An Essay on Jordan Peterson's 25-page Essay on Essay Writing [Trenchant Edges]
It's more fun than it sounds, I promise. Estimated reading time: 13 minutes, 55 seconds. Contains 2785 words
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, a newsletter about fringe weirdos and their ideas.
Today we’re focusing on the much esteemed Dr. Jordan Peterson, a conservative Jungian psychologist who got famous for lying about human rights laws. He advocates a mix of no-nonsense common sense Dr Phil-esque self-help and Ooops! All nonsense multidisciplinary poetry slurry made from a mix of science, religion, and John Bircher talking points.
Some of his fans may disagree with this characterization, but facts don’t care about their feelings.
We’re not really going to talk about Doc Jay Pete today.
Because a few months ago I came across his 25-page Essay on writing Essays.
Or at least I hope I’ll be able to convey why I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.
You can follow along if you dare.
You might think my title for today is a bit much but there’s literally a section titled, “A Psychological Note and some Notes on Notes.”
We’re trying to do things the Jordypete way today.
The Jordan Peterson Glorious Five Year Plan For Adequate College Essay Writing
Cards on the table, part of why this ink seeped into my veins is how mostly decent or good his advice is and how absolutely he ignores his own advice.
We have to start with the cover page, which has 12 lines. We’ll eventually learn that Peterson suggests you cut and trim so your language is as clear and direct as possible.
Good advice. Priceless, even.
His first sentence is, “You can use this word document to write an excellent essay from beginning to end, using a ten-step process.”
“Together we’ll learn a ten-step process to write a worthy essay.”
“Write a worthy essay in only ten steps.”
I was able to remove more than half his words while clarifying the meaning.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to call your attention to every time. Nobody has that kind of time. This isn’t going to be, “Steve shows how little he’s been proofing these newsletters by showing how much he can polish prose.”
We should take a moment and recognize the context Peterson is writing this for: He’s teaching classes to college students and this essay writing guide is clearly aimed at that level.
The rest of the cover page can be summed up as:
Students are not well educated in essay writing (true)
Follow my ten steps and you’ll write a very good essay. (hmmm….)
Essay writing is valuable. (true)
The rest of the prose is irrelevant, and even includes instructions on turning the page to start, so let’s skip it.
But I digress.
Why Does this matter?
OK, so I’m super biased here but writing is a primary form of thinking. It’s one of the ways you can externalize and test your internal state, knowledge, and plans.
You can learn a lot about someone from their writing.
Many of the habits that plague Peterson’s writing are popular bad habits in his thinking, and it’s always easier to spot those habits in others.
I know I make a lot of the same mistakes Peterson does. I love a good ramble as much as the next cishet whiteguy after all.
While I dislike Peterson’s conclusions and distrust his rhetoric, I have to admit the man does have style and I’m genuinely curious what insights he has.
I’ve never written an NYT bestseller and it’s unlikely I ever will.
So let’s take a look at those ten steps.
Before we can get to them we have a few pages of random general advice. Here are some of my favorite bits:
Get a fast hard drive, two monitors, and an ergonomic keyboard.
Write every day, even only a few minutes if you have to. Don’t pretend you’re going to write for six hours at a stretch.
Make a smoothie with fruit and real yogurt when you get up in the morning
But, ha-hah! I’ve tricked you again. There isn’t some list of ten steps. We’ve been talking about step #1 this whole time.
Things Go Off The Rails
So, there aren’t actually ten steps to write an essay here.
There are ten sections, some of which are steps, others are categories.
Let’s take a look at them:
Levels of Resolution: Words, sentences, paragraphs, and more!
The Topic and the Reading List
Editing and arranging sentences within Paragraphs
Reordering the Paragraphs
Generating a New Outline
References and Bibliography
Notice anything weird about this?
First, I enjoy the sheer Melvilleness of this list. I feel like you could stick this list in the Moby Dick Table of Contents and nobody would notice for years.
Second, this is bananas, right? This is how I know Peterson didn’t follow his process.
Any writing process with an outline wouldn’t have two sections of unactionable background material listed as part of its steps.
Third, for a guy with a fairly freeform and fluid speaking style, this is such a mechanical process. It’s kind of just shuffling around lists of lists where one of the lists is a list of sentences.
Peterson gives really specific rules of thumb in many places here. Like, “paragraphs should be at least 10 sentences or 100 words.” Like toy soldiers in a row.
Also, as a convention, that’s maybe a bit dated. Writing for screens involves much more frequent paragraphing. And writing for books likely involves much longer paragraphs.
This might be regarded as a stupid rule, because it is arbitrary. However, you should let it guide you, until you know better. You have very little right to break the rules, until you have mastered them.
This is… extremely bad creative advice. You learn how to break rules by trying and seeing what didn’t work.
Sure, that goes two ways. You should also use the rule and see what works.
But this is like… weirdly fascist writing advice.
Does that sound extreme? Let’s take a look at the next paragraph, the climax of some Petersonian Biblical Exegesis
So, if you are respectful of the rule, and conscious of its importance, and realize that it serves as a bulwark against the chaos of the unknown, and you still decide to break it, carefully, because the particularities of the circumstances demand it – well, then, more power to you. If you are just a careless, ignorant, antisocial narcissist instead, however, then look out. You break a rule at your peril, whether you know it or not.
This man is not well. (Note: This was written way before his recent medical issues)
Like, I oppose armchair psychoanalysis but he just made up an arbitrary rule and cited an obscure 5th-century codex of the New Testament as proof that you’ll be cursed with some vague and ominous doom if you ignore it, you monster.
This is a hallmark of really exaggerated binary thinking. Someone who’s picked a pair of rigid categories and maims reality to fit them in.
Following rules until you understand them is a good guideline.
But this is something else.
The Kernal of useful here is that if you don’t have 100 words to say about your idea, it probably isn’t very good or needs more development and if you have 300 or more words it might be its own idea and need multiple paragraphs.
The Lobsterman takes us through 7 levels of structure that are worth considering.
Progression of Paragraphs
Unity of the Essay
Context of Interpretation
Culture the writer and reader are embedded in
His logic is a bit circular but understandable. Essays are about conveying or exploring valuable ideas. A paragraph is the basic unit of the idea. Sentences and words only matter to the extent they serve the paragraph, and getting all the ideas in your essay in the right order is key to expressing the larger point you’re trying to make.
I think this is a perfectly serviceable take on structuring an essay. Especially the kind of mechanically produced essay students tend to need to write.
It also says quite a bit about how Peterson structures his rhetoric with tonal references to 2-5 different ideas which he then ties together at the end.
This move provides an interesting bit of security: Peterson can easily move the goalposts or say the person was misunderstanding him when someone doesn’t follow his dance through several ambiguous subjects.
Creates an illusion of profundity and makes it nigh-impossible to pin down exactly what he’s saying.
An interesting thing about Step 2, which isn’t so much a step as much as it’s giving a felt sense of what an essay should be like, is that Peterson is actually complimentary of Postmodernists for levels six and seven. I think he means post-structuralists, but w/e. It’s close enough.
I think this is the only time I’ve ever heard him praise an insight from anyone in that tradition without qualification, rightly pointing out that rejecting those levels of context means rejecting considering your audience.
And now we get to the paragraph which has fully driven me insane:
This is not all that has to be properly managed when you write an essay. You should also strive for brevity, which is concise and efficient expression, as well as beauty, which is the melodic or poetic aspect of your language (at all the requisite levels of analysis). Finally, you should not be bored, or boring.
What a janky, ugly, longwinded mess about sharp, pretty prose.
It’s fine, I embrace the madness now.
The rest of step two is an existential rant about how being bored by a subject means you’re lying to yourself.
We made it to Step Three; Don’t worry, it’s downhill from here
Step 3 is the first time Peterson addresses content. Only took 9 pages.
Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s actually a lot of value hidden in Peterson’s introduction. But it’s hiding under Peterson’s pontification and purple prose.
This brings us to another bit of good advice tied to a strange suggestion: List out your sources and questions. If you don’t know how to answer your question, find more sources.
The strange suggestion is 5-10 sources per 1000 words.
Maybe that’s an academic thing, but that seems like WAY too few words to really engage with so many articles or books.
Remember that title from 1300 words ago? A Psychological Note and some Notes on Notes?
Well, it’s actually kinda the best section so far.
Its main point is when you’re reading to Pay Attention to what catches your attention.
This is EXTREMELY good advice. Peterson then recommends closing the book and trying to recall what you just read. Also excellent advice. Add some notes on it, open the book back up, move on.
I first got that one from a New Thought book by a man with the incredible pen name Therion Q Dumont. But we’ll get to that sort of thing next Sunday.
He recommends taking 2-3x more notes than you could possibly use in your essay, which isn’t a bad piece of advice.
Step Fours: A New Hope
Peterson again starts out strong before juking into an anal-retentive wall.
Overwrite your target word count so you can cut away the fat and still hit your goal. This, obviously, is much more a college essay thing than anything else.
And then he goes on about how you ABSOLUTELY MUST write an outline. Uh-huh. Show me the outline for this ramble we’re barely halfway through.
Again, don’t worry, most of it is padding from here. A lot of times he’ll tell you to write an outline and then take up half a page with a faux outline.
And so it goes.
At the end of Pg 14, I feel my struggles rewarded with sublime bliss. I’m not insane at all, I’m free. And freedom tastes of reality.
Jordan Peterson put this in with the same essay as his cover page:
Beware of the tendency to write trite, repetitive and clichéd introductions and conclusions.
Part Five: Pair of gaffs
And now we see Jordie’s core method: Write a rigorous outline and then expand each point with 10-15 sentences, not worrying about sentence structure, logical sense, or flow.
Good enough advice.
And then something else *looks up a new synonym for weird* odd happens and he outlines a two-step process for writing an essay in the fifth step of his ten-step process.
Writing and Editing.
I’m a little angry at that. First, it skips over prewriting. Which is literally the thing Peterson just finished covering. Second, it combines Revising and Editing into one step, when they’re FAR more efficient for most people separated into separate passes.
Revising is adding, subtracting, or rearranging pieces of an essay. It’s content. Editing is about making sure the content that survives is correct. Totally different modes of thinking.
While it’d take 20 years for me to really appreciate these distinctions, I learned those steps in elementary school.
He otherwise gives good advice about not worrying about the quality of the first draft so much as the completion of the first draft. All true.
Part Six: Editing and Arranging of Sentences Within Paragraphs
This is the most interesting part of this whole essay.
Here we really get to see Peterson’s priorities and with a method, I’ve not seen anywhere else. Keep in mind, I got my first dollar from writing online in 2009. I’ve read a LOT of this stuff over the years.
Take each paragraph and break each sentence onto its own line. Then rewrite each sentence. Look at the differences. Is one better?
Then, and this is another janky thing he does, he tells you to copy your new paragraphs here, as though this is a worksheet.
Going back to the content, Peterson suggests reading each sentence after each other and then picking the best one. Maybe deleting the unnecessary ones after a revision.
Last, you rearrange any sentences better put somewhere else. He doesn’t really explain how to do this, but it makes sense in context.
Part Seven: Reordering The Paragraphs
Remember step six?
Do that with whole paragraphs.
Part Eight: Generating a New Outline
Read your whole essay, then go to the next page but not before I/Peterson (We’re archetypally united now that I’m sane and free) takes a content-free paragraph to knock political correctness in this academic writing guide.
CW for implicit transphobia too.
This part of the process will probably strike you as unnecessary, or annoying, or both, but what do you know? This is the step that separates the men from the boys, or the women from the boys, or the men from the girls, or whatever version of this saying is acceptably non-sexist and politically correct.
It’s weird that he doesn’t make the real argument here: Yes, it’s work, but that work will make you less stupid and harmful. Seriously.
Now he’s suggesting that you write a new outline without referencing your essay. Reconstructing your arguments from memory.
Then, with your new outline, take the relevant stuff from your original essay and paste it in. don’t worry if something unimportant is dropped, that’s the point.
Step Nine: Repeat Again
So, for those of you who really want to prove you’re real tough manly men and women you could really zazz it up by repeating the whole thing again.
And he’s right.
I’m a copywriter and the best writers in my industry often do 12-15 rounds of revision to polish everything just so.
Step Ten: Mr Rules complains about needing to cite sources for his arguments to avoid being accused of plagiarism.
Again, I couldn’t make this up.
When you write a sentence that contains what is supposed to be a fact or at least an informed opinion, and you have picked it up from something you read, then you have to refer to that source. Otherwise, following convention, people may accuse you of plagiarism, which is a form of theft (of intellectual property).
Now, I’m sympathetic to disliking citations. I was always super bad at them in school, and I always did what Peterson appears implicitly to do here: Mostly forget you’ll ever need to cite anything and then backfill the essay with more sources so it looks more supporter than it is.
But the more research I’ve done the more I’ve come to understand and even love the way they enable transparency. If you know where someone’s getting their facts, you can follow the chain of evidence all the way back.
And that’s fucking awesome.
That’s why I try to link up as much as possible here. So you can go and check out the places I learned from.
Incidentally, if you’d rather I use formal footnotes, let me know. Substack has a system to and it’s pretty good.
Oh, and as long as this has been… it’s still less than half as many words as Peterson’s Essay.
So, that’s an… oddly illuminating jaunt through Dr Peterson’s mind.
His ideas of better are almost purely aesthetic within this. There’s no discussion of thesis statements or how to determine what’s true or false.
It’s highly telling.
Optimize for impact machine learning style.
There are maybe 5-8 pages of content in this essay once you pair away the digressions, threats, and insults.
And that’s fine, I guess. We both know I’ve written a lot of bloat. But rarely do I also lecture people about how brevity is the soul of wit.
Worse, he didn’t really discuss different styles or considerations of the audience. Even for a college paper that’s a mistake. Just rewrite and reorder until it’s goodest.
The whole point of writing an essay is either to learn what you know or to express it clearly. How can you write so much about writing without mentioning evaluating sources for evidence or questioning your assumptions even once?
It’s irresponsible. The man wrote a page about brevity when all he needed to do was tattoo the phrase, “Omit Needless Words” on his eyelids.
Anyway, I think this method is kind of interesting. So let’s take it for a spin on Monday.
I hope you all enjoy 100-word paragraphs.
Do you have a moment to hear about our Lobsterman savior?
Do you have a moment to look at this app a Peterson fan created? The name alone is amazing.