Writing at No Great Length

The blog post I wrote yesterday was really hard to write, as it turned out. There were lots of revisions, and I nearly abandoned it once or twice because it kept going on and on and on. In its final form, it clocks in at about four hundred and fifty words. I’m not saying that’s svelte, exactly, but in one earlier draft, I was pushing well past eight hundred words without an end in sight.

I get caught up a lot over-explaining things when I write. It took me several tries to compress that post’s third paragraph, which outlines the basics of my critique of the new elevator system at my work, down to a relatively compact hundred-plus words. At one point, I was detailing my usability complaints in almost excruciating detail — recounting every minutiae of interacting with the system — the prose equivalent of watching a slow motion replay. It was so bad it was tiring even for me to type it, so be glad I didn’t make you read it.

Why do I do this? I blame design. A lot of my job is about creating visual and interactive presentations that accurately and effectively communicate information. In practice, that often calls for simplicity and explicitness, constantly reminding myself that I must go through great lengths to ensure that users understand every component of the experience I’m constructing.

When I transfer that value to writing though, it seems too often to inspire a long-winded, expository style that feels like homework: laborious, plodding, overly careful. Writing should be fun; the more fun it is, the more fun it’ll be to read. Anyway, it goes back to something Jeffrey Zeldman told me once: it’s a lot harder to make something short than it is to make something long.

  1. To produce work that contains only its essence, without any extraneous material to distract the audience is hard. Whether it is writing, physics – Einstein: ‘…simple as can be, but no simpler…’ or anything else – Steve Jobs has spoken a number of times about resisting the temptation to play feature bingo with the iPod, simple is hard.

    Simplicity doesn’t mean forgoing eloquence, brevity, effectiveness, and certainly not insight.


  2. Funny, I have the opposite problem most of the time; I have to force myself to get beyond brief. (Once upon a time I wanted to be one of the people writing WSJ’s “Today’s News” column.)

  3. Interesting post, in blog writing there seems to be a fine balance between writing in too much detail, and writing in a style that is true to you, which makes it feel personal.
    I think it is important to make sure readers understand the core concept, but it is also nice sometimes when you leave a little to be guessed or imagined, which will only be understood by frequent readers

  4. The length of your posts also has a direct effect on the type of readers you attract. Some people just love to read a 1500 words blogpost which explains the tiniest details. A List Apart is a blog like that. This often attracts the type of readers that are more serious into that particular subject. These type of readers are more after the research value.

    Keep it short, simple and catchy and you’ll get the type of readers which are after a quick, fun and interesting read.

  5. This reminds me of one of the biggest transitions I noticed from high school to college. It seemed teachers went from having minimum lengths on papers to having a maximum.

  6. Joseph Williams wrote a great chapter about concision in his book ‘Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace’. We used his (concise) text in a course on style, and it’s certainly one of the best books on the topic. A friend of mine is fond of the heuristic “show, don’t tell”. In addition to telling, Williams “shows” through great writing.

  7. This difficulty to write concisely—with no extraneous ideas, and, perhaps more importantly, with no bullshit—is what led one of my college professors to assign two-page papers each week for his course. Two pages, double spaced, that contain a coherent and complete idea—that was about the most excruciating and rewarding assignment I ever had to deal with.

  8. Rewriting is where the magic is. First drafts of anything are rarely in perfect form. Rewrite to make it sing, just like poetry, or coding.

  9. I seem to have the same problem when I’m writing lately. I know that when I was younger and in school I was able to write concisely, and that was before I got into design. I had never really thought about the correlation before now. It certainly makes sense.

  10. Yes, when I write copy for websites, headlines, snappy taglines, and blurbs that do double-duty in ads can be the most difficult and time-consuming to create. I’ve been telling people for years exactly what Zeldman said above.

    Justifiable length depends on the author’s talent, the subject, the form, and the audience. If I’m reading a great writer’s exploration of, say, Dublin, or mitochondria, or his design process, I may want a long article, with every tasty detail. The great writer will strip the unnecessary out of even these, but if he’s got a lot of worthy material, the article may still be long. The scrollbar warns me how much I’m getting into as a reader. I have a choice.

    I agree with hass that the magic is in the rewrite. Blog software almost begs us to skip this step. There’s greater potential for spontaneity or speedy reactions to events (as compared to static website copy, online magazines, or print). But carefully crafted posts? A joy to read—and, at time, an endless pain to write. 🙂

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