Don’t Write Long? Not Quite

Last month Tim Chen mentioned on his blog that most people won’t read more than a fairly small number of words, linking to a post on Abraham Piper’s blog with this chart:

(By the way, I think the words in the graph should be included in the 22 words.)

He also says in person that I’m verbose, and then cites the “unnecessary vowels” in the Oxford spelling I use as just more evidence to bolster his claim. I suppose I could be more allusive and just write poetry instead of prose and spare everyone the five or more small paragraphs I usually write. I do admit that, because of Paul and classical authors, my sentences are, on average, longer than those of an average American writer of that population which, most “authorities” decide, are incapable of holding their attention for longer… Ok, ok, I’ll stop, both the self-parody and the hyper-British grammar.

“If you have 50,000 words on each page, you’ll do fine so long as the actionable and critical information copy is easily accessible and well designed.”
— Andy Rutledge

Joking aside, I’d like to say that this observation does not dictate how many words people should write in one sitting. Andy Rutledge says such a conclusion about the volume of copy is poppycock (read his post!). It’s actually about designing with that in mind so that all colours (ha!) of people will find what they need and want to consume.

It’s true, however, that copy must be well-written, not flabby. As Strunk and White put it in The Elements of Style, “make every word tell,” and “omit needless words.” Use what you must for your line of thought — real thought, that is — and cut what weighs it down rhetorically, regardless of how much you’re writing. Then design in such a way that you can accommodate all kinds of readers.

Right, so what can I do to help busy readers read here, given that I ain’t writing in simple sentences about my day? I have in mind: better writing, headings, images, pullquotes (which probably won’t display right in feed readers). Talk, anyone?


18 responses to “Don’t Write Long? Not Quite

  1. why dont you write in simple sentences? not necessarily about your day, but still. trial run.


  2. Like this one? I think these sentences were shorter on average and had fewer subclauses. My concern with that is that it’s harder to show your main points when you have lots of supporting details that you don’t want to seem to be on the same level.


  3. And, stop filling your post with links. It’s cheating, to make your post shorter, only to have the reader find that the page you linked to is 17 pages long. XP


  4. Three links. The first two were simply citations. The third one you could have scanned and skimmed. If you chose to read it all because it was so good, I am not sorry.


  5. see your comment in response to grace, thats how long your sentences should be. no subclauses and no commas 😛


  6. My points were very simple this time. That was the way the paragraph demanded to be written: topic quasi-sentence, followed by explanation of each class of links, then conclusion.

    And not entirely true. The “if…” clause was a subclause.


  7. so, try to simplify your points then. itll be a challenge, im sure. but i think youre capable.


  8. For complex subjects, how much simplifying of the points is a realistic expectation? More to the point, how much is realistic and good? I think that depends on what the audience normally reads, and what challenge level’s appropriate.

    So, then, what do you usually read with enjoyable ease, and how complex is the subject matter? I shall have to do quite a bit of reading, methinks, to make my writing good.


  9. Your writing should not be the challenge to surmount. Your ideas and thinking should.


  10. Ideas can be only as simple as the reality actually is – or at least, as much of reality as will affect things. I think it’s bad to neglect real (deep and not just apparent) complexity. That said, these are my basic principles of thought, which I obviously follow imperfectly:

    Firstly, an idea should not be positively false. Secondly, it should not be more complex than the reality. Thirdly, it should take into account everything pertinent to the given goals. Then, it should aim first to do no harm and then to do as much good as possible.

    And then the expression, which should be no more complex than the idea and should give prominence to what deserves it: it should certainly hide none of the idea, which includes both the modules of the thought and the way in which they are related.

    One without the other is crippled. As Orwell says, however, we must first think right to be able to write right.


  11. Chuis sympathique. 😛

    I always have a hard time explaining the difference between phonemic and graphemic vowels. I mean, if the extra graphemic vowel doesn’t even add any extra weight to the syllable, how does inhibit comprehension?


  12. “As Orwell says, however, we must first think right to be able to write right.”

    Or did he say it the other way round? He would have been quite sympathetic to linguistic determinism and the Pirahã argument, I think.

    I like Orwell, but I think he commits several linguistic misassumptions in his famous essay, although he does seem to stress that his “rules” were guidelines (“break any of these sooner than say anything outright barbaric”).


  13. John — Oops! You’re right. Endless (and often vicious) cycle, though. The cluttered mind won’t be able to write lucidly enough for that writing to clear the clutter in his mind.

    »Chuis sympathique.«

    Wait, you’re calling yourself nice? 😛 It took me forever to figure out that “chuis” was “je suis”, though: I must be getting old. 😉


  14. Um… Lue, I don’t recall using the “extra vowels” claim to bolster my protest again your verboseness. At best, a humorously absurd comment. 😛

    However, the number of Crossroaders who turn away at your posts can be of concern. The ones who do read it usually say something to the effect that the same message can be had in a much simpler, shorter package. You should separate your writing styles for blogs, technical writing, literary analysis, etc.

    Just because you write simply on a blog to facilitate the “thought-bite” nature of most blogs does not mean you’re selling out. Should you choose to hold more to your essay-like style, expect those who want that out of blogs to continue as usual and the others to complain or simply skip over the next long post.


  15. Ew, Orwell. Lue-Yee, I hereby request that you never write like Orwell.

    When it comes to prose, it’s a good idea to keep clarity and your audience in mind, but just to say so and leave it at that does not help anyone.

    Sometimes the effort it takes to surmount the challenge of your prose is worth it. Style itself can be just as instructive as content. Style is not just an instrument to convey content. (Please, we’re not Gnostics.)

    While that might not be the case with this blog or blogs in general, is it really asking too much for people to learn to appreciate another blogger’s personal style? The challenge here is part and parcel of the difficulty present in trying to get to know somebody else in person. Would it be right for one brother to pass over the thoughts of another just because he is initially “too hard to understand”?

    Here I am dangerously conflating blogs and persons, but perhaps it is a good danger. Your prose style can effectively reflect your personality–and your personality is something your brothers and sisters should learn to appreciate, no matter the cost. For what end but love?


  16. I can hardly presume to be the apostle Paul (II Pt. 3.15–16). Nevertheless.


  17. “Wait, you’re calling yourself nice?”

    Gah, I hate it when I use false friends. It reminds me of the sad reality that usually I will only ever have the ability to translate and not really have real comprehension and production of my foreign languages.

    If only you could inject new neural stem cells around your Sylvian Fissure, or something.


  18. Hehe, des faux amis. Are you conscious of translating in your head?


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