Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 23, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

A READER POLL....Piny asks:

Lack of paragraph breaks in page-long passages of text: reliable indication of megalomania, or simple rudeness?

In my experience, megalomania or sometimes monomania or just plain nutballism. Feel free to chime in on this important question in comments.

Kevin Drum 1:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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Comments

It's a sign of teh crazy, that's for sure.

Of course, if it's written by someone sufficiently powerful, it's indulged as a sign of "eccentrism."

But monomania for sure.

Posted by: theorajones on June 23, 2006 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

I've found that most people under the age of thirty don't know how to write. Don't get me started on grammar, I'm happy now if I can find a student with critical thinking skills. As a young teacher, I would argue that writing required the ability to think, enter Ann Coulter.

Posted by: nutty little nut nut on June 23, 2006 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

Actually, the lack of paragraph breaks is a deliberate attempt to return written discourse to the purity of the early Christian church; all of our earliest gospels are written in scriptio continua. Obviously, if it was good enough for Jesus, itoughttobegoodenoughforus.

Posted by: S Ra on June 23, 2006 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

I should clarify; by people, I meant US citizens.

Posted by: nutty little nut nut on June 23, 2006 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

In the case of James Joyce, megalomania. In the case of some contemporary writers, I'd be mainly ignorance of simple rules of grammar and paragraph structure. Who can be bothered reading stream of consciousness blather with no defined thoughts structured around paragraphs? Blech!

Posted by: Walt on June 23, 2006 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

Both.

Megalomania: they're writing only to see their pithy comments in "print"
Rudeness: they can't be bothered with formatting, or anything that doesn't serve their goal of enlightening us all...

Posted by: rusrus on June 23, 2006 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

Bad upbringing, usually due to an over-indulgent grammar.

Posted by: sglover on June 23, 2006 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

What strange powers might a button labelled "enter" have? Or better yet, "return"? Why would I want to "return"? And to where? Better to avoid the possibilities altogether. I did try that "escape" key once, but it hardly helped.

Posted by: brent on June 23, 2006 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

Lately, I find myself adding paragraph breaks regularly when I'm quoting printed material on the web.

The breaks seem more important in this medium, but the side effect is that I'm seeing how paragraphs are often more just groupings than something deeply structured.

Posted by: Simon on June 23, 2006 at 1:36 PM | PERMALINK

reliable indication of megalomania, or simple rudeness?

Uh, both?

Posted by: Molly, NYC on June 23, 2006 at 1:36 PM | PERMALINK
Lack of paragraph breaks in page-long passages of text: reliable indication of megalomania, or simple rudeness?

Most likely, sloppy thinking and no editing; the problem—at least when I've seen it—is usually not "no paragraph breaks", but "no ordered thought that reasonably breaks down into paragraphs."

Posted by: cmdicely on June 23, 2006 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

It's often indicative of Steven Den Beste's particular style of bloviation.

Posted by: Stephen Judkins on June 23, 2006 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with cmdicely, lack of paragraphing indicates unorganized thought and a lack of editorial/proof-reading ability. There's nothing like having to correct freshman comp papers to your really focus your inner-editor.

Posted by: cyntax on June 23, 2006 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

Bad editing. Christopher Hitchens.

Posted by: Paul on June 23, 2006 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

Depends on the purpose of the text. Jose Saramago can go pages without a paragraph break and it's completely acceptable. If Ron Suskind were to do it, I think he'd need to offer a very good reason (not picking on Suskind, who's nice and concise--just picking a contemporary political book as an example).

Posted by: depends on June 23, 2006 at 1:42 PM | PERMALINK

Well, since you asked, and obviously I am expected to respond, being a master psychologist with special emphasis on meglomania; I will say a few thing, hopefully avoiding long run on sentences. Anyway, a good megalomaniac will attempt to gather a single set of issues into one coherent theory that encompasses all, and this requires the carefully constructed sentence, which oft times may be longer than it should, but it is necessasy, for though the theory may be short, in fact, the misunderstanding of the various concepts are so widespread in the untrained mind, that all the parts of the theory must be put together in one complete, though possibly long, sentence, such that each point or idea in the readers mind may be collated together and allow him to synthesize the correct theory, allowing, at a later time, the possibility of restating the theory in a shorter, compact version.

Sometime we even add a paragraph.

Posted by: Matt on June 23, 2006 at 1:47 PM | PERMALINK

Doubly unfortunate these days...

...because attention spans are shorter, and skimming is almost a necessity when wading thru the vast ocean of dialogue available.

Insufficient breaks discourages skimmers, and reduces readership.

Posted by: wishIwuz2 on June 23, 2006 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

My problem is the opposite: one-sentence long paragraphs. In specific, I'm thinking of Maureen Dowd. I find her writing akin the being smacked with a mackerel in the face: left, right, left, right. In the end, you end up smelly and wondering what just happened.

Posted by: Snoopy on June 23, 2006 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

Look, 53% of Americans say they believe long paragraphs "aid the war on terror" - so you lefty clowns just continue to demonstrate your out-of-touchness with American values. Good luck in 2006 and 2008. Losers.

Oh, and have a bitchin summer.

Posted by: Generic Righty on June 23, 2006 at 1:52 PM | PERMALINK

Bad editing. Christopher Hitchens.
Posted by: Paul

Worse liver.

Posted by: cyntax on June 23, 2006 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

And also the important related question of failing to proofread and spellcheck posts. Even the best bloggers do this. Geez!

Posted by: Andrew on June 23, 2006 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

..indication of megalomania, or simple rudeness..

..or a complete ignorance of how to format text for reader viewabilty.

Posted by: grape_crush on June 23, 2006 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

There may be a touch of mental instability, though I think the give away for that would be block paragarph all in capitals. Otherwise, I suspect that it has to do more with most people not having a clue about proper written communication. It's just going to get worse thanks to text messeging. Hell, my 67-year old mother is starting to use shit like "We miss U" and "Thnx" in e-mail. It's just one more sign of the apocalypse.

Posted by: JeffII on June 23, 2006 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

I often tell my undergraduate students that each paragraph should have exactly one idea. Their writing (and my own) is often much clearer and much neater if one page has eight paragraphs, rather than two long ones. Even if each paragraph is only two or three sentences long.

Thus aside from whatever it reveals about a writer's psychology, I think long paragraphs tend to be manifestations of poor writing style.

Posted by: adm on June 23, 2006 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

IT'S EVEN WORSE THAN WRITING IN ALL CAPS!

Posted by: formula 44 on June 23, 2006 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK
  • I'm INTP
  • I prefer things like this
  • Then, I can drill down for the details
  • It'd be nice if bloggers could just get to the point and write posts this way

-- Is it satire, or is it the Huffington Post?

Posted by: TLB on June 23, 2006 at 2:25 PM | PERMALINK

Megalomania. It's unified paragraph theory. Every paragraph has to shift the paradigm and unify all the fundamental forces and interactions under a single theoretical paragraph. (And it's rude as well.)

Posted by: JJ on June 23, 2006 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

Henry David Thoreau in "Walden":

[quote]

It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you live, for my sight has been whetted by experience; always on the limits, trying to get into business and trying to get out of debt, a very
ancient slough, called by the Latins aes alienum, another's brass, for some of their coins were made of brass; still living, and dying, and buried by this other's brass; always promising to pay, promising to pay, tomorrow, and dying today, insolvent; seeking to curry favor, to get custom, by how many modes, only not state-prison offenses; lying, flattering, voting, contracting yourselves into a nutshell of civility or dilating into an atmosphere of thin and vaporous generosity, that you may persuade your neighbor to let you make his shoes, or his hat, or his coat, or his carriage, or import his groceries for him; making yourselves sick, that you may lay up something against a sick day, something to be tucked away in an old chest, or in a stocking behind the plastering, or, more safely, in the brick bank; no matter where, no matter how much or how little.

[unquote]

Posted by: TK on June 23, 2006 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

I wonder what Chairman Markos (The Most Equal Pig) and the rest of the Townhouse Group would say about this. You know, between issuing dictats to the rest of the lefty blogging community about what to say, and more importantly, WHAT NOT TO SAY.

And taking money from politicians through circuitous routes, of course.

But we don't really have to wonder -- we can find out what the Most Equal Pig thinks by simply reading any one of a dozen or so "coordinated" lefty blogs, since they all say the same thing nowadays. That's the point of Townhouse, after all -- message control ("Propaganda" is such and ugly word). Nothing says principled opposition to the proverbial Unified Conservative Noise Machine like building your own Unified People-Powered Noise Machine.

Or we could ask Jerome Armstrong to take a break from raking in and secretly distribuing his newfound political cash to tell us which house Sagittarius is in.

Here's an entry of Jerome's from May 18, 2002:

This coming weekend the Saturn-Pluto opposition comes into exact focus for the last time. The tension between the local and particular of Gemini and the foreign and abstract of Sagittarius is an overriding theme. The world has pushed into our neighborhoods, cracked open our prosperous blase attitude, and made us look around us. The world has shrunk under the influence of this powerful tension and will never be the same. The same magnitude sea change occurred in the mid 1960s when this pattern last set up. In the 1960s, Uranus was also involved and the level of violence and political unrest was significantly higher....

Also this coming weekend early Sunday morning, there's a Lunar Eclipse in Sagittarius.... This eclipse is the first of 3. On June 10th, the Solar Eclipse falls very close to Saturn-Pluto. And on June 24th a final "farewell" Lunar Eclipse occurs in early Capricorn....

These are tough times and they will pass.

Posted by myDD @ 10:10 PM PST [Link] [No Comments]

You tell 'em, Jerome!

You all have heard about Townhouse, right?

Posted by: Blue Dave on June 23, 2006 at 2:40 PM | PERMALINK

Nutty little nut nut says:

Don't get me started on grammar, I'm happy now if I can find a student with critical thinking skills.

I don't usually point out picayunish grammatical mistakes, but I have one suggestion. In a rant about how the youngsters can't write, you might want to avoid a comma splice!!!!!!!!

Posted by: treetop57 on June 23, 2006 at 2:42 PM | PERMALINK

I've always assumed that the failure to put in paragraph breaks is the result of inexperience with electronic text or an inability to take the perspective of the reader: The eye can absorb only so much when reading electronic text. Kevin Drum-size chunks (an average of 63, no more than 100) are perfect. The Thoreau example cited above--impossible to read!--is 188 words long.

In hard copy, it's easy to stick with longer paragraphs, assuming the author has something of value to say.

An alternate hypothesis is that some writers lack a pinky finger with which to hit "enter".

Posted by: PTate in MN on June 23, 2006 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK
An alternate hypothesis is that some writers lack a pinky finger with which to hit "enter".

Depending on the editor you are using, hitting enter may not create a new paragraph on the Web; this is particularly true if you are using an online editor that expects you to enter explicit HTML markup.

Posted by: cmdicely on June 23, 2006 at 2:53 PM | PERMALINK

Stylistic device - exactly as the ancient Greeks and Latins did it. As for retentive attitudes - perhaps, that's why paragraphs were invented.

Posted by: Ole Aioli on June 23, 2006 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

I'm looking forward to Scotian weighing in (ponderously) on this one.

Posted by: Red State Mike on June 23, 2006 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

I vote for just plain ol' laziness. I simply ignore websites with "paragraphs" that make up entire pages. If people are too lazy to write clearly, I'm too lazy to read what they wrote.

I have a hard time with the emails I receive that are in that format though. In that case, there seems to be a striking correlation to wingnuttiness. Not to mention the glaring other errors, over-zealous use of ellipses and lack of capitalization.

Posted by: gq on June 23, 2006 at 3:22 PM | PERMALINK

In a rant about how the youngsters can't write, you might want to avoid a comma splice!!!!!!!!

Actually, it's a rule-- any complaint about grammatical mistakes will itself contain a grammatical mistake. The same applies to complaints about spelling.

Posted by: Constantine on June 23, 2006 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

Matt said it best. Clearly, long paragraphs [made up of many long sentences] are the mark of the control freak -- and as such, uniquely suited to this particular time in American culture. All possible contingencies must be accounted for up front, and the reader must not be allowed to wander around on his or her own and possibly see something behind the paragraph {or sentence, for that matter} that the writer didn't intend and may not have anticipated.

Posted by: melchie on June 23, 2006 at 3:36 PM | PERMALINK

This is the fruitiest thread I've ever seen on here. What in the blue blazes...?

Posted by: karma frog on June 23, 2006 at 3:47 PM | PERMALINK

Laziness? Are people actually proffering that extending a finger towards the "enter" button is the reason some writers don't use more paragraphs? It strikes me more surely as a sign of laziness that readers need to have every thought they read broken down into some form that's literally easy on the eyes.
Also, assuming that each paragraph should address only one thought, which I don't, since when can all thoughts be expressed with 50-60 words?
It's this allegiance to the 5 paragraph essay (intro, body, conclusion) that's so often forced on students at a young age that I think is more directly responsible for the deterioration of original and even complex thoughts.
As for megalomania, it's pretty self-important to believe that everything that's written should be easy for you to digest. (I mean you in the general sense; not any one commenter in particular.) Also, it's lazy.

Posted by: Brock on June 23, 2006 at 3:51 PM | PERMALINK

Just a sign that the author was in too much of a hurry, or is not a skillful enough writer to know that 99% of his audience is going to skip-over long sections of unstructured text; no matter what it contains.

Megalomania?

Posted by: American Fuck on June 23, 2006 at 3:51 PM | PERMALINK

Long sentences and paragraphs are not necessarily a sign of meglomania. More likely they are a sign of not having enough time to edit.

Limited time for drafting and editing is both the blessing and curse of the blog as a media. Topics come and go with great speed. Passions flicker and flair with equal speed.

Posted by: Ron Byers on June 23, 2006 at 3:57 PM | PERMALINK

karma frog
Kevin does his own "trolling" by posting wingy ideas for comment. We all have our own ways of dealing with tedium.
"Jump" in.

Posted by: opit on June 23, 2006 at 4:01 PM | PERMALINK

It's often megalomania, and frequently rudeness, but often simple inexperience, and sometimes something else. I write short(ish) grafs because I've spent several years writing in an online environment where the largeish point size put very visible limits on what could be contained in a single graf without making the page a solid block of text. Print journalists, especially if they write for daily papers, also generally stick to the shorter-graf format; it's easier on the reader, and it has the additional advantage of forcing a writer on a tight deadline to organize his/her material properly.

OTOH, some of my favorite writers don't stop for a graf break until they've reached the end of a train of thought that can be very long indeed. Chesterton, for one, routinely perpetrated grafs of near-Ulyssean dimensions; but they don't bother me much, because you can see why the thing is in one piece. There's no obvious place to break, and the whole sequence runs smoothly.

Posted by: waterfowl on June 23, 2006 at 4:03 PM | PERMALINK
Long sentences and paragraphs are not necessarily a sign of meglomania. More likely they are a sign of not having enough time to edit.

Sometimes they are a sign, too, of expressing complicated ideas. Not every thought can be expressed in a handful of sentences each on the level of "The dog is brown."

Posted by: cmdicely on June 23, 2006 at 4:15 PM | PERMALINK

Caffeine or crank.

Posted by: buddy66 on June 23, 2006 at 4:20 PM | PERMALINK

punctuation is a clear sign of the man putting down the masses with their rules and regulations rise up rise up i say and take off and burn your draft cards and bras and semicolons and exlcamation points hellidontevenneedspaceswheniwrite

Posted by: Red State Mike on June 23, 2006 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

I recommend A Writer's Companion, by Richard Marius, as the definitive guide to paragraph development. At this ethereal level, a command to limit a paragraph to one idea would be considered very strange.

One little thing: I notice that when I paste text into the blogger system, it ignores the indents. You can usually discover paragraphs by careful viewing, but it is a chore. The alternative is to put a blank space between paragraphs.

Posted by: Bob G on June 23, 2006 at 4:54 PM | PERMALINK

Usually, both. But Autumn of the Patriarch has no paragraph breaks at all (just chapter breaks), and it's absolutely brilliant. Tough to read, but brilliant.

Posted by: Tom Hilton on June 23, 2006 at 4:57 PM | PERMALINK

Sometimes they are a sign, too, of expressing complicated ideas. Not every thought can be expressed in a handful of sentences each on the level of "The dog is brown."

Thanks for that. I'm a lousy writer and editor, but I'm pretty confident that some of the paragraphs in my thesis could not be broken up or simplified in a way that helped the reader. I found multiple levels of structure (larger than and smaller than the paragraph -- chapters, sections, numbered/lettered lists, etc.) to be critical but a few paragraphs were frustratingly long.

Of course, you'd have to be high on crack and familiar with the science to read large portions of it.

Posted by: B on June 23, 2006 at 5:29 PM | PERMALINK

Red State Mike:"hellidontevenneedspaceswheniwrite"

yourcommentmademesmile:)thanks!

Posted by: PTate in MN on June 23, 2006 at 5:31 PM | PERMALINK

In a rant about how the youngsters can't write, you might want to avoid a comma splice!!!!!!!!

Actually, it's a rule-- any complaint about grammatical mistakes will itself contain a grammatical mistake. The same applies to complaints about spelling.

From memory, Skitt's Law (from alt.usage.english): Any post correcting someone's grammar, spelling or punctuation will have at least one error in grammar, spelling, or punctuation.

Or possibly a row of exclamation points.

Posted by: anandine on June 23, 2006 at 5:50 PM | PERMALINK
One little thing: I notice that when I paste text into the blogger system, it ignores the indents. You can usually discover paragraphs by careful viewing, but it is a chore. The alternative is to put a blank space between paragraphs.

Its been a while since I did anything with Blogger, per se, but you should be able to make your paragraphs indented with CSS (google for a CSS tutorial; there's a lot more you can do, too).

If you're copying and pasting, you may need to put in explicit HTML paragraph markers, too; if you aren't automatically getting space between paragraphs with a default template, you probably aren't getting real paragraphs at all. HTML usually treats all whitespace (spaces, carriage returns or line feeds which might mark paragraph breaks in plain text, etc.) alike, and turns all adjacent whitespace into one single space.

Posted by: cmdicely on June 23, 2006 at 6:05 PM | PERMALINK

I should clarify my suggestion that each paragraph contain exactly one idea.

'Idea' was certainly the wrong word. I teach philosophy where one idea in the sense several of you (understandably) took me to be invoking can occupy several pages.

Thus I ought to have said something like 'each paragraph should discuss only one premise or, often, only one subpremise'.

Complex thoughts/ideas/arguments/et cetera break up into many smaller points/steps. I believe that writing is usually clearest when, as far as possible, each paragraph is confined to one premise/step/point.

As to whether that makes the paragraphs too short, I said 'even if each paragraph is two or three sentences long'. I meant that only as an extreme example. Though I do prefer paragraphs to be as short as possible.

Also, for electronic stuff, PTate in MN makes a great point about how much the eye can take in. It is much easier to read quickly when there are small chunks of text. It's amazing how much faster one can read when the margins are narrow and the paragraphs short (at least if she has some training in speed-reading).

Posted by: adm on June 23, 2006 at 7:06 PM | PERMALINK

For James Joyce, art.

Posted by: pjcamp on June 24, 2006 at 1:55 AM | PERMALINK

Not sure if this is in any way related or appropriate, but this discussion made me thik of this.

Posted by: Max on June 24, 2006 at 8:51 AM | PERMALINK

I've noticed that, in modern journalism, there's more of a problem with too many line breaks.

Especially in opinion journalism.

I find it distracting.

Posted by: digamma on June 24, 2006 at 12:16 PM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: kippie on June 24, 2006 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

I'm with cmdicely - the indigestible block of text is usually symptomatic of an inability to think. Personally I take this as a rule, so don't bother to even attempt comprehension.

Posted by: Doug K on June 26, 2006 at 12:55 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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