Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 27, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE SCOURGE OF PADDED NONFICTION....The New York Times has yet another installment today in the long running soap opera about the mental decline of our internet-addicted youth. Example: "As teenagers' scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading — diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books." Etc.

I don't have any particular dog in this fight, but I will say this. I'm obviously part of the older demographic that loves books, especially long books, and basically believes that you can't really learn anything serious about a subject unless you're willing to read books. So my sympathies are obviously on the side of the worriers.

And yet.....having said that, spending a lot of time on the internet, as I have since 2002, has rubbed my nose in something that hadn't really bothered me before then: namely just how overwritten so many books and magazine articles are. Seymour Hersh? He's great. You could also cut every one of his pieces by at least 50% and lose exactly nothing. And I'm not picking on Hersh. At a guess, I'd say that two-thirds of the magazine pieces I read could be sliced by nearly a third or more without losing much. That's true of a lot of books too.

Obviously there are plenty of distinctions here. In many cases (profiles, for example), added length is used effectively to set a mood, even if it doesn't convey a lot of specific information. Sometimes you enjoy the writing for its own sake. And there are plenty of longish articles (and books) that depend for their power on building up a case bit by bit, example by example. Start slicing this stuff out, and you end up with mush. I'm not arguing for taking a rusty machete to everything in print.

Still, the fact remains that an awful lot of longish nonfiction writing is needlessly overwritten, and this isn't something that struck me quite so forcefully before I started blogging. But now, for better or worse, it has. I'm much more sensitive to — and much less tolerant of — padded writing.

So my point is this: if even I, hailing from an earlier generation, feel this way, I can only imagine how teenagers raised on the internet feel. Sure, part of the story may be that their attention spans have become dangerously short, but another part of the story may be that they aren't willing to slog through multiple pages of irrelevant muck waiting for the author to finally get to the point. It's not either/or.

So: crisper writing, please! One of the upsides of blogging (and the internet in general) is that it allows information to find its natural length: if something only needs a couple of paragraphs, that's what it gets. If it needs 10,000 words, it gets that. But there's no need to pad because "we do long form journalism around here," just as there's no need to slash because you only have space for 40 column inches this week. Worriers take note.

Kevin Drum 12:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (81)

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Comments

I've been thinking about this, and the odd thing is? I'd say the reason for chattier, overdone writing is actually the computer.

It might sound like crap, but I started experimenting with doing certain writing with a pencil again this year. I write more slowly, but I think more as I'm doing it. I don't have the same tendency to write around what I'm saying until I get to what I'm saying. I could be wrong, but I suspect the keyboard's ability to hose words at 140 words a minute (for some, anyway!) has not improved our ability to choose or eliminate words. When it's too easy to cross out, you don't think as hard about what you're going to put in in the first place.

I'd park some of this at the door of decreased editing skills, too. I bought The Soul of Capitalism by William Greider a few years ago, because I admire Greider and the topic was definitely of interest. Greider's introduction was long-winded and almost unintelligible, and there were several run-on sentences and clear errors that a good editor would have removed (or not introduced). His very good points got lost in the mess, and I doubt many would keep at it to figure out what he was saying through all of it. I don't know that blogs or other non-long-book sources of information are better edited, but they do have the benefit of being shorter so that there's less to be confused by if it isn't well edited.

And perhaps now I've demonstrated my own need for an editor, but I'll let it stand...

Posted by: Wally on July 27, 2008 at 12:49 PM | PERMALINK

Absolutely.

About half the books I read nowadays is old nonfiction mentioned in blogs. For example, I never would have read "Oil & War" if I hadn't read about it in Brad DeLong's blog:

http://books.google.com/books?id=3BFcAAAACAAJ

Posted by: Chris on July 27, 2008 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

the thought that 'this should have been a magazine article' has struck me reading a couple of different books lately (and no, they weren't expanded from one). but writers hate to cut up their babies.

your pal,
blake

Posted by: blake on July 27, 2008 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

This harks back to Mark Twain's comments on the writing of James Fenimore Cooper:

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.


Posted by: RepubAnon on July 27, 2008 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

I too am troubled by overwriting. After having seen Shakespeare's "As You like it," I wanted the play chopped in half, too many couples getting married, too much foolery in the forest, too much blather from the fools. Mr Shakespeare, please get to the point quicker, and try not to appear so smart!

Posted by: Fran, the Upper East Side, Latte Drinking, limousine liberal on July 27, 2008 at 12:54 PM | PERMALINK

There's no question that blogging and texting tends to encourage brevity in writing. But I have noticed among academics that the elimination of hard space constraints has contributed to the opposite. It used to be that most academic papers were in the 20-25 page range. These days it is rare for me to see one that is less than 50 pages. And almost none of the added length really adds to the quality of the paper. It's in the nature of academics to throw everything into an argument including the kitchen sink. Previously, the cost of writing and reproduction imposed a constraint. The Internet has eliminated it.

Posted by: Bruce Bartlett on July 27, 2008 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

Brevity is. . .wit. (Reading Digest.)

Posted by: dj moonbat on July 27, 2008 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK

Every bad thing you've described about writing has a perfect example-George Will.

Posted by: Gandalf on July 27, 2008 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

I see you're being extra-efficient by stripping that unnecessary "c" out of "scourge".

Posted by: Alex on July 27, 2008 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

I mean George Will is the perfect example.

Posted by: Gan on July 27, 2008 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

I'm inclined to agree about long form magazines, but a lot of bloggers go on too long. I'm a bad blogosphere liberal because I don't read Glenn Greenwald, and while I love her work, Digby (and her co-bloggers) could definitely do with some practice at less-is-more. D-Kos , too. Atrios, OTOH, errs in the other direction.

Same holds for a number of newer "serious fiction" novels I've read recently. Better editors, please.

Then again: Dickens? Tolstoy? Balzac? Melville?

Posted by: Jim on July 27, 2008 at 1:10 PM | PERMALINK

My son is a high achool student who doesn't like writing, but when he writes does quite well. I think the basic problem is that everything his generation does is about logic and meaning.

Their video games require logical thinking and their texting uses extreme shortform writing to carry just the meaning. At the same time they can observe that most, nearly all, nonfiction writing in magazine and newspapers is logically wrong. This website in particular points that out regularly.

So yes, I would say that the internet likely diminishes standard reading scores (although the evidence for this is virtually nonexistent) because standard reading is seen as deficient.

I personally think there are two kinds of readers, those taught via phonics who read without comprehending (most TV newspeople for example) and those taught with shared reading who think that reading is to obtain meaning (scientists for example).

Conservatives don't read for meaning, they listen for talking points from authority because they were taught phonics: they don't know how to read for meaning. Their blogs are almost totally repeating nonsense they have been told.

Progressives read for logic and thus their blogs concentrate on the illogic of conservatives as if that was somehow important. Witness the US Attorney scandal or the Iraq war: progressives think that pointing things out logically has some import while ignoring things that appeal to the public.

Posted by: Michael Martin on July 27, 2008 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK

"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I've written a long one instead." -- attributed to Blaise Pascal, Mark Twain, and Voltaire, and probably others too.

Posted by: dzetland@gmail.com on July 27, 2008 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

Yup.

Posted by: jrw on July 27, 2008 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

It was on a cold December morning, a week before Christmas, 1985. While lazily sifting through the periodicals at the Walla Walla public library, I came across a Readers Digest that would change my life forever.

I've always been interested in wit. My favorite uncle was an incurable punster. The comedic stylings of Monty Python and Carol Burnett filled the television of my youth. I was called the "Class Clown" in both 3rd and 6th grades.

All my life I had studied and thrived on the wit of others, and, if I might immodestly say, exercised my own. Now, on this winters morning, while others were out holiday shopping, my cozy little nest in the library was about to be turned on it's head. I think it just might do the same for you.

Posted by: Boronx on July 27, 2008 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I'm sure no teenager any more, but I am addictedish to the Internet - and your blog is one of the fixes I need. I'd say, your writing is reasonably concise and an easy read (in the good sense.) Keep up the mostly good work, but try to tone down some of the innocent boyish musings about why the bad guys are doing or saying this or that; we've been explaining why a lot of that is now to be expected and taken for granted as part of their identity and tactics.

Posted by: Neil B. ♫ on July 27, 2008 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

Years ago, the cartoon strip Luann discussed the need for brevity if you want to reach teenagers with short attention spans. Miss Phelps, the school guidance counselor, advised the history teacher, Mr. Fogarty, to cut his lessons down into short little pieces. His next lecture to the class was the result of drastic editing:

Columbus.
3 ships.
America.
Test Monday.


Posted by: emmarose on July 27, 2008 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

Economist lecturing: "And this simple model describes the phenomena of interest."

Economist listening: "Oh, I've got a model that gives that result -- but mine is much more complicated."

Economist lecturing: "Yes, mine started out that way, but I worked on it."

Posted by: David Zetland on July 27, 2008 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

I remember a story where one of the popular western writers of the 40's and 50's was once asked why the good guy always gets their man on the last shot of his 6 shooter. The writers response, in the form of a question, was if you were getting paid 5 cents a word how many shots would you use?

So. I believe it is with print writers where their "seriousness" is often judged by column inches and # of pages. Being terse and short just gets one delegated to the 2nd or 3rd tier. Being verbose earns one status in the top rank.

Posted by: Ken on July 27, 2008 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

I agree. That is why I only read half of your blog entry.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on July 27, 2008 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

I don't know if I agree with you. I think a lot of books I read are fine. The details tend to supply valuable trivia, insight or clarity, and if what you're looking for is a dumbed-down or summary version, and the book or article you're reading seems too long, it's probably just because you're reading the wrong book / piece to suit your needs. I think the ocassional piece that does indeed have too many words / sentences just indicates that the writer is stupid and that his / her being published is kind of a fluke. Somebody else out there who could write something better has been passed over to publish this person's book.

As far as these anti-Internet articles that come out every once in a while, I view them with suspicion. I think the right-wing would love an anti-Internet movement, because if they could restrict Internet use it could end up shutting down liberal politics in a big way. I think it's a really vain cause, though, because the advantages of the Internet are just too obvious. Americans are just not dumb enough to call for our nation to become Nazi Germany, in light of all we know and have experienced. There are only a few Americans who are that dumb. Anyway, since the source of these articles is the mainstream media, we have every reason to be distrustful.

Young people suffer from the same problems they always have as far as wanting to sound cool and not always taking grammar, appearances and studies seriously. If the Internet age has coincided with a tiny bit of increase in that, it's hardly something that merits a lot of concern or attention.

Posted by: Swan on July 27, 2008 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK

Someone like Sy Hersh, who writes for one of those magazines, is often a little melodramatic, but that's a particular problem that's particular to somewhat pretentious magazines. It's not a symptom of a wide-ranging plague of overlength.

Posted by: Swan on July 27, 2008 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

It's not a symptom of a wide-ranging plague of overlength.

Nor is it related to the Internet-- it's related to people who buy the NYT magazine, Harper's, The New Yorker, etc., wanting to feel like they're getting bang for their buck (that is, the writers have something profound to say that takes a lot of description).

And in defense of it, sometimes those long articles in relatively highbrow popular magazines are really called for, and the depth / context is nice to have, although the article certainly could have been done in a much shorter form. Again, if you feel like you waste a lot of time on that, better to find blogs that excerpt and comment on those specific sources.

Posted by: Swan on July 27, 2008 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

KEVIN I COULDN'T AGREE WITH YOU MORE!

Posted by: Evelyn Wood on July 27, 2008 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

I don't know about books vs. Internet, but it's clear to me that good newspapers in the UK put a premium on brevity in a way newspapers in the US almost never do. Pick up any copy of the Financial Times, and you'll see many articles that cover the basic facts of a story and then ... end. In the US version of the same article, the statement of the basic facts would merely serve as a little bit of preliminary throat-clearing before the marathon of bloviating background. Some years ago, when I was trying to teach myself to read a newspaper with more regularity, I found this a big stumbling block -- all of the NYT news stories were way too long. It wouldn't be so bad but the extra paragraphs were mainly dedicated to restating the premise or otherwise providing "background" that wasn't very useful.

Here's a typical FT article.

Posted by: Martin on July 27, 2008 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

Jim read my mind with his 1:10 p.m. comment. I can forgive the overindulgent author her digressions & repetitions of themes. It's a book, after all. Long-winded blog posts, though, are insufferable. Worse still are those long-winded blog posts that go out of their way to avoid even the slightest bit of humor. And then there are the long-winded & humorless blog posts dedicated entirely to righteous indignation. Ladies & gentlemen, I give you Glenn Greenwald.

Posted by: junebug on July 27, 2008 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK

I'm with Yancey.

Sorry, Kevin, couldn't finish your post - too wordy.

Posted by: garyb50 on July 27, 2008 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

So: crisper writing, please! One of the upsides of blogging (and the internet in general) is that it allows information to find its natural length: if something only needs a couple of paragraph, that's what it gets. If it needs 10,000 words, it gets that. But there's no need to pad because "we do long form journalism around here," just as there's no need to slash because you only have space for 40 column inches this week. Worriers take note.
Hooray!

Posted by: Alice on July 27, 2008 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

Well said.

Posted by: Scott Herbst on July 27, 2008 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

Dude! Did you miss the joke that one of the families in the article was named "The Sims"?

Posted by: bob on July 27, 2008 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

Oh happy day. We've become a nation of Cliff's Notes readers. Our busy day must be truncated to simple sentences and monosyllables. How's this: bite me.

Posted by: Everyman on July 27, 2008 at 2:31 PM | PERMALINK

tl;dr

Posted by: jerry on July 27, 2008 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK

One of the upsides of blogging (and the internet in general) is that it allows information to find its natural length: if something only needs a couple of paragraph, that's what it gets.

There are tons of "bloggers" to whom the natural length of their posts just doesn't fit the linear form they constrict themselves too. Especially when read on a harsh monitor under crappy lighting.

Lots of bloggers who should take "tl;dr" to heart. And bloggers I generally love too.

And worse, their gd "tl;dr" articles actually make me feel guilty. Guilty I ain't reading the whole thing. Guilty I even give them traffic because they are clearly ain't getting paid enough for their time and I kinda sorta wish they would fold their blogs and get back to a real life with their family and not sacrifice their job.

And sad that their long posts and the research behind it will be lost in time like tears in rain.

Posted by: jerry on July 27, 2008 at 2:42 PM | PERMALINK

Duncan Black on the other hand, truly understands the pithy wealth of a WATB or WOTD and leaving it at that.

(It kills me that in recent months he's become a watb and wotd on his own.... He needs a hiatus and a reality check in many areas.)

Posted by: jerry on July 27, 2008 at 2:47 PM | PERMALINK

This is one of the reasons I'm reading fewer books, I think... I hate weeding through all the pointless crap. I just started the most recent book of Kevin Phillips and constantly feel like... common, get on with it. Get to the point. I'm also annoyed while reading that I can't quickly scroll through the book - and I really miss any kind of search function. Scanning for a phrase with my eyeballs across pages or chapters seems incredibly primitive.

On the other hand, I've really started getting into audiobooks and find that listening to a well written book (read either by the author or a gifted actor) is an incredible pleasure.

Posted by: ty lookwell on July 27, 2008 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

One of the upsides of blogging (and the internet in general) is that it allows information to find its natural length: if something only needs a couple of paragraph, that's what it gets. If it needs 10,000 words, it gets that.

I don't agree. How many 10,000 word blog posts do you see? Of course, you occasionally write an article for WaMo, but how common is that in the blogosphere? And how is that any different from an op-ed writer writing a magazine article (or a book?)

Blogging has broadened the range of an op-ed from 500-1000 words to 1-1000 words, but that's about it. And the culture of the medium seems to encourage most of its practitioners to stick with shorter, pithier posts. That's not a bad thing, but it's hardly the case that style is adjusting to suit the needs of the content rather than the other way around.

Plus c'est la meme chose, plus ça change.

Posted by: Royko on July 27, 2008 at 2:53 PM | PERMALINK

Ironically, the Dallas Morning News whacked aout half the NYT story when running it in print.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on July 27, 2008 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

I always find myself dubious about such stories, because I was a teenager before use of the internet was common, and back then in the 80s, everyone was saying television had destroyed literacy, why don't the kids read, etc, etc.

There may have been some golden age of teenagers reading books, but certainly not in my lifetime.

Posted by: John Biles on July 27, 2008 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

You used to have your monthly women blogger beauty contest, but having found Ann Althouse some years back, you stopped.

You may wish to consider writing 250 words on the nonsense in this article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/27/fashion/27blogher.html?_r=1&ref=style&oref=slogin

Particularly your pal McArdle's statement, "women are taught not to be aggressive and analytical in the way that the political blogosphere demands" because as we all know, women are made from sugar and spice and everything nice, and most women leave high school never having been challenged by in groups, out groups, bullying from other girls, or the whole "Queenbe and wannabe" syndrome or "Odd girl out" thing.

Compare these sentences with McArdle's crap:

"The stalls on the second floor were lined with note cards featuring nurturing messages like “You are perfect.” Nearby, women were being dusted with blush and eye shadow, or having the kinks in their necks massaged.

There was a lactation room, child care, and onesies for sale emblazoned with the words “my mom is blogging this.” No doubt they were."

And McArdle's response:

"Women are ... more likely to receive blog comments on how they look, rather than what they say."

Not to pick specifically on McArdle, Glibertarian, the whole article is full of this.

Posted by: jerry on July 27, 2008 at 3:24 PM | PERMALINK

During the decade when internet use and access increased significantly, 1994-2004, verbal test scores increased.
http://www.collegeboard.com/prod_downloads/about/news_info/cbsenior/yr2007/national-report.pdf

Verbal scores are down in the last two years or so because of NCLB, which is forcing many schools to make learning as uninteresting as possible. If you teach to the test for a few days, you can increase test scores. If you teach to the test every day of the year, which is what some schools now are doing, you back up the suspicions many teenagers have that learning is a waste of time, which in turn causes test scores to go down.

Posted by: reino on July 27, 2008 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK


"Omit needless words!" Will Strunk
quoted by E.B. White in
The Elements of Style.
Nearly every writer needs the advice in this book.

Posted by: joel hanes on July 27, 2008 at 3:28 PM | PERMALINK

Seems like the censors of the Yoo-Bybee memo agreed with you, Kevin.

Posted by: ogmb on July 27, 2008 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

I have a theory about overwriting of non-fiction books. I think publishers are trying to make sure book buyers believe a new book is worth the price asked.

Sure, plenty of new non-fiction titles could be pared down by half. But would book buyers shell out $26.95 for a 150 page book?

I think its likely that the marginal costs in pumping a work up by an extra 100-150 pages are probably minimal, and they give the volume some heft. This allows a reader to tell himself that he has taken on a work of substance, and therefor, is smart.

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on July 27, 2008 at 3:51 PM | PERMALINK

I'm the author of several academic books with a very high ratio of information content/page. I've been told by pros that I'll never write a bestseller unless I'm willing to boil book down to a single small theme/meme and say it over and over again, changing only the illustrative anecdotes. I think the fault lies with editors of general-audience nonfiction (and with audiences).

Posted by: jhill on July 27, 2008 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

Hmm.

Posted by: nutty little nut nut on July 27, 2008 at 4:11 PM | PERMALINK

Karl Marx is supposed to have said that he never had time to write a short book.

And he did have help on "The Communist Manifesto," the shortest of them.

Posted by: thersites on July 27, 2008 at 4:13 PM | PERMALINK

How about the 20-page celebrity profiles published by Vanity Fair? Do I really need to be bored out of my mind, feeling like I'm hitting my head against a brick wall, reading page after page of interminable twaddle by Kevin Sessums about Tom Cruise or Jack Nicholson or Lindsay Lohan or whomever?

(Not to forget boring profiles of stars of the past. I never want to read another too-long article cribbed from the latest biography of Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, etc., etc.!!!)

Vanity Fair, please stick to stories about the feuding old-money mega-rich. No more than 4-6 highly-illustrated pages in the well of the magazine, with no more than three pages (preferably 1 1/2-2) at the back of the book. I will allow the occasional political piece of 3-4 pages at the front of the book. All articles on celebrities should stick to half a page, with full-page pieces on them only when you have a silly interview in large type.

Thank you.

New Yorker: No 20-page pieces about lawn grass or the color blue or some crusty old jazz artist.

Posted by: Anon on July 27, 2008 at 4:17 PM | PERMALINK

I noticed that today reading the NYT mag article about "MadMen." 10 web pages! This was clearly editable down to 4, but there were ad pages to fill.

OTOH, I'm not daunted by long novels, I slogged thru Neal Stephenson's massive "The Baroque Cycle" three times for the pure pleasure of his prose.

Amuse me or get to the point, else I'm skimmin'

Posted by: jpmist on July 27, 2008 at 4:21 PM | PERMALINK

I've always said that it seems that Dick Francis can say in a paragraph what Tom Clancy invariably took a chapter to say.

Posted by: Art Smith on July 27, 2008 at 4:22 PM | PERMALINK

The same is just as true of spoken word material. I listen to a large number of talks via podcasts, and I am ever less tolerant of blowhards who populate their talks with not especially funny jokes, anecdotes, explaining the obvious, and so on.
I don't know, maybe this stuff works when you're present at the talk, but recorded it is just so much fluff.

My rule is that you have about two minutes, from your first word, to give me the impression you have something useful to say; otherwise it's on to one of the thousands of other good talks available for listening.

It's also interesting how obviously different different groups are. Politicians are, unsurprisingly, by far the worst offenders. Business people likewise usually have little to say; and many journalists (though not all) bring the same "I'm just an mindless reporter; he said then she said" crap they use when writing to their speeches.
By far the best speakers are academics, but even there there are pronounced differences. Many scientific and engineering speakers are excellent, likewise for political science, law, economics, and history.

But most sociologists, anthropologists, (womens/african-american/queer/...) studies speakers are abysmal, likewise for education., likewise for English and similar. These people read their pre-written papers, rather than presenting a talk, and they read the paper in a low mumbling drone. I don't know how their colleagues can stand it.

This strikes me as really unfortunate. I imagine that there must be some interesting nuggets of knowledge in these fields, but when the choice is to listen to some sprightly speech on the history of sumerian agriculture, presented with verve and enthusiasm, as opposed to some pathetic rambling about the hermeneutics of the portrayal of female characters in John Waters' movies, I know which one I'll be listening to; even though there is actually a chance that a well-presented version of the John Waters material, tailored appropriately to the medium, could be interesting.

So will podcasts have an effect in getting these academics to get their act together and provide better material? We shall see.

(A cynic might argue that the primary reason these talks suck is that there is no there there; the fields are primarily BS, and even if the material were orated by Dale Carnegie it would still be rambling pointless drivel. Perhaps, but I'm not willing to make such a judgement quite yet.)

Posted by: Maynard Handley on July 27, 2008 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

Sprezzatura alert: Lee Siegel on On The Media today -- he's still an asshole, but he has a bit of a point that me makes before wandering off to crap once again.

Just what he needs though, a point in his asshole.

Kewwy, you should check it out. The whole episode kinda sorta revolves around jerky bloggers and thoughtful commenters.

http://www.onthemedia.org/stream/ram?file=/otm/otm072508pod.mp3

(Duncan Black will be happy too, they talk about the WAPO and Chandra Levy)

Posted by: jerry on July 27, 2008 at 4:33 PM | PERMALINK

On the Media today is worth listening to. They talk about the need for some moderation in comments, and what no moderation can lead to, but they also discuss the impacts on "digital democracy" when the moderation exists, and when it is too heavy.

It turns out, surprise surprise, that newspapers moderation is often LESS heavy handed than many self-claimed progressive bloggers, who often place everything into moderation, and even edit other people's comments after they have been posted.

No one seemed to want to defend the Washington Monthly style of changing mhr to merely an asterisk simply because you dislike mhr. Or deleting other posts because their opinions were not PC enough for you.

Sadly, having done that Garfield goes and godwin's himself by advocating for harsh self-censorship of commercials, cartoons, and presumably new yorker covers because do you know who else had cartoons of people with big noses? Yeah, the nazis. So if you make fun of people, you're a nazi.

Anyway Kev, give it a spin and write oh, say 900 words on it.

Posted by: jerry on July 27, 2008 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK

During the decade when internet use and access increased significantly, 1994-2004, verbal test scores increased.
http://www.collegeboard.com/prod_downloads/about/news_info/cbsenior/yr2007/national-report.pdf

Verbal scores are down in the last two years or so because of NCLB, which is forcing many schools to make learning as uninteresting as possible. If you teach to the test for a few days, you can increase test scores.

Ooooooohhh.

So maybe this NYT article is some kind of propaganda.

Ooooooohhh.

In that case, maybe a lot of other articles are propaganda, too.

Posted by: Swan on July 27, 2008 at 5:08 PM | PERMALINK

In that case, maybe a lot of other articles are propaganda, too.

Like, propaganda from the type of people who would do something like try to get us all to stop using the Internet.

And if they are putting a lot of propaganda mainstream media out, they might be doing a lot of other deceptive things, too.

Posted by: Swan on July 27, 2008 at 5:10 PM | PERMALINK

It's not just print media. You could cut 90% out of all of Steve Benen's posts and not miss anything. He's so needlessly wordy that I can honestly say I've never read to the end of anything he's written.

I saw the Times article Kevin's referring to, and all I could think of was, "a new generation redefines literacy. What's wrong with that?"

Posted by: Dave Brown on July 27, 2008 at 5:37 PM | PERMALINK

"Mr Shakespeare, please get to the point quicker, and try not to appear so smart!"

If you don't want smart, you have to find that Shakespeare powerpoint online that lists Hamlet's "To be or not to be" as a series of pros and cons.

Posted by: on July 27, 2008 at 5:44 PM | PERMALINK

Blackadder meets Shakespeare where Blackadder claims Hamlet is way too long, boring, and helps edit it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I90bpgDCrtY

Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie.

Posted by: jerry on July 27, 2008 at 5:50 PM | PERMALINK

How about that 12 episode (plus "epilogue") soap opera about Chandra Levy's murder in the Post? They could have said all they needed to say in two articles, tops.

Posted by: Bowden on July 27, 2008 at 6:06 PM | PERMALINK

When I was in grad school, I asked a professor what impact he thought the word processor had on academic writing. His quick reply: "There are too many bad papers now, and too many journals!"

I don't know if the number of papers has gone up disproportionally to the increase in the number of academics, but I suspect he was right.

Posted by: MattD on July 27, 2008 at 7:36 PM | PERMALINK

It is not just non-fiction. The average length of novels has been trending up dramatically for the last 20-30 years and most of them could be cut by more than 50% and be better stories afterword.

I put most of the blame on a shift in power between the editor and the author, particularly for established authors. Previously, editors had a huge amount of control and would sometimes demand significant revisions from the first draft, or simply send a book back and say 'cut this by x number of words'. Now, the combination of publishing deadlines and the virtually guaranteed sales for the sequel of a popular title mean the editor has much less control.

For a couple examples, compare C.S. Forrester to Jack O'Brian or compare the pre-1970 writings of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke to anything written by an established sci-fi author in the last 20 years.

Posted by: tanstaafl on July 27, 2008 at 8:36 PM | PERMALINK

The biggest tell in the article was a picture showing that the daughter did indeed have a shelf of books in her room.
Trouble was, the spines were clearly manga paperbacks, with about thirty words to a pages, none with more than two syllables.
But please, don't just pick on the young people. Fifty years ago Mitch Album wouldn't be writing anything but a greeting card.

Posted by: Steve Paradis on July 27, 2008 at 9:42 PM | PERMALINK

tanstaafl:
"For a couple examples, compare C.S. Forrester to Patrick O'Brian or compare the pre-1970 writings of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke to anything written by an established sci-fi author in the last 20 years."

In O'Brian's case, he was largely uneditted on his last few books, and started turning in plotless stream of consciousness.

Forrester wrote all his stuff for the Saturday Evening Post, whose editors were legendary for their standards. P.G. Wodehouse said that he was never really sure of a story until Lorimer had passed it.

Don't know much about modern sci-fi, opposed to the stuff I devoured in high school, except that a lot of it is a five page idea laid out on 300 pages.

Apparently the publishing scenes in "The Last Days of Disco" were meant as documentary and not as satire.

Posted by: Steve Paradis on July 27, 2008 at 10:04 PM | PERMALINK

The teenagers I know have brains like optical fiber cables--they just suck up information on a dozen different channels while simultaneously keeping track of text messages, doing their homework and listening to what they call music. The ones I know read constantly, they just don't read books.

Me, I like linear. But I'm simply overwhelmed by the tsunami of information that is out there. Who has time for padding? There is so much that would be valuable to me if only I had time to learn it. When I look at the teenagers, I think, maybe if I could process information like that, maybe I could keep up.

In any case, I too am angered by books that should be trimmed back to their core ideas. But who is going to pay $24.95 or whatever for a booklet of 15-40 useful pages? The nation is suffering from a plague of excess: supersized books, supersized burgers, supersized furniture, supersized cars, supersized special effects in action films, supersized architecture.

The internet may be our salvation. Maybe some online publisher has figured out how to publish the expertise of non-blogging experts, using blogosphere flexibility and crisp writing, but also providing book-style shelf life. Wikipedia is close, but the experts aren't named, don't get paid for their contributions.

Posted by: PTate in MN on July 27, 2008 at 10:52 PM | PERMALINK

In O'Brian's case, he was largely uneditted on his last few books, and started turning in plotless stream of consciousness.

And an "unedited stream of consciousness" from P. O'Brian still kicks the crap out of any other fiction writer named in this thread.

Just my opinion, of course.

Posted by: thersites on July 27, 2008 at 11:32 PM | PERMALINK

This blog post was way too long. You could have cut a third to 50% and still made your point.

Posted by: bob5540 on July 28, 2008 at 12:16 AM | PERMALINK

Where's them editors when you need them.

Posted by: Luther on July 28, 2008 at 1:00 AM | PERMALINK

True.

Posted by: Roy Tucker on July 28, 2008 at 1:10 AM | PERMALINK

Are things overwritten, or is your attention span shorter? I'd say the latter. Lots of post here fall into the 'just get to the point' category. A generation raised on "bullet point" memos and "executive summaries". Of course not all long articles should be long, but in many cases, presentation of what you see as extraneous detail is what allows the reader to develop his/her own analysis/alternative interpretation. When I read, I don't just want to know what the 'payoff' is, I want to know how the author got there. That means putting their evidence, impressions, etc on the table.

And some of you are just WRONG. Publishers are demanding shorter books (fiction and nonfiction alike). Maybe a few established blockbuster authors can get away with bloated tomes (JK Rowling for instance) but most publishers want you to say it in 250-300 pages tops.

Posted by: clarice on July 28, 2008 at 6:37 AM | PERMALINK

From many years in book publishing, I would say Quaker is partly right--publishers feel that a book that runs 300-500 pages looks more substantial and "important" than a book that runs 150-200 pages, even if its takes padding to get there. Also, given the fact that most books are displayed in bookstores spine-out (rather than face-out), a thick book is far more visible, noticeable, and legible on a bookstore shelf than a thin one.

Posted by: Karl Weber on July 28, 2008 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK

I wrote about this subject earlier, back when The Atlantic Monthly was complaining. I wrote:


"Fact is, for ages prolific readers have taught themselves how to quickly peruse useful information from nonfiction. I emphasize "peruse" because the word did not originally mean "to skim," it meant "to use thoroughly." The "inverted pyramid" of news reporting, beginning with the most important information first and slowly working in details as the story progresses, wasn't born with the internet.

Nonfiction, which comprises the bulk of the Internet (news, weblogs, reference, guides, directories) should not be any harder to digest than the subject matter itself -- the whole point of nonfiction writing is to convey information as simply as possible. If you spend a substantial amount of time reading qua reading, you should either practice your reading technique more or find better material to read."


It should be clearly I agree with Kevin whole-heartedly, and also consider many "books" to be a "scourge" upon the modern mind. The book form doesn't automatically guarantee quality, it guarantees length and price, often to the detriment of quality. Here are some examples:

* quasi-journalism books that "recreate" dialogue based on the author's supposition (like Bob Woodward's recent fare);
* expanded doctoral theses made into book form by little more than chapter headings (a style that's a plague upon the academic non-fiction world);
* self-help "books" that could easily have been pamphlet or blogs (even the folks at Lifehacker couldn't pull that off in a way that didn't seem stale);

I completely understand the inclination non-traditional authors have to convert their work into book form. It's prestigious and it pays.

But let's not pretend that it's better for people to read 300 printed pages from one author, at least half of which is filler, rather than 10 online pages from 30 different authors. It's usually worse.

Posted by: Max Kennerly on July 28, 2008 at 11:36 AM | PERMALINK

I've written a handful of academic books and am on the publications board of a major university press. And, I can tell you that publishers are not looking for 300-500 page academic books. The want the 250-300 page book ---- that just 'might' include a bibliography and footnotes (to take the book to 325-350 pages -- maybe).

That doesn't solve the problem that we publish too many books (and articles . . .) but try getting universities to rethink their tenure and promotion policies. In fact, in many disciplines -- history is one, anthropolgy is another -- laying out the 'story', ie., description is central to the overall argument. The problem with many books and articles these days (at least academic ones) are that people just want your conclusions. This might work for science but even in social science (and political science, econ and sociology are particularly egregious here) the 'conclusions only' approach has led to some really pathetic publications.

I agree with Clarice --- although I don't think anything can be done to reverse it -- I think the issue is that attention span has decreased. It's not that things are overwritten, it's really that what we want and what we can process from written material has diminished. It doesn't mean that the othr form is bad, just that people have changed. Isn't there a new book called something like "Distracted" that is about this very phenomena.

I do know that we aren't going back --- so even one more reason to regret Kevin's churlish complaint.

Posted by: oxonhoya on July 28, 2008 at 12:03 PM | PERMALINK

One of the upsides of blogging (and the internet in general) is that it allows information to find its natural length: if something only needs a couple of paragraph, that's what it gets. If it needs 10,000 words, it gets that.

My experience is that, in blogging, if something needs a couple of paragraphs, it gets that, if something needs 10,000 words, it gets a couple of paragraphs, and some links to other blog posts, which both overlap with and contradict each other in some ways, which then link to some other blog posts, which do the same thing, until you get 100,000 words with no coherence.

Actually, sometimes you get that when something only needs a couple of paragraphs.

Posted by: cmdicely on July 28, 2008 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

When I first started a major research project on European history, I began with buying books --- some general texts and some in specific areas --- that I thought would provide me with the information I needed. And then I'd waste hours upon hours searching through these books emerging with only a usable sentence or two. Keywords on google, on the other hand, or going straight to wikipedia --- oh, man, what a difference. I've been three years writing a book that could never have been accomplished without the internet. (And now I'm told I must cut it in half, because mainstream audiences won't find it sufficiently reder-friendly. As in, too many facts, not enough padding.)

It's rather like all of these silly political commentators, isn't it? What's important about candidates is their policy positions, their truthfullness, the kinds of teams they form and their respect for the law and for truthfulness. But political coverage of campaigns acts as if it's just a big game --- let's see who's ahead this week, what strategies are they using in playing 'the game,' etc. Like Survivor, where we watch the tv set to see who wins, and winning has nothing to do with merit at anything except being a good game player.

Posted by: catherineD on July 28, 2008 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

"And an "unedited stream of consciousness" from P. O'Brian still kicks the crap out of any other fiction writer named in this thread."

Counting Patrick O'Brian pre-1990?
Because I was reading his stuff when the only place you could find it was in Canada and Britain. Back then he used to indulge in vulgar devices such as "plot", "characterization"
and "action". Not long after he started being the subject of near-Papal adulation in the States,he realized he could turn in a pile of notes and get it printed.
So then came near-endless conversations between the heroes, with minor interruptions by the forelock-tuggers and purple patches about nature.

Posted by: Steve Paradis on July 28, 2008 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

And an "unedited stream of consciousness" from P. O'Brian still kicks the crap out of any other fiction writer named in this thread.

William Faulkner

Posted by: Brojo on July 28, 2008 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

You engineer types are always all about "cut to the chase", aren't you?

Posted by: jame on July 28, 2008 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK

The books I love the most took a long time to write. I think that the problem is the economics of publishing and the status hierarchy of modern letters more than technology or changed readers. Huizenga's Autumn of the Middle Ages is great even if it doesn't fit in a magazine.

Posted by: lw on July 29, 2008 at 10:42 AM | PERMALINK

"...an awful lot of longish nonfiction writing is needlessly overwritten..."

As an editor and writer who edits and is published every week I can tell you why this is so, and isn't going to change.

Publishing is a business and publishers try to make money.

This means they have to fill a set, defined amount of space ("Give me 2,200 words") by a fixed deadline at reasonable cost.

"Reasonable cost" means they do *not* want polished gems of literary art, they want "good enough".

To fill say 2,200 words without wasting one requires edit/ supplemental research/ rewrite/ edit/ repeat ... repeat ... a lot more cost.

Like the anecdote mentioned above "I'm sorry for writing a long letter, I didn't have time to write a short one." And also like Woodrow Wilson, IIRC, when at Princeton offered some group: "I'll cover the subject in a full-day presentation for $1,000, an afternoon presentation for $2,000, a two-hour presentation for $5,000...."

Right here, I could've made the same point in half the words, better, without any uncertainty about who said what, if I took the time to fact check and re-write.

But nobody is paying me for a blog comment, so overwritten as this is, it is good enough.

Anyhow, until the economics of the publishing business change, don't expect this to.

So: crisper writing, please! One of the upsides of blogging (and the internet in general) is that it allows information to find its natural length...

Um ... some might think, somewhat to the contrary, that the bloggers of the world in general have much to be modest about regarding the quality of their writing.

Posted by: Jim Glass on July 29, 2008 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

As Quaker said, these essays-turned-books are intended to get the writer a bestseller. I'm sure writing essays for journals and mags is not a big money maker. Publishers would never push a 150 or less page book on the history of caffeine, especially if it looked silly as a hardcover. It's understandable, but maybe we could convince magazines to print abridged versions of popular books and pay the author and publisher. It's not just the money I mind laying down for a book, it's the slog.

Posted by: morgan on August 1, 2008 at 8:00 PM | PERMALINK

I like how Arthur Koestler published "The Act of Creation" as compendium: The first portion for the layman, and the second for the nerds who want more detailed info. Double books like these would make publishers more cash while providing for both interests. Perhaps in the paperback stage, an abridged version could be published for 2/3 price for people who want to read on toilet or on train.

Posted by: morgan on August 1, 2008 at 8:07 PM | PERMALINK

Exactly.

Posted by: Nancy Teague on August 2, 2008 at 10:48 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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