on writing less 03.31.2008, 9:52 AM
posted by sebastian mary
"Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte." Pascal, Lettres provinciales, 16, Dec.14,1656.
I used to co-edit Pick Me Up, a cult London digital newsletter. After some years perfecting the flamboyant and self-congratulatory prose style that wins points as an Oxford undergrad, it was a whole new aesthetic. Minimal design, lots of white space. Keep the language plain, tell the story in simple words. We'd pass articles back and forth, ruthlessly prune one anothers' words for anything too flash. I quickly stopped being precious about 'my' words: the aim was to make the language invisible.
Back then (we went our separate ways around 2 years ago), we were just-underground: our stories regularly hijacked by broadsheets and advertising campaigns. But since then the writing register I learned there has proliferated. It's become the hip corporate copywriting style: Howies, Innocent Smoothies, any Web2.0 startup's 'About Us' page.
Looking back, my involvement with Pick Me Up was the point where I started to think hard about the unique qualities of writing for the Web. But while plain language has become the bedrock of corporate communications, especially online, the 'literary' register resists its incursions. Wordsworth's efforts notwithstanding, short sentences, plain language, and simple structure signify simple-mindedness. Discussing Japanese mobile phone fiction, Jane Sullivan writes in The Age
What's the downside? Quality control, apparently. So far the mobile phone format has meant that the style of writing is generally unadventurous -? short, simple sentences, lots of dialogue, pauses to indicate thought -? and the stories themselves are hackneyed tales of romance.
I think it was Nietzsche who said that difficulty is often mistaken for greatness in a writer, because readers mistake their own pride at deciphering a text for an inherent profundity within it. Never mind that Pascal's bon mot has been attributed to writers as long-gone and canonical as Cicero; forget brevity being the soul of wit; simplicity indicates poor quality.
Similarly. It's become an article of faith in web design that any content below the fold (ie requiring a visitor to scroll down) will attract dramatically fewer viewings; this reflects a well-founded pragmatism oriented toward the need to hook a reader straight away. But few of the 'literary' webspaces I've come across in my research over the last few months pay much attention to this principle. I've lost count of the number of blog 'novels' I've come across, glanced through, bookmarked with every intention of returning for a closer read, and then forgotten. Part of the problem, again and again, is that I'm confronted with thousands of words of Arial ten-point and a scroll bar - along with the long sentences, elaborate structures and rich vocabulary that for many are the marker of literary quality. The net result is that these literary webspaces field a prose style and layout that - while it might make perfectly decent print reading - provides a sucky user experience.
My literacy credentials are more than respectable. I'm happy plowing my way through thorny texts - in the right form. But with billions of pages on the Web clamoring for attention, I get irritated with those that insist, however noble and literary their intentions, on making that most basic online error of loading too much text into one place. While the idea of savoring a sprawling, muscular Jamesian sentence in the wifi-free zone of the subway delights me, the idea of being asked to do so online fills me with horror.
Whatever you may think of the actual story, the first episode in Pengin's WeTellStories experiment, The 21 Steps, suggests a growing recognition of the need to adapt storytelling modes online. It's a decent balance of Web-native visualization and textual storytelling. The reader doesn't have to deal with more than 20 or so words per click, 40-50 per 'chapter'. The whole thing takes 5-10 minutes to read. This, in my view, is about where Web storytelling needs to be pitched.
Penguin's production is an all-singing, all-dancing multimedia experince produced by an ARG studio. But simpler, text-based offerings are if anything more subject to the brutal need to edit for the Web reader's attention span. Dickens' chapter length was constrained in many cases by magazine serialization; now that DailyLit.com delivers daily bite-sized email or RSS doses of books to subscribers, will this affect the way future storytellers shape their work?
There is no disputing the fact that the Web is not the most comfortable medium for long-form reading (see Ian Bogost's cracking article, and the ensuing discussion, for more on this). And the social media boom is spearheading a change in written language toward a simpler, plainer, more demotic register. So does this mean we are - over two centuries after Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads proposed a new literature embracing 'the language of ordinary men' - finally abandoning the privileging of prosiness as a marker of cultural quality? How does this square with the equation, so often taken for granted, between long-form writing and cultural virtue? Does it signify a cultural decline? Or is this just another kind of literacy, a new register for the emerging high priests of our evolving discourse to master and manipulate?
Either way, it's hard to escape the fact that today we read, online, across multiple platforms including but not limited to a textual one. And yet, like a filmmaker grimly trying to observe the Aristotelian unities, many writers obstinately struggle to popularize material on the Web that is profoundly unsuited to being read there. I look forward to seeing more storytellers who embrace not only good writing but also the basic principles of good Web design - especially the one about not writing too much.
As a final note: I'm aware of the irony of my having just written a thousand words on brevity. My posts at if:book are the sole exception I make to general Web writing rule of 3 short paragraphs maximum; I have mixed feelings about making the exception. But for the sake of keeping it to a thousand I'll save that discussion for another time.
Chris Meade Overleaf on March 31, 2008 12:23 PM:
These are good tips based on past experience, and I'm certain that new platforms inspire forms that work well with them, and brevity is good in a busy world, but what is this need to limit how people should attempt to write on screens or anywhere else? There's something so limiting about trying to define what's NOT fitting to do in any form.
Screen technology develops apace, writers keep experimenting and readers too adapt to new ways of taking in words that sing. And another thing.. um... sorry - what was I saying?
Chris Meade Overleaf on March 31, 2008 12:36 PM:
.. oh yes: the words of 21 Steps seemed fine, I just couldn't be arsed to wait for the blue line to get to the next sentence.
bowerbird on March 31, 2008 3:05 PM:
i would gladly read _10,000_ words on brevity,
provided i got an equivalent value in thought.
but if i get nothing new, 30 words is too many.
sebastian mary on March 31, 2008 4:37 PM:
I have no qualms about reiterating a familiar issue if I feel it's still important; and I certainly don't have a 'need to limit' writing online. The idea of trying to do so is faintly absurd. I'm exploring an existing Web trend toward linguistic simplicity , and wondering why so many 'literary' webspaces seem immune to it.
I feel often that 'arty' writers online forget to consider user experience, while any other kind of producer in the Web space would treat user experience as a top priority. I find this weird: if people take time and trouble to make books that are a pleasure in every aspect, why must online readers suffer?
Since you mention The 21 Steps, it's a good example. Though the writing is tight enough, I couldn't be arsed with the cursor either. My point is that this kind of user experience needs to be considered holistically with the writing, not as somehow separate from it. And part of good user experience - everywhere on the Web apart from this world of arty writing - is succinct writing.
>There's something so limiting about trying to define what's NOT fitting to do in any form.
In this context I will always default to Pope:
'Tis more to guide, than spur the Muse's steed;
Restrain his fury, than provoke his speed;
The winged courser, like a gen'rous horse,
Shows most true mettle when you check his course.
Limitations can be a spur to creativity. But critics and writers have been debating this one for as long as people have been theorizing language, so perhaps now is not the time...
dan visel on March 31, 2008 4:48 PM:
Maybe a digression, but the problem with The 21 Steps seems to be that the time is out of joint - the physical act of reading takes a certain amount of time, and in that instance, it's taking place in parallel with the moving line that moves at its own pace. The two paces are almost certainly different; the line feels either too fast or too slow because it's being compared to the pace of reading. The design seems to imply that we read instantaneously, which isn't quite true - it takes some tiny amount of time for the eye to move across the sentence and the brain to process it. It's distracting, as well, for the line to be moving as the eye is moving.
Pete Tiarks on April 1, 2008 4:09 PM:
Would this brevity rule hold for e-book readers with web browsers? Seems to me that a big element of wanting your reading to be brief on the web is just that it's plain uncomfortable - it's the same reason watching films on your laptop is crap. Give them a nice purpose-built screen with e-ink and I wonder if people wouldn't mind spending a bit longer on their web-based reading. I'm not even sure that stories of the length of 21 Steps wouldn't actually look a little silly in that context.
I think there's also a question of your intentions. A lot my activity on the web consists of trying to gather a lot of information quickly (a need that Innocent Smoothies, home pages and (most) blog posts are all trying to cater for), so obviously I'd rather people got to the point. But that's not necessarily the case if I'm reading for the fun of it.
Lee on April 3, 2008 9:01 AM:
All I can speak from is my own experience. I may not have thousands reading long chapters from my novel every week, but enough to satisfy me - and to dispute the idea that online reading is somehow by nature doomed to brevity. I suspect the true picture is much more complex, and will change along with the nature of our browsers/computers/interests.
Remember, complex (literary?) fiction has always been something of cultish thing to do anyway, and even so-called popular work is read by a minority of the population.
Lee on April 3, 2008 9:10 AM:
'The net result is that these literary webspaces field a prose style and layout that - while it might make perfectly decent print reading - provides a sucky user experience.'
I forgot to add: user? which user?
I do not write for a 'user'. Fiction is not a product - at least not the fiction I write. To define it in these terms may apply the vast majority of online users, but has nothing to do with my reasons for writing in the first place.