Talking at Length About Brevity

It’s no accident that editor Liz Danzico and I came up with the idea for and launched A Brief Message this year, of all years. Brevity is a meme with a lot of currency today. You can see it not just at our site, where the design opinions and the reader responses run no longer than two hundred words a piece, but at completely different sites like Twitter, Pownce and Tumblr too, where the economy of words is so sparing that it might take hours before you come across a sentence with a fully formed subject-verb-predicate construction. Similarly, Very Short List offers a kind of editorial curation that, in years past, might have run much longer than its two- or three-paragraph average length. Think

People’s attention spans are shorter, for sure, but there’s an argument that, by accommodating shorter attention spans, sites like ours are only compounding the problem. Some people, in fact, find the whole trend alarming (a prominent design writer whom we invited to contribute to A Brief Message politely replied, and I’m paraphrasing, that he was ‘against everything we stood for’). And if you look at an outlet like Brijit, even champions of brevity like myself might give pause.

Get Paid for the Words You Don’t Write

Brijit, whose name is apparently a playful variation on “abridge it”, is attempting to turn brevity into a business model. The site encourages users to write summaries of long-term content — pulled mostly from mainstream media sources like The Economist, Wired and, yes, The New York Times — in an open competition. Sort of like The Week as powered by users. If the site’s editors decide your 100 word distillation of, say, a several thousand word-long investigative piece in The Times is the best summary among those submitted, the site will pay you a small fee for publishing rights.


Whether it’s a workable model or not remains to be seen. Personally, I think the only sustainable fuel for a site like this is a solidly formed community; and as we saw with Netscape’s attempts to transform audiences into motivated community members through financial reward, money is not necessarily an effective binder for that.

Replacement or Enhancement?

Still, I wish them luck because I do believe there is a place for this kind of summarization. In effect, this new flavor of brevity is a natural point on the continuum between full-length content and the staccato abstraction of tags and folksonomies — it sits between the two as a kind of narrational metadata. For people who are frightened by its potential to displace long-form content, my take is that brevity is just another use for the original text, another way of transmitting the same core ideas. Much as the act of describing a terrific article you read in the newspaper is no replacement for the article itself, but rather another path that that article takes to disseminating its ideas.

In a sense, that’s the way we look at A Brief Message: as a kind of ‘gateway drug’ to bigger ideas. Get hooked on the short version, get deeper into the long version. Admittedly, we can do a better job at drawing explicit links between our short-form pieces and actual longer-form explorations of similar ideas, but the potential is there, at least, and we’re beginning to establish the foundation for that to happen.

In fact, that’s the way I like to look at this kind of short-form writing in total, and it’s exactly why I don’t think authors or editors should be frightened of it. If it’s the ideas that count, then this new brevity is actually a method of propagation, rather than displacement. That is, it’s not a substitute for reading the original text, but rather a substitute for not reading it.

  1. I’ve always said that a well written article (or whatever) is *as long as it needs to be to get the point across.*

    I’ve always had a problem when told how many words I should use to write something. Short or long. In general I prefer shorter (as a reader) and feel that if you can get your point across in, say, 200 words you’ve accomplished something pretty great.

  2. I’m tied between the two directions. I am definitely aware of my frustrated ability to sustain concentration long enough to read a book in its entirety, and am quite concerned about it at times.

    I hated reading growing up. I wonder how the internet has affected that, positively or negatively? I wonder what my reading habits would look like sans-interweb?

    Somehow, reading online doesn’t seem as legitimate as reading a printed book or article. Go figure. That’s more than debatable. And in short form?

    Today, I love to read. I just don’t do it as much as I’d like to. I’ll take anything I can get to keep my mind stimulated.

  3. Reading this I immediately thought of Cliff’s Notes and how as a student how great I used to think they were. Now I just look at them as a shortcut and a bad one at that. I’m not against brevity, and I love the wittiness I get from a great twitter, but Brijit, taken totally out of the context of the longer article seems more like Cliff’s Notes and less like something written with brevity in mind from the start (like what you’re trying to do with A Brief Message)

    I agree with Keith that there’s not set length for how long something should be and creating a short version just to make it shorter so you can consume it quicker doesn’t make sense. Things should be as long as they need to be–if that’s 10,000 words or 50.

  4. 200 words keeps it conversational
    conversations are good
    don’t worry too much about the attention span thing – it is a fait accompli

    i hate twitter and tumblr
    with a passion

    what you are writing about is about the continuum between information and intelligence

    i think ABM is a good middle-ground provocation – not unlike mike meyers’ “cawfee tawk” (…here’s a topic, now tawk amongst yourselves)

    who didn’t love that routine? no one. it was brilliant.

  5. ah yes, the ever shorter attention spans of Americans. Could Advertising be to blame? Think about watching an hour or half hour sitcom. There is 6-10 minutes of the sitcom, and then 3 or so minutes of commercials where you are able to zone out. Could this be a problem with our attention spans? Is this conditioning us? I do not know? What do you think?

  6. Again he famous Mark Twain quote comes to mind. “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Sites like A Brief Message force the writer to carefully choose words and phrases. To me, that is in staunch opposition to sites like Twitter, which are just a collection of ideas. It’s more akin to in that it’s a new way of thinking and writing, rather than shorthand for a longer piece.

  7. I think the brevity movement is a great way of dealing with glut. It’s a lot easier to decide whether to invest time reading something or getting into a topic if I can read a five-sentence summary.

    On the other hand, what if that summary is biased? There may be important aspects of the article that I’d find interesting but the summarizer didn’t note.

    Tom: Cliffsnotes are for avoiding a real connection to works of artistic merit; I’m not sure there’s a real parallel there to editorial and informative content, as it were.

  8. Thanks for the thoughtful take on Brijit, and for sharing our service with your readers. “… it’s not a substitute for reading the original text, but rather a substitute for not reading it.” Would love your permission to borrow that — it’s a notion that underpins everything we’re doing.

    We think our abstracts represent compelling original content on their own, but their highest value, as you point out, is in serving as a point of entry, a bridge (sorry) to the long-form source. Long-form content presents a specific challenge in an increasingly mobile, RSS-fed world. We’re building Brijit to address this gap in a way that (we hope) benefits readers, writers, and publishers alike. Please let us know how you think we could do it better — we appreciate all constructive feedback.

    Oh, and I like your blog and a lot.

    Jeremy Brosowsky, founder & CEO, Brijit

  9. I’m a big fan of brevity. I’m not sure I’d classify “A Brief Message” as breif, though: the comments, when they’re at their best, extend an essay well beyond the 200-word “limit.”

    (If you want to be a literalist, I’m wrong; but “A Brief Message” serves as great testimony for the power of collaboration & conversation!)

  10. For something that seems so dull, brevity on the internet is a controversial topic. On a recent Copyblogger post about clarity in writing, the comments got pretty heated on the subject of length.

    We must always remember there are no blanket rules. Some blogs work better with brevity (Boing Boing), some with lengthy posts (Steve Pavlina). A blogger can be successful not by being brief or writing at length, but by adopting the method that suits the site.

  11. I totally agree with your “gateway drug” analogy. It’s sometimes intimidating to jump right into new topics and ideas, and it’s nice to see effective uses of brevity on the web.

    One example that comes to my mind is, which uses user-fed images and short captions to link visitors to interesting sites on design on a daily basis, especially to those who are still new or unfamiliar with what’s out there. You start with what’s brief, but as your interest and familiarity increases, you start to really delve into the details and the longer stuff.

  12. Hear, hear to brevity!

    As long as it is, of course, just an enhancement or addition. If everything in this world was brief, there would be very few interesting things to see and read.

  13. I think that hypertext requires a new metric in order to measure its length. A text with 200 words on paper is one thing, but if there are 10 links and each link leads to 1000 words then how do we adjust the length based on those? Many readers will essentially intersperse that supplemental text more like a footnote than a different article.

    This allows the author to be more brief because they don’t need to define or explain references but also changes what it means to be brief.

    It may take me an hour to read 200 words if each sentence contains an interesting and informative link. This is less likely to be the case in print (at least for me).

  14. To quote the all-father of Textpattern:

    Users don’t read
    Users only scan
    Users haven’t got
    No attention span!

    I dislike people with ephemeral attention span as much as I dislike those who succumb to them. We are human beings, not gnats.

  15. Once upon a time, one could have said that The New York Times Review of Books was a gateway drug: some people used the supplement to discover new books, others simply read the reviews and got their fix.

    To act as a drug a text must first have a “chemical essence”. Abridgment is often the process of removing precisely this, so, although it may serve as a gateway, such abridgment usually has little medicinal effect.

    In Six Memos for The Next Millennium, Italo Calvino predicted that the next millennium (ours) would place value on Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity (yes the list contains 5 items). However, none of these values need necessarily effect quality. A poem may be very short yet be quite dense and beautiful. Indeed, Calvino said text should be light as a bird, not light as a feather.

    The die has been cast and the paradigm has indeed shifted; however, reflecting on Calvino’s text, what writing on the web lacks, especially the abridged sort, is exactitude. Needless to say, brevity that is also exact is exceedingly difficult, and therefore, rare — and always will be.

  16. More than ever, we need ways to guide us to smart, original, well-researched and written stories (and material in other media) on- and offline. Writing good synopses is one valuable tool, exemplified by Brijit, and by The Week. Media organisations might consider putting more into created well-crafted meta-reviews of material in other media, as the value of original material is clearly decreasing. Since 2000 I have been summarising stories on subject from contemporary politics to social software. I post some of these to Magnolia, but we still haven’t found a working model for sharing this meta-information, and bringing the related references _back_ into our future writing and other smart, original, well-researched and written stories.

  17. It’s not good that Brijit had ads within their list of stories that appear exactly the same as the stories. They should be clearly marked as advertising.

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