Thursday, February 25, 2010

Are your fingers sore from typing?

I recently learned a new online term, TLDR, short for "too long; didn't read."  It's a sign of the shortening attention span of internet users, and I'm not entirely sure it's a bad thing, because encouraging concise writing is rather an old concept, and not one that's terribly well-honored in New Paltz.

Al Gore, meet William Strunk
Perhaps he didn't invent something at amazing as the internet, but William Strunk did make a small mark on the world:  he published the most well-regarded book on writing style in the English language.  Long before the click of Gore's mouse (yes, he probably invented that too) made it impossible to keep anybody's attention, Strunk advised to "omit needless words" (see #13 at the link).

Long before Gore or Strunk was the Civil War, first one reported on by journalists in the field with the ability to file stories from afar with the newfangled telegraph.  Because of the unreliability of the wire, a reporter knew his story could be cut short at any time - so the fewer words it could be expressed in, the better.  (Incidentally, this also led to the "inverted pyramid" style of writing news articles; if only half the story made it to print, it had better be the most important half.)

Today web writing is dominated by the inverted pyramid, and a strong recommendation to avoid the need for readers to page down, because that's when they get bored.  The professional writers pick out two or three searchable keywords first, and then build the web page or article around them.

Then there's New Paltz
To be fair, New Paltz is unlike any other small community in this regard, but as a community we're damned long-winded.  I'm not just talking about the sheer length of most of the comments on this blog (which I want any readers we have to understand don't need to be read before you comment yourself), it's anywhere and everywhere we get to offer our opinions.  I mean, have you seen the letters column this week?  There's a letter packed with ideas for the school district that rambles on for well over a column.  How many people are going to read the whole thing?

We (and I choose the word carefully) can take advice that's as old as the Civil War to avoid the TLDR curse of the new generation.  Who's with me?


Maria said...

wow that's true, we ARE a long-winded community!

My favorite LTE's are the short, 4 sentence to a paragraph ones that get right to the point, and have a definite tone.

My bro, a compsci...master? At Stonybrook always says TLDR when I talk to him on gchat :). I love how you connected TLDR and our community! How clever =)

Martin McPhillips said...


Martin McPhillips said...

Just kidding. Read it twice.

Strunk's little manual for Cornell students was revived by E.B. White, and in that incarnation it became famous, as Strunk & White.

It's a guide for achieving clarity, not brevity. White wrote for the New Yorker, for God's sake.

A bit schoolmarmish (not that there's anything wrong with that), it has its charms.

What has happened with attention spans on the internet, well, no one really knows. But narrative has become a luxury, for both reader and writer. But what explains the non-existent market for short stories, while full-length novels thrive?


Terence said...

Martin, I can only shrug and say that fiction seems to have its own rules.

As for brevity and clarity: when intelligent people add more words to their thoughts, they invariably obfuscate meaning. Some do it intentionally, but the result is the same regardless of intent.

Martin McPhillips said...

Writing is rewriting.

And that's before the editors have at it.

But you won't get much of either on blogs, in the posts or the comments.

It's all pretty much a first draft. Of course, if someone can't think clearly in the first place, all the king's horses and all the king's men...

Martin McPhillips said...


"[H]ave you seen the letters column this week? There's a letter packed with ideas..."

Just read the letter. The editor waived the 500-word limit. Bad decision. Not because the letter would have been better if shorter, but because the waiver implicitly overvalues the writer's arguments, which are nothing special.