don’t believe a word of it

In response to last week’s essay—about revising your work without getting bogged down in the details—Maven Game reader Nick Matiasz writes:

Your advice reminds me of Dr. Betty S. Flowers’s four-step approach to writing — madmanarchitectcarpenterjudge.

Nick provides a link to a page on Google Books summarizing Dr. Flowers’s approach in Garner on Language and Writing, which, unfortunately, goes for more than a hundred bucks on Amazon. (Time for a reprint edition, Garner.)

The summary is well worth reading. Essentially, Flowers suggests you work in phases, restricting yourself to the phase you’re in and letting other concerns wait. In “Carpenter” mode, your job is solely to write according to the outline and preparation you completed in “Architect” mode, and so on. It’s excellent advice; my problem has always been staying in the same mode and not jumping around compulsively.

(While Garner’s book is a bit spendy for me, Nick highly recommends Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, which I’ve got on the bedstand now.)

(Try not to look so relieved that I’m finally learning how to write.)

Also: my pal Kaushik Viswanath is now an editor over at Marker, Medium’s new business publication, where he will focus on business books. As an example of what to expect from Kaushik, here’s Byrne Hobart with a Cynic’s Guide to Reading Business Books:

There are plenty of books on how to win the lottery, and the authors can be totally truthful: If you believe the so-called law of attraction will help you win the lotto, and then win the lottery, you could probably get people to read your book about it. But if, like a million other people, you lost the lottery, see if anyone will buy your book called How the Law of Attraction Didn’t Help Me Win the Lottery at All. Not even the law of attraction will help that one fly off the shelves.

Lots of painful truth in that one. Also, How the Law of Attraction Didn’t Help Me Win the Lottery at All is exactly the kind of book I would acquire were I still an in-house editor. Which is why it’s probably best that I’m not. Either way, go read Marker.

Hobart’s piece puts me in mind of Scott Alexander’s recent essay, “BOOK REVIEW: ALL THERAPY BOOKS.” Alexander is a psychiatrist taking on other psychiatrists, but to my eye, nearly all of this applies to books of advice in general:

All therapy books start with a claim that their form of therapy will change everything. Previous forms of therapy have required years or even decades to produce ambiguous results. Our form of therapy can produce total transformation in five to ten sessions! Previous forms of therapy have only helped ameliorate the stress of symptoms. Our form of therapy destroys symptoms at the root!

Yep. So much of what Alexander identifies here is a consistent pattern across the majority of successful business and self-help books. It’s a long, brilliant, provocative piece—like pretty much everything on Alexander’s site, Slate Star Codex—and well worth reading if you’re a Maven yourself. Getting attention for your ideas and making a convincing case for them while sticking to what you can definitively prove is no minor epistemological feat. The truth is a slippery thing.

I’ve been attending Buddhism classes lately. The Buddhists would have you believe that everything is a slippery thing. But I refuse to get too attached to that notion.