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Truncated Distributions, Writing Quality, and Stories

January 7, 2017

A truncated distribution is a conditional distribution that results from restricting the domain of some other probability distribution.” That is, some data has been removed from the distribution based on some condition it meets. Much of the data we examine in the real world has been truncated to some degree, and this truncation can give rise to causeless correlations. You can remove data in a way that creates a correlation, even when there is no underlying casual relationship.

The first time I heard of this was with professional tennis players. Shorter tennis players tend to have better serves and hit the ball more accurately. At first you’d think the correlation would go the other way – tall players are stronger on average and thus hit harder, or that it would be uncorrelated. But the truncation was that short players had to become professionals to get into the distribution to begin with. Since they had shorter arm span, they better darn well have other traits that made up for that. The correlation goes away with the very best of the best, because any disadvantage kicks you out.

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So, what does all this have to do with writing quality? Experienced culture is a truncated distribution. Of the culture that is created, only a small percentage is shared and passed down the ages. We mostly only see the good stuff, where good is judged by others who are in turn relying on the judgments of those around themselves.

To this I say, of course Poe is a bad writer – his stories are so good! He joins a select elite of creative geniuses whose creation transcends their terrible writing – Lovecraft, Tolkien, Asimov, Rand, and Orwell. People love them for the worlds they create, for the imagined stories they give life to. Not for their raw skill at writing.

The best written novel I ever read was The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I loathed every second of the experience. I frequently stopped reading in awe at the way he could describe someone walking down stairs or eating breakfast in a sublime and perfect way. But the story he told was inane to the point of agony. The characters were uninteresting and petty. His world didn’t spark the imagination, or cause any hint of further reflection of what his writing entailed. It was mere outstanding writing – nothing more. There are just as many writers in this camp, and they are celebrated greatly by the elites of the writing world. I would put Hemingway, Dickens, Joyce, and Faulkner in this category as well.

It is entirely possible for someone to be both a great writer and to create wondrous worlds and tell interesting stories, but such writers are extremely rare. Huxley and Pratchett fall into this category, perhaps a couple more. Even though being a good writer does not cause being a bad storyteller, the correlation exists nonetheless. Any time you see an unusual correlation, ask yourself if there is some truncation that could be causing it.

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