Brad Fidler
New York, USA
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How to Write a Neurolinguistic Virus v0.1

Saito: “If you can steal an idea from someone’s mind, why can’t you plant one there instead?”

Arthur: “Okay, here’s me planting an idea in your head. I say to you, don’t think about elephants. What are you thinking about?”

Saito: “Elephants.”

  1. How to Write a Neurolinguistic Virus v0.1
    1. How Did Essay Assignments Get So Terrible?
    2. Write Essays Differently
    3. Know your mark.
    4. Demarcate your original contributions with citations
    5. Structure your paper with headings
    6. Reject Passive Voice and Embrace Causality
    7. Do not make general claims that you did not earn
    8. Don’t Write Summaries That Can Be Replaced By An Algorithm
    9. Use Sources that are Appropriate to Your Intellect and Education
    10. Explain Your Project as a Response to Others’ Failings
    11. Who Cares?

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How Did Essay Assignments Get So Terrible?

Essays don’t have to be terrible. And if you don’t like writing them, it isn’t completely on you: maybe it’s history’s fault. It’s the way tha humanities and social science disciplines formed, when everyone decided which departments got to do what.

Y-Combinator founder and LISP-dialect author Paul Graham lays it out in a recent essay on how essays are good, actually. I’ve taken his formulation and added some details:

A century or so after one thousand (give or take a hundred years), Europeans stopped slowed down butchering one another, and turned to philosophy and what would become science and engineering. Literacy rates were in the toilet, even more than was usual for a medieval society. The English language was dying at the hands of the snooty Norman (French) conquerors. But it was starting to get easier for scholars and theologians to work, and they sought out the most advanced knowledge they could find: in classical antiquity, a millennia in the past, with Greece and Rome. They set to work locating, translating, explaining, comparing and contrasting. All of this was considered very important and high-status because it was the best Europeans could do at the time. Herein lies the beginning of your dreaded little expository essays.

Eventually Europe surpassed its ancients. The creation of something recognizable as science in the late 1600s is one good example watershed. But the study of the classics continued as an important field, not for scientific knowledge but to understand the evolution of European thought. Tracing the concept of democracy back to Greece, for example, is like going back through older versions of UNIX or C. If you want to understand why the shiny Linux server is structured the way it is, you need to go back to the 1960s. The same is true of our basic ideas about government, but for that you have to go back to antiquity. But notice something here: the reason for reading classics changed. The original high status was about rescuing badly needed knowledge. Now it was just about understanding ourselves a bit better. Still important, but let’s be honest: a bit less important. I’d rather have a steam engine than a really solid understanding of an Athenian city-state. But even by the 1800s, studying old texts was still central to a university education.

The US imported the European-style university structure in the late 19th century (the four year undergraduate degree, and most other details). Included in this package-deal was a professor who was not just a teacher, but a researcher. And American colleges taught English composition. So the English professors would fuse the teaching of writing with the studying of texts, from antiquity to the present-day. They would assign essays, like the ones you write in your humanities breadth courses now.

Here’s Graham:

It’s no wonder if this seems to the student a pointless exercise, because we’re now three steps removed from real work: the students are imitating English professors, who are imitating classical scholars, who are merely the inheritors of a tradition growing out of what was, 700 years ago, fascinating and urgently needed work.

That’s tough. But, as even Graham argues, there are still great reasons to write essays! But a lot of the functions we associate with them–logical reasoning, writing skills, etc.–can be done elsewhere. You can learn logical reasoning with logic machines (computers!). You can learn to write better by blogging. And in any case, all of these benefits are less important than finding and applying highly advanced knowledge, technologies, and techniques (the original reason for studying and writing about the classics).

Write Essays Differently

My answer to “why essays” is a bit different than Graham’s and English professors. An essay is about manipulation of your audience. A well-crafted essay will change someone’s thinking, their brain, and later on, possibly their behavior. Fellow CAL professor Alex Wellerstein calls the essay a neurolingustic virus, after the concept as introduced in the classic sci-fi novel Snow Crash. Here, essays are are a program that is transmitted with language and executes in someone’s head.

In Snow Crash, a neurolinguistic virus could fry your brain and leave you comatose, but in the real world, the best you can hope for is that your essay might make someone give you money, hire you, promote you, adopt your political beliefs, or otherwise improve your status and power. You’ll be trying to get people to do these things for you for the rest of your life. Now’s a good time to get better at it. (You’ll never be promoted or win in the marketplace purely based on your technical skills or the technical superiority of your product. Sorry. It’s never worked like that. Ask a CEO that began as a programmer. It’s a learning curve.)

What follows is a listicle that should help you write a better neurolingustic virus, and do well on your essay assignments in my course. It also contains advice that was helpful to me when I sought funding from STEM institutions. I can’t guarantee that it will help you in all other contexts, but you should at least know why you are or are not doing the things discussed below.

Know your mark.

You are not writing this essay because of fate, destiny, or some literary-emthusiast god. No, you are writing this essay for someone or some people. You want them to do something for you: money, a promotion, a change of mind, a grade. This one is hardest for narcissists, idealists, and anyone else who might make the fatal error of thinking that your audience will be really impressed with your alien terms or methods. With rare exceptions, you’re more likely to come across as unsuitable for the position, or as from an incompatible social group, or as someone who does not understand social queues. All of those things may be true, but it doesn’t matter if you mimic their language and put the question in terms they not only understand but feel are important.

Demarcate your original contributions with citations

You’ve been told that you should use citations in order to avoid plagiarism. This is true, but the real reason is to call attention to your thinking. It is possible that, in your undergraduate research paper, you will not advance totally new ideas. That is, it is possible someone, somewhere will have published them before you—and that your audience is familiar with that other work. This is not good for you.

How to you explain where your original analysis lies? You cite everything else. Pick a citation style that will be useful to you in other fields. For our class, we will use the IEEE Style. You can automate the process of collecting references and citing them in documents with software such as Zotero.

Structure your paper with headings

Even The Communist Manifesto had headings. They help you structure your argument, and they help the reader follow along. How many times have you read something required with 100% focus and attention? Does anyone ever? What are the realistic conditions under which your writing will be read? Write for the real world. Use headings. (If you hate them, you can delete them when you’re done.)

To write with subheadings, you can ask yourself after each sentence: does this sentence serve the subheading? If not, it’s a bad sentence, or it belongs somewhere else!

Reject Passive Voice and Embrace Causality

Consider these three statements:

  1. After TCP was introduced, the Internet had a default mechanism for ordered packet delivery.
  2. After DARPA-funded engineers implemented TCP at a handful of Arpanet sites, the Internet had a default mechanism for ordered packet delivery.
  3. By implementing TCP at a handful of Arpanet sites, DARPA-funded engineers provided a default mechanism for ordered packet delivery.

In sentence #1, from where did TCP originate? A military agency? Some hackers? Europe? Space? A hitherto undiscovered and spaghetti-like entity observing our progress from Low Earth Orbit? It’s tough to tell because the grammatical structure has made it unnecessary to identify causality and left us instead with a weak correlation. This is the definition of passive voice.

Sentence #2 identifies the causal relationship: the Internet got TCP because engineers put it there.

But, you exclaim, this sentence wasn’t my main point anyway, why can’t I just note that TCP got introduced?

Because you are writing still writing in a pre-modern, pre-scientific manner. Imagine a lab writeup that uses the scientific method for the main experiment, but in the literature review, in the methodology, makes a lot of references to spirits, ghosts, and magic. Same energy.

Sentence #3 takes us a bit further and identifies more detail about the causal relationship.

Do not make general claims that you did not earn

Common sense used to be a bad thing: the beliefs of commoners that was not subject to empirical investigation or logical analysis. Nobody outside of your personal social ties cares about your commonly held beliefs. People will care about what you think in the domain of your expertise.

Coincidentally, the grading rubric follows this basic fact. Write about the topic, be empirical, be modern!

Don’t Write Summaries That Can Be Replaced By An Algorithm

When you’re summarizing something, you aren’t summarizing it. You’re analyzing it. If you’re relaying what happened in an argument, you’re taking it apart and putting it back together in the way the author would have done if they had the hindsight and intellect that you do. Choosing a single important sentence per paragraph and stringing them together is beneath you, and it’s being replaced by computers. Don’t waste your time on skills that are actively being replaced by computers.

Use Sources that are Appropriate to Your Intellect and Education

If you use a source, you are claiming one of two things:

  1. This offers a stronger empirical and/or analytical base than I am capable of providing (e.g. as a secondary source);
  2. This is an example of a phenomenon I am studying (e.g. as a primary source).

Which is it?

Some context: One of the major reasons we have cars and thermodynamics and hammers is because we can encode, store, and transmit our knowledge beyond a single individual’s life. But what would have happened if we’d passed on all the garbage? The dumb ideas, the failed experiments? What if our cultural transmission mechanism had no error correction mechanism, no fault tolerance, pure GIGO? No cars, thermodynamics, or hammers–that’s for sure. Newton credited his achievements with his ability to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’, to draw on the best of what others had accomplished before him. And we are all considerably less intelligent than Newton.

The easiest way to ensure that your cultural transmission channels have some kind of functioning error correction is to use peer-reviewed sources whenever possible. Check as the easiest way to find them. Peer-reviewed means that the source went through an institutionalized quality control process, where it was blindly reviewed by experts in the field. Large organizations, such as university presses (e.g. MIT Press, University of California Press), will often have an error correction process that differs from peer review but still utilizes an anonymous, distributed system. If you aren’t sure, ask your professor (it’s their job).

If you are studying an extremely new technology and need sources, remember that it is a special case of some general class of things: you find literature on the older general class and apply it to your special case.

Also not that, until academia gets over its dislike of Wikipedia as a source, each Wikipeida article has suggested readings and a works cited section that is a list of, often, key sources on the topic. There’s no rule against using Wikipedia for that (caution if the article is flagged for being too opinionated, etc.).

Explain Your Project as a Response to Others’ Failings

Knowledge is cumulative. Science is cumulative. Evidence is… cumulative! You are getting ready to be part of a centuries-old conversation about science, engineering, and society that, over time, becomes more, and not less accurate, predictive, moral, analytical, empirical, and whatnot.

Think of civilization as a massive structure. For an undergrad paper, you’re going to add lego bricks to it. Once your training is complete you’ll be adding larger pieces, and be engaged in discussions about what to add, where and how. Get in the practice now.

This conversation is happening everywhere, from indie apps to think pieces to slack channels. Be part of the conversation, or go to the beach. By which I mean, if you aren’t part of the conversation, if you’re putting all this work into a paper that just exists outside of everything, then you’d be better off enjoying yourself doing something fun, something else, for which the beach is a great metaphor.

Somewhere, you should answer the question: How have others attempted this before, what were their shortcomings, and what am I doing differently?

Who Cares?

You need to explain to the reader why they should care. You need to do it in the first paragraph of text, such as the abstract, executive summary, or introduction, depending on the kind of document you are writing.