How to talk, write, and read

March 5, 2010 at 2:02 am 3 comments


Berkeley computer science professor Jonathan Shewchuk has a fantastic essay with practical advice on preparing and giving an academic talk.

The most common mistake is to spend too much time on technical details, and too little time setting the context. A talk of 30 minutes or less should be an advertisement for the paper, not a replacement. Your goal is to convince your listeners that they must read your paper. This is a very ambitious goal. Focus on the big picture issues.

  • Why is the problem you are solving worth solving?
  • What is the core difference between your method and all those that came before? This is really a two-part question (which most speakers screw up by answering only the second part): (a) What does your method accomplish that no previous method accomplishes? (b) What algorithmic or methodological idea enables your method to accomplish more?
  • What is the evidence that your method is better in some circumstances? (And what are those circumstances?)
  • What is the one big idea that you want people to leave your talk with? If you try to get across five ideas, you will usually impart none. If you choose one main idea and focus on advertising it, you will usually succeed. “Give them something to take home.”


The Guardian collects ten rules for writing fiction from a collection of authors.

Elmore Leonard advises says, “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.”

From Margaret Atwood:

You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

Also: Check out the rhetoric guide, which includes “written instruction, graphic demos, and dynamic interviews highlighting the value of good writing in a wide range of professions” at Nobody Writes Like Me.


My buddy Leo turned me on to Readability, the single best way to read any kind of document on your computer.


Entry filed under: etc, think. Tags: , , , , , , .

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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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