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Paul Graham Writes An Essay
February 26, 2009 5:08 AM   Subscribe

Paul Graham recently wrote an essay. And saved all his edits, so you can replay it in entirety just as he wrote it.* It's quite fascinating to see if you ever wondered how he (or other writers) went about their job. And here's the Hacker News thread he initiated. This can be a very useful tool to watch and understand your own writing process, or understand and help your students write. Like cvs/svn mirror for long form writing.

* - make sure that you don't let the link hang in the background and come to it after 15 minutes, because by then the essay would have replayed through the edits and look like a bland text page. The controls at the top are a bit non-intuitive if you don't know what you are looking for. I tripped up, so I thought I'd warn others.
posted by forwebsites (54 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm conflicted. On the one hand, this is pretty neat. On the other hand, Paul Graham.
posted by atrazine at 5:12 AM on February 26, 2009 [15 favorites]


I think we've finally solved the mystery of why Paul Graham has to replace the Backspace key on his keyboard every few weeks.
posted by burnmp3s at 5:20 AM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Teachers would best use this as an example to help their students not be intimidated by writing. Or Paul Graham.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 5:33 AM on February 26, 2009


I'm not sure why any would want something so distractingly unsuable unusable that breaks your attention span fails to account for the limitations of the human brain, unless you're high on drugs like Paul Graham really focused in the first place, in which case you don't need to bother.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 5:33 AM on February 26, 2009


Startups in ten sentences ^H^H^H
All work and no play makes Paul a dull boy ^H^H^H^H
Kill kill kill! ^H^H^H
Startups in thirteen sentences
posted by zippy at 5:33 AM on February 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


Paul Graham is no Marcel Proust.
posted by dydecker at 5:35 AM on February 26, 2009


And, unfortunately, no Marcel Marceau.
posted by Flunkie at 5:38 AM on February 26, 2009 [8 favorites]


I get to read the stuff that even Paul Graham was too dumb to keep? WOOOO!!!!
posted by DU at 5:39 AM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ruined my own joke. Here, let me edit it in real-time, which will make it both enlightening and funny:

I get to read the stuff that even Paul Graham thought was too dumb to keep? WOOOO!!!!
posted by DU at 5:40 AM on February 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


This is good. Anyway, why are you people down on Paul Graham?
posted by limeonaire at 5:56 AM on February 26, 2009


Maybe I'm an oddball, but editing and re-editing as I go that much would be an absolute nightmare for me. I tend to type for a second, pause as I consider the next few words (like here, I paused here for a second), then type the next few words. Paul Graham's writing process seems to treat the backspace key like one of those machines that blows malformed frozen pizzas off production lines with puffs of air.

Either the dude is the ultimate perfectionist carefully crafting timeless works of prose, or he's just incredibly neurotic in his writing process.
posted by Happy Dave at 5:56 AM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Very cool implementation. Unfortunately required too much scrolling sometimes.
posted by odinsdream at 6:02 AM on February 26, 2009


This is good. Anyway, why are you people down on Paul Graham?

There are three categories of writers. Those who are talented and have a lot to say but who, for whatever reason, remain obscure. Those who get exactly the attention they deserve. Those who get far, far more attention than they deserve. Many people believe Paul Graham falls into the last category.

I could write a longer essay on this, exploring just how "attention" is gained by authors. How fans of different types of authors may be unequal in their abilities to promote the authors they enjoy (example: sci-fi authors get more attention online than they do in other media. Presumably because the active, online population is skewed to geek) Finally, I could make a conclusion which feels as if is it the natural result of what I have just said, and never doubt otherwise, stomping or ignoring each nuance which lies in my path. I could do this. But I believe most people can think for themselves.
posted by vacapinta at 6:08 AM on February 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


10 comments in: 9 hating on Paul Graham, 1 real comment.

I get that many of you have a strong dislike for Paul Graham. That dislike is not justification for crapping all over the thread. If you don't like what he has to say, could you attack the argument and not the man?
posted by christonabike at 6:09 AM on February 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


Here is the finished essay list, if, like me, you you'd rather be done with another bit of Graham's contentless fluff faster, rather than investigate the contentless-fluff creation process.

Even if it's uncomfortably reminiscent of Monty Python treating novel-writing like sportscasting, this might have been a neat way to watch a good writer craft a very short piece.
posted by RogerB at 6:18 AM on February 26, 2009


If you don't like what he has to say, could you attack the argument and not the man?

What argument? This particular essay is just a bunch of pablum and "conventional wisdom" type cheer leading about "startups" you hear all the time.
posted by delmoi at 6:19 AM on February 26, 2009


Every writing professor I've ever had has told me not to write this way. Instead, write a complete first draft, all the way through, without obsessing over sentences and word choice. Then, let it sit, and revise it in the place where you do your reading, not where you do your writing. In other words, if you do your serious reading on the counch, that's where you should review your early drafts.

The reason for this is that people have a general idea of what they want to say, along with a few key sentences that they want to write exactly. But the rest is still unknown, and the process of writing the thoughts down invariably triggers new thoughts. So the first and early drafts are about getting down the structure and all of the elements onto the paper, along with those key phrases that exist nowhere else in your mind. The subsequent drafts are where the writing really takes shape, and where you discover what was missing from your original idea, or what other elements you need to add or refine to make the point better. It's also where you critique your own work to see if its really as brilliant as you thought it was, and to assess how it will sound to the reader.

Multiple complete drafts separated by careful consideration and self-criticism, not real-time composition.
posted by Pastabagel at 6:21 AM on February 26, 2009 [33 favorites]


Those who get far, far more attention than they deserve. Many people believe Paul Graham falls into the last category.

Well, I don't really care about how much attention Paul Graham gets from other people. I enjoy his essays, and I enjoyed this. As a writer myself, it's nice to get a glimpse into his writing process. That was enough for me.

And for those complaining about the manic speed of this thing, my guess is that whatever Graham used to create this just recorded keystrokes, not pauses without input. But I didn't watch the entire thing, so that conclusion might be off.
posted by limeonaire at 6:23 AM on February 26, 2009


Every writing professor I've ever had has told me not to write this way.

And every writing professional I know who's worth his or her salt pretty much does.
posted by limeonaire at 6:24 AM on February 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


Writing is idiosyncratic, to say the least. While Pastabagel's writing teachers offer good general advice, I find that even on a first draft, I am editing as I go to some degree. So I'm somewhere between what your teachers suggest and what this Graham fellow appears to do. I, like Graham, am also a notorious first-sentence-changer. If my first sentence isn't at least passable, I can not move on. This is just the way my brain works, and I have learned that it's not really likely to change. I have, however, moved more in the direction of "just stamp out a full draft". All of which is to say that any advice on writing, or any creative endeavor, should be taken with a grain f salt, as not everything works for everyone.

Another thing that I have found to be tremendously useful, in fiction and nonfiction, is to use placeholders for tricky or technical passages. A bracketed note to myself to [explain why this guy is in the church] or [insert explanation of function of ribosomal subunits] can help prevent a derail or loss of steam.
posted by Mister_A at 6:33 AM on February 26, 2009 [8 favorites]


I did this with a short story (just for myself). Not in this exact way, but the CMS I use allows from me to keep revisions of what I am currently writing. Each "save" counts as a revision. I wrote the story in sections. Ten sections, max 30 revisions per section.

I then had it output only the final copy of each section on a page.

I found it really screwed with my ability to write. "Do I really want what I've done so far here to be counted as a one of my 'revisions'?" should not factor into whether or not you save.

It was a fun thing to try. My thought was that someone could actually see what I was writing "live" and go through the process of how I got there.

I ended up giving up about halfway through and took the writing offline (where I am more comfortable composing anyway).

I'd still like to set something like this up, make it work, but I can't imaging anyone actually caring to see this unless you were a fan of the author, and he committed to writing for a certain amount of time every day at a certain time.

Also, the end product needs to be something worth reading. But I would love to have screen sharing (or casting) enable on Steven Erikson as he writes. I just want to see how fast he types, what kind of notes he references while he does so, etc. But I guess at this point I also need a webcam to see how much of what he does is offline.

And damn, Paul Graham is a fast typist!
posted by cjorgensen at 6:37 AM on February 26, 2009


Pretty interesting idea to reveal your early drafts. I've decided to comment without editing at all. no backspacing, no correcting, nothing. Oops I did not capitalize that "n." I don't know who Paul Graham is. Wow, I am boring without my backspace key.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 6:40 AM on February 26, 2009


I nver hoff to revise my prose because it's perfect just right the furst time.
posted by Abiezer at 6:41 AM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


A list is not an essay.
posted by dydecker at 6:42 AM on February 26, 2009


What argument? This particular essay is just a bunch of pablum and "conventional wisdom" type cheer leading about "startups" you hear all the time.

Except I'm pretty sure Paul Graham didn't get the things he's saying from anything but his own experience and gleanings. Just because his experience with startups matches up with what you happen to have heard people saying about startups doesn't mean he's simply regurgitating conventional wisdom. It may in fact be the case that he initiated some of the practices you now know as the "conventional wisdom" on the subject.
posted by limeonaire at 7:01 AM on February 26, 2009


And every writing professional I know who's worth his or her salt pretty much does.

I agree that most writers these days don't type everything in one shot, print it out, and edit it offline, but I seriously doubt that the majority of writers edit in place quite as much as Graham does here.

To me this seems equivalent to the parodies of writers block that they show in movies, where the writer will type a sentence on a typewriter, then pull the page out, crumple it into a ball and throw it into the wastebasket, until the wastebasket is overflowing with thrown-out ideas. And it's not just the first sentence, he writes and completely erases pretty much every sentence several times. To me, it makes much more sense to either type a draft out without agonizing over every sentence, or agonize over every sentence in my head rather than typing and erasing every random idea that pops into my head.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:12 AM on February 26, 2009


I used to do this on my Commodore 64 with a program -- I can't remember the name, and my Search-Fu fails me -- that would keylog and play back, with a bunch of funky fonts that were vaguely Blade-Runnerish and techno MIDI music playing in the background. You could set the music, font type, and keystroke sound.

I'm not 100% sure of the music, but I definitely remember making all sorts of "videos" of SF stories about robots and explosions and cyborgs and spies that would play back, with sections being deleted and overwritten in the playback, as each keystroke made a little explodey sound. Secret mission assignments that would be rewritten and altered in "real time" as the agent was betrayed and hung out to dry in a foreign embassy, usually ending with the mission parameters completely altered and a final line denying any knowledge of the operation, which was now a very convoluted set of orders for trimming hedges or somesuch.

The moral of this story, I guess, is that even at 15 I was over two decades ahead of, and way cooler than, Paul Graham.
posted by Shepherd at 7:14 AM on February 26, 2009


I was about to comment on how it was a pretty cool idea until I actually went and watched it for awhile. I guess it turns out I'd rather not see the work in progress.

My problem with Paul Graham's writing, though, is that he most often writes about a topic I have almost zero interest in - startups. And when he does write about something of more general technological interest to me, I've found his writing condescending and, often, over-simplified to the point of stupidity, not unlike Thomas Friedman.
posted by kingbenny at 7:21 AM on February 26, 2009


See also.
posted by cashman at 7:24 AM on February 26, 2009


oh wow, this is really interesting.

and way cooler than, Paul Graham
I don't know graham and I liked the article. why is everyone piling onto him? someone enlighten me, please.
posted by krautland at 7:25 AM on February 26, 2009


and way cooler than, Paul Graham
I don't know graham and I liked the article. why is everyone piling onto him?


Spies and robots are cooler than rehashed Business Week sidebar advice about startups, and you could do this 20+ years ago on a C64, was my central point. I'm not overly familiar with Graham's work, but he seems to have made a reasonable career out of stating the obvious.

If it makes you feel any better, I do like Seth Godin, who is widely regarded in about the same light as Graham around these parts.
posted by Shepherd at 7:31 AM on February 26, 2009


And every writing professional I know who's worth his or her salt pretty much does.

Paul Graham is not a writing professional. That is to say, he did not make a career out of writing. We read his writing because of what he did in his actual career (start companies).
posted by Pastabagel at 7:42 AM on February 26, 2009


Paul Graham on what he has learned so far from Hacker News. And, as an aside, a lot of the comments in this thread are both mean and stupid.
posted by mike_bling at 7:48 AM on February 26, 2009


I don't know graham and I liked the article. why is everyone piling onto him? someone enlighten me, please.

Someone once said of Eric Raymond, another notable geek, that his definition of a hacker looks an awful lot like Eric Raymond. Paul Graham tends to be the same way: He's had a good career, and got lucky in a few places, gaining the wherewithal to be a hacker god because he sold out early and never has to work again. Now he writes a lot out how you can do the same thing if you just, you know, act like Paul Graham.

That's a really glib summary, but a lot find his essays smug and not very insightful, given that they tread over the same ground again and again: this is what I (or other cool hackers) are like; to be a cool hacker dude, be like this. If you haven't read anything by him, they can be interesting, but in the end the continual theme is still "10 habits of highly successful geeks".
posted by fatbird at 8:11 AM on February 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


Paul Graham is not a writing professional. That is to say, he did not make a career out of writing. We read his writing because of what he did in his actual career (start companies).

True dat. But that still doesn't take away from the fact that the best writing professionals I know compose much the same way he does, starting with a list of ideas, phrases, or quotations they know they want to work in somehow and expanding from there, obsessively self-editing every sentence and phrase as they go. That's not to say they work completely linearly—and if you notice, Graham doesn't work in a completely linear fashion here either, as some are claiming. He'll work on expanding one point, then move down the page to work on clarifying a completely different point, then at times return to the earlier point to hone it further.

The whole thing is sort of the way I imagine bees go about building sturdy honeycomb, adding wax here, removing wax there, honing it and chewing on it until it's just right. Although of course bees probably don't overeat on deadline or fret internally about whether they're doing it right.

Anyway, as Mister_A points out above, there are lots of ways to go about getting the sometimes nasty business of writing over and done with—some use your professors' method, others use Graham's method, and perhaps still others use methods not introduced yet to the thread.
posted by limeonaire at 8:48 AM on February 26, 2009


Um excuse me could you please explain to me the difference between a writing professional and a writer?
posted by dydecker at 9:06 AM on February 26, 2009


"Writing professional" is how a bad writer writes "writer."

Instead of writing a new contribution to the is-Paul Graham-a-blowhard discussion (spoiler: yes!), I'm just going to link to what I consider the canonical denunciations from two of the many previous threads on his work: 1 2.
posted by RogerB at 9:13 AM on February 26, 2009 [6 favorites]


If you're still quoting what your writing professor told you, it's time to get out in the real world. The way writers write can be incredibly idiosyncratic, and can even change from piece to piece. The process is generally only important -- and interesting -- to the creator.

"Just write it all and edit later" is probably good advice for newish writers who otherwise might get hamstrung by fiddling with each sentence before moving on to the next. But most writers I know who write under deadline revise as they write, because it's a huge timesaver.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:25 AM on February 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


"Writing professional" is how a bad writer writes "writer."

You know, I originally just liked the way it sounded juxtaposed with "writing professor." No need to start castin' aspersions...
posted by limeonaire at 9:37 AM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Writing is not a performance art, unless you consider howled expletives and booger-flickings performance.
posted by Mister_A at 9:38 AM on February 26, 2009


Metafilter: Paul Graham recently wrote an essay.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:07 AM on February 26, 2009


The interesting point to me is that this type of writing would have been impossible before computers. Some people prefer this method. Including me. I wish you could see how many times I've already changed this short message.

My writing professor said, "You've got to be willing to throw out your babies."
posted by bitslayer at 10:44 AM on February 26, 2009


I never had a writing professor, so I am clearly superior to the rest of youse.
posted by Mister_A at 10:48 AM on February 26, 2009


My writing professor told me you have to be ready to bury your babies in the basement.

My writing professor was John Wayne Gacey.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:17 AM on February 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


Every writing professor I've ever had has told me not to write this way.

And every writing professional I know who's worth his or her salt pretty much does.
posted by limeonaire at 7:24 AM on February 26 [+] [!]


Really?
posted by mecran01 at 11:34 AM on February 26, 2009


That article is not about writers who limeonaire knows.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:43 AM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think this does highlight the problem with reading Paul Graham. Fundamentally, this is a list of 10 things to tell startups. The reason to limit it to 10 is to acknowledge that some platitudes are more important than others, but also to recognize that no one thing will make or break a startup.

The edit process, if an accurate representation of the time spent, tells us a lot about how hard Paul Graham worked on various aspects. Firstly, almost no time was spent on actually thinking up more than ten items, prioritizing them and cutting them to ten. For all we know, Paul Graham has 13 suggestions, period. I submit there's a hell of a lot more than that, but Paul Gram either did not consider it or was not aware of it. Instead he spends a lot of time with form and presentation. These are important, but work equally well whether the ideas they promote are good or bad.

Secondly, he completely violates the spirit of the Gedankenexperiment. He makes no effort to cut 3 of those ideas as less important. Instead, he concludes by entertaining the idea that there is a single most important idea. If the essay up to that point had any intellectual merit, this conclusion undermines it.

About the only worthwhile thing you can really glean from this essay is that everything is negotiable, the number 10.
posted by pwnguin at 12:07 PM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


*sigh*, including the number 10.
posted by pwnguin at 12:12 PM on February 26, 2009


The cursor moves too fast. I hardly have time to read what he's writing before he's erased it, let alone what he re-writes. And sometimes you can't even tell where he's editing because it's off screen, at which point it doesn't matter how fast you can read! This was not an example of a helpful insight into how someone revises.

As for the essay itself, I didn't read it.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 1:22 PM on February 26, 2009


This is not a real time presentation. Just watch the keystroke counter: it's constantly marching on at roughly 20 characters a second. It'd be better to see this fold out in real time so you can see what he's thinking about as opposed to what he's mercilessly pounding out or blowing away.
posted by zsazsa at 2:09 PM on February 26, 2009


You know - I really like this. I know that the facility to record keystrokes has been around longer than (say) ctrl-Z, but I've never known where to go to find something I could use and pass around friends. Thank's to the marvel of metafilter - It's now in my sweaty little hands.

I'm going to do some writing on this - and pass the slideshows out. I think there would also be a great benefit in sending easy instructions out to writers so we can see how exactly they do it.

Note: Damn. I wrote this on etherpad and was going to link to the recording, but I can't see how to do it. Looks as though Paul Graham has access to some new feature / paid feature I can't find.
posted by seanyboy at 3:14 PM on February 26, 2009


I write this way.
I never realised I wrote this way until an ex set up a link between our computers that allowed him to check, inter alia, what I write real time.
Ergo: this is cool.
posted by ruelle at 3:24 PM on February 26, 2009


Either the dude is the ultimate perfectionist carefully crafting timeless works of prose, or he's just incredibly neurotic in his writing process.

That's pretty much how I do it. Hella backspacing, jumping all over the place, restating stuff, deleting stuff, adding things in, spining things out... I think of it as if I'm making something on a potter's wheel. Anything I've ever written would have the same kind of visual profile over time as this does.
posted by jokeefe at 3:32 PM on February 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is exactly how I write. Like, uncanny.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:13 PM on March 1, 2009


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