Learning how to write from Nate Silver


Signal and the Noise has been one of my favorite books. I had been reading and re-reading this book for almost 4 years. It provides me with many technical insights on making good predictions. But for this course assignment, I have to look at the book from a different perspective:

  1. I analyze the intended audience from different parts of the book.
  2. I also pay close attention to the book’s writing styles and extrapolate many Nate Silver’s writing techniques.

About the Author: Nate Silver

Nate Silver has been an analyst from a very young age, and he has practiced journalism since high school. He is an expert in statistical analysis and writing for a wide audience. He is the founder and editor in Chief of FiveThirtyEight. He predicted correctly 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 U.S presidential election and 50 out of 50 states in 2012 election. Even in 2016, FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s website, gave Donald Trump 29% chance of winning, which is significantly higher than other major websites’.

Intended Audience:

  1. From the Introduction: ‘After the election, I was approached by a number of publishers who wanted to capitalize on the success of books such as Moneyball and Freakonomics.’ The comparison between this book and pop non-fiction like Moneyball and Freakonomics sets the expectation that this book’s main audience should be laymen.

  2. From the content of the book: However, Nate Silver also expects audience members from more technical backgrounds. To make himself credible to the experts, Nate Silver establishes his credentials by showing his achievements in politics and sports predictions. Also, he has spoken to “well more than a hundred experts in more than a dozen fields over the course of four years, reading hundreds of journal articles and books.” Throughout this book, Silver embedded the stories and quotes from many of these experts. What strikes me the most is the 40+ pages of references in the end of the book. Finding those resources and reading them no doubt takes lots of patience and discpline.

  3. From Nate Silver’s Motivation: In the preface, Nate Silver addresses the issue of the Big Data hype: many are overly optimistic of modern technologies’ ability to predict things such as stock prices, sports and political election outcomes.
    I think Nate Silver is trying to accomplish two things in the book:

a. tone down the hype of the buzz word Big Data Analytics by providing more detailed information about predictions in many areas. b. help professionals whose work is based on making forecasts, predictions, or simply requires a good amount of thinking and decision making with data.

Writing Styles

Sense of Uncertainty

Many reflective sentences demonstrate Nate Silver’s prudent personality: lots of things are much more uncertain than we think. Take a sentence from the introduction,

My hope is that we might gain a little more insight into planning our futures and become a little less likely to repeat our mistakes.

This sentence addresses Nate Silver’s intention in this book. Although he and others put lots of effort into making this book informative and insightful(at least I personally believe so), he uses words like “hope” and “might” to specify the strong uncertainty he feels about how much his readers are learning from the book. Quantifiers like “little more(insight)” and “a little less likely(to repeat our mistakes)” either reflects Nate Silver’s uncertainty about readers gain, or his low expectations of how much this book could change a person’s thoughts and behaviors.

Below are two more examples.

I would come to realize that without that attitude, Pedroia might have let the scouting reports go to his head and never have made the big leagues.

Vladimir’s notion of different aging curves seemed like a more natural fit for the complexities inherent in human performance.

Topic Sentences

In many paragraphs, especially when Nate Silver is explaining the concepts rather than telling a story, the first one or two sentences provide you the main topic of the paragraph while the rest are expanding on the topic sentence or providing concrete examples.

This technique also sheds some light on how to break up a paragraph - divide by concepts.

Below are the beginning sentences of the section The World’s Richest Data Set. Read them(without the meat of the paragraph ) and see if you could capture the flow of the concepts.

  1. The second chore-separating skill from luck-requires more work. Baseball is designed in such a way that luck tends to predominate in the near term:…
  2. What a well-designed forecasting system can do is sort out which statistics are relatively more susceptible to luck:…
  3. The goal, as in formulating any prediction, is to weed out the root cause:…
  4. Cases like there are not all uncommon and tend to make themselves known if you spend any real effort to sort through the data. Baseball offers perhaps the world’s richest dataset:…
  5. That makes life easy for a baseball forecaster…

Additional Details in Sentences

To better understand Nate Silver’s writing, I try to think how I would write the same sentence if I were the author. After a close exmination of chapter 2 All I Care About Is W’s And L’s, I realize Nate Silver’s sentences are rich in details to both entertain and inform the readers. Comparing to his writing, mine is much blander.

Below are a few examples:

  1. Adding additional adjective or phrases to describe a situation

Pedroid started at me [suspiciously for a couple of seconds], and then declared - [in as condescending a manner as possible, every syllable spaced out for emphasis]: “No. I don’t. I’m trying to get ready for the big-league-base-ball-game.”

  1. Adding additional sentence(s)

[I hung around the field for a few minutes trying to recover my dignity before ambling up to the press box to watch the game.]

  1. Adding metaphors

It’s(the conflict between baseball scouts and stats nerds described in Moneyball) now been a decade since the publication of Moneyball, [however, and these brushfires have long since burned themselves out.]”

Quote Reference

Starting strong is important to capture reader’s attention. When referring to a quote, Silver mostly begins with a portion of the quote first before introducing the speaker with “he/whoever says/told me” and the rest of the quote. Here are two examples, one short quote and one long quote:

“I love to evaluate,” he told me, “I’ve always enjoyed statistical proofs even way back in the day we did it with calculators and adding machines.”

“There are a lot of things I wrote in the eighties that weren’t right,” he told me. “The big changes was my having children. I know it’s a cliche, but once you have children you start to understand that everyone is somebody’s baby. It is an insiders-outsiders thing. You grow up and these people are characters on TV or video games or baseball cards-you don’t really think about the fact that these guys are humans and doing the best they can.”

Final Thoughts: writing is learned by imitation

Writing a 400+ pages, bestseller book for both the laymen and the technical audience is enourmously difficult. Nate Silver’s writing is not only clear but also captivating. I have, once again, learned a great deal of from him. In the future I would definitely look at other great books in terms of their writing styles.

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