The Four Rules of Writing Big Ideas (Tom Slee on Clay Shirkey)

From Tom Slee, “Wikibollocks: The Shirky Rules,” Whimsley, 25 Apr. 2010, the four rules of writing big ideas, all style over substance but audience-grabbing nonetheless:

  1. “tell stories and think by analogy,” i.e., use anecdata and make connections between disparate fields [ö + ↔];
  2. “make the point catchy, but make it ambiguous,” because if you can name it, you own it (with terms and titles, memorable beats accurate and oracular trumps all)—and sprinkle in jargon from fashionable fields (while avoiding the jargon of the field in which you’re writing) [];
  3. “simplify and exaggerate,” i.e., downplay complexity (while pretending that you’re reducing it) [> + Ö]; and
  4. “play on our natural identification with the underdog by casting [the material] in a rebellious and revolutionary light,” i.e., pit the creative individual against the inertial institution or corrupt corporation [nlm].

Personalize and generalize it; brand it; dumb it down and talk it up; rebel sell it.

Slee’s model is market populist Clay Shirky’s essay, “The Collapse of Complex Business Models,” which reiterates the Shirky Principle: “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution,” i.e., problems and solutions tend become a single system—like management and unions. For Shirky, progress (if it is possible) demands that we let go of problems or look to the margins of the system for what seem like insignificant or simplistic solutions. He’s drawing on Clay Christensen’s concept of “disruptive technologies,” which, unlike sustaining technologies that improve performance in an evolutionary or revolutionary way, improve performance in ways that the market does not expect, typically by lowering price or designing for a different set of consumers, but that often “result in worse product performance, at least, in the near-term” (The Innovator’s Dilemma xv).

Perhaps Shirky intends his writing to be a disruptive technology: “worse” writing, by a certain literary or critical measure, but writing designed for a different set of consumers.


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