicate I think we’re headed somewhere in particular; fragments can check that are trains of thought still match. Fragments dropped into conversation make sense—like inside jokes—because we’re both on the same journey.


Get to the point

Perhaps the most critical communication skill. Be brief. Use as few words as possible to say what you need, and everyone will appreciate it.

~ Morgan Housel from,

I’m aware that my blog posts, and the weekly 7 for Sunday email derived from them, are often a rambling mess of garage-door-up thinking. I do edit. The key thing that I’m trying to do is to integrate ideas into what I already know, to see what new connections and new ideas I might find. So this post is not at all about telling you, Dear Reader, how to get to the point or even how important it is to get to the point. In fact, I don’t have a point (in this post in particular, and also generally.) Most of the time, if I reach the end of the post and discover I do in fact have a point… well, that’s terrific. I feel it would be cheating to then cover up my work by editing the thing to get more directly to the point.


Everyone’s talking about AI

The tool was called Sudowrite. Designed by developers turned sci-fi authors Amit Gupta and James Yu, it’s one of many AI writing programs built on OpenAI’s language model GPT-3 that have launched since it was opened to developers last year. But where most of these tools are meant to write company emails and marketing copy, Sudowrite is designed for fiction writers.

~ Josh Dzieza from,

Okay, fine, there have a pull-quote from an article about AI!

Today we have really amazing tools which are Large Language Models (LLMs). And today they have already changed the world. I’m not exaggerating. Today it’s possible to use LLMs to do astounding things. That’s awesome. But it’s not yet intelligence. 110% clarity here: All the stuff everyone is talking about today is freakin’ awesome.

I’m saying (I know it doesn’t matter what I say) we should save the term “Artificial Intelligence” for things which are actually intelligent. Words don’t inherently have meaning, but it’s vastly better if we don’t use “intelligence” to mean one thing when we talk about a person, and to mean something entirely different when we talk about today’s LLMs. Today’s LLMs are not [yet] intelligent.

Why this quibble today? Because when artificial intelligence appears, shit’s gonna get real. People who think a lot about AI want to talk about ensuring AI’s morals and goals are in reasonable alignment with humans’ (lest the AI end up misaligned and, perhaps, optimize for paperclip creation and wipe us out.)

My opinion: To be considered intelligent, one must demonstrate agency. Some amount of agency is necessary for something to be intelligent. Agency is not sufficient. Let’s start talking about AGENCY.

The tools we see today (LLMs so far) do not have agency. Contrast that with, say, elephants and dogs which do have agency. I believe the highest moral crimes involve taking someone’s (a word reserved for people) or something’s agency away. All the horrid crimes which we can imagine, each involve the victims’ loss of agency.

So what are we going to do when AIs appear? Prediction: We’re going to do what we humans have always done, historically to each other, elephants and dogs. As individuals we’re all over the moral map. Let’s start more conversations about agency before we have a new sort of intelligence that decides the issue and then explains the answer to us.


Should I keep blogging?

This is not a passive-aggressive maneuver to get you to scroll to the bottom, read the footer and consider supporting my work. (It would mean a lot though if you did.)

This is a serious question which I ask myself at a frequency approaching every minute. All the benefits are not directly measurable.

Exposure — In order to ensure I have material to write posts, I have various processes and systems that force me to skim an insane amount of stuff pretty much every day. If you imagine skimming my weekly email in a second or two, that’s 7 items. I skim about 300 to 500 items every day. A small number each day catch my attention enough that I toss them on my read-later queue. There are 764 things on that queue at this instant. It takes me significant time to read them, but often just a few seconds to realize, “yeah this is going to be a blog post” (and then I go on reading to the end and then I write the post.) If I stopped blogging, would I still do all that work to be exposed to ideas?

Learning — Writing blog posts creates a third “imprint” in my mind. First a glance, then a read, and then thinking about it. Even if I sometimes abort the blog post mid-writing, it’s still three different repetitions. And I have software that feeds me my own blog posts (“what did I post 10 years ago, today?” etc.) so I am constantly re-reading everything on this site; that’s more repetitions as things drift into history.

Integration — If I write a blog post about it, I generally try to figure out its relationship to everything else. Adding blog tags is the most obvious bit of integration. But figuring out what to pull quote involves deciding what is salient to me. And deciding which part(s) I want to focus on, magnify, or disagree with requires further integration.

Writing — Thoughts swirl in my mind. Characters appear on my screen. There are several skills one can work on between those two sentences.

All of that goes into feeding my personal growth and priming my curiosity. Since good conversation is powered by genuine curiosity, all that stuff also enables my person mission.

Should I keep blogging? It doesn’t feel like stopping is realistically an option.



The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones. […] Clichés are detrimental in so far as they inspire us to believe that they adequately describe a situation while merely grazing its surface. And if this matters, it is because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.

~ Alain De Botton


4 things to know

That’s not because Rudin did a bad job. It’s because there ain’t no way to re-write mathematical analysis as a “list”. When you do write a list, you are promising that you’ve figured out a way to cover the subject in that way without losing essential detail. Provided that you deliver on that promise, it’s a powerful thing.

~ “Dynomight” from,

  1. This article makes several (while the article is a list, it’s unnumbered and I’m too lazy to count, you should just be happy I sometimes check my speling) magnificent points about what lists have going for them. There’s a lot. The only problem with lists (generally, on the Internet, These Days™) is that spammers and search–engine–optimizing mouth-breathers have published an insane amount of crap, in list format. It turns out that if you publish great content as a list it’s even better than long–form prose. It turns out that it looks like chapters, sections and sub-sections!
  2. I recently learned a lot about proper use of the three different types of dashes: hyphen (-), en-dash (–), and em-dash (—). Their relative lengths are pretty clear when you see a family portrait like that previous sentence. It turns out that: Compound words, like en-dash and mouth-breathers, are assembled using hyphens. Compound adjectives, like search–engine–optimizing, are assembled with en-dashes. You can use em-dashes—that’s a hyphen in there—to insert gently–parenthetical commentary.
  3. A case can be made—here, I’m making a case—that my weekly email is my way of turning my blog into a list which makes it easier to… oh, just go read the article.


This is the trick

Sanderson argues you should instead experiment to figure out what combination of motivation, and circumstances, and accountability work best for your particular personality. He responds well to tracking a daily word count in a spreadsheet. Others, he notes, thrive under the social pressures of a writing group, while others lean on deadlines to induce work. The key is recognizing that the urge to avoid hard things is human, and should be expected. It’s part of the process.

~ Cal Newport from,

I’m filing this under “things I wish I had learned 30 years ago”. Some things I really track, and some things I just do whenever I feel like. One way or another though, it’s important that I be honest with myself. “Do I really want to do this?” …or do I just like the idea of being able to say “I did that”?


Stingy with positive reinforcement

Here’s something I’ve noticed about myself: If I read something great, I’ll sometimes write a short comment like “This was amazing, you’re the best!” Then I’ll stare at it for 10 seconds and decide that posting it would be lame and humiliating, so I delete it go about my day. But on the rare occasions that I read something that triggers me, I get a strong feeling that I have important insights. Assuming that I’m not uniquely broken in this way, it explains a lot.

~ “Dynomight” from,

I too have this tendency. In recent years I’ve been actively working on my own version of “See something. Say something.” as part of my changes to achieve results. My version is that nice things must be said out loud. No more sitting on the positive thoughts; Yes, I need to squish my incessant critical commentary. Dial that down, please. But I also need to practice letting out the good stuff too. Nice shirt. Smooth movement. This food is delicious. It’s so insanely comfortable here. Thank you for making this come together. If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.


The moment

The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.

~ Neil Gaiman



Remember that truth is the greatest thing in the world. If you will be great, you will be true. If you suppress the truth, if you hide truth, if you do not rise up and speak out in meeting, if you speak out in meeting without speaking the whole truth, then are you less true than truth and by that much are you less than great.

~ Jack London


Three great things

The three great things of life are: Good health; Work; And a philosophy of life. I may add, nay, must add, a fourth—Sincerity. Without this, the other three are without avail; And with it you may cleave to greatness and sit among giants.

~ Jack London


In summary

The chronological summary of a man’s life is of all composition for students perhaps the most futile. […] “What of it?” remains to be asked at the end; And if the student begin there, not rewriting the annals, but seeking throughout the characteristic traits, the typical activities, the expression of individuality, he will find no better practice. Thus not only the reader, but far more the writer, gains by the abandoning of the order of chronology.

~ Charles Sears Baldwin


The only rule

What I learned from reading about writing…

~ “Dynomight” from,

This was a fun read and is mostly not the usual titles one sees suggested to read on writing. Among many things, I am a writer. I enjoy learning what appears—in others’ view—to be the right way to do things. The more I read, write, and read on writing, the more I’m convinced it’s just like any other mastery practice: The only rule is that there really are no real rules. Understand the best, accepted practices, (often labeled “rules” to get the newbies to start in the correct direction,) and then later move on to do whatever you please.


Broke my but

In my journey writing thousands of blog posts I’ve developed certain habits and a style. There have been a precious few points where I’ve intentionally made a significant change. I used to lead with the URL followed by the pull-quote, before changing to a more normal style of a quote with a following attribution. At one point I started adding slip addresses, and at another point I started reigning in my use of exclamation marks.

Recently I asked one of my mentors, Jesse, for feedback on some copy, and he made a comment about his personal rule to be very intentional about using the word, “but”. I didn’t think I was overusing it, but [oh no!] I often used it as a conjunction— I often used it as a way to connect two sentences to create a point and counter-point structure— Dammit, Jesse. Now I cannot unsee every “but” as a weasel word. You suck. Thanks for making me better.