I received an email yesterday from a reader who was none too pleased with my column about Windows 8 and Office. In part, he’s not a fan of Microsoft, but mainly he just hated, hated the length of the article.
Hey, if it was hellish reading something so long, imagine writing it.
I can't do anything about my correspondent's preference of platforms, but the email got me thinking about epic-length articles, something I’ve been known to dive into off the deep end on more than one occasion. (Happily those sagas tend to be reserved for just occasional tech pieces. Unhappily, that's with taking the time to edit them down. Just think what those first drafts are...I've been known to ponder that it seems to take longer editing the pieces than writing them in the first place.) This may explain why one of my favorite quotes is by Blaise Pascal: 'I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” If I got paid by the word for those sagas, I could have retired 30 years ago. If I got paid by the word for this Windows 8/Office article, I could have made a down-payment on a South Seas island,
Indeed it was the specific Homerian quality of this particular article that really most focused the good-fellow's wrath. An article so long that it could make your teeth ache. I suspect a lot of people hate hugely long articles. Indeed, that’s precisely why I warned people up front. I think it's important to have self-awareness, and if that means telling people who are understandably wearied by such things to run, run for the hills, that is an obligation I take for the brotherhood of man. Better to keep readers happy and dry for a better day rather than drench them for the sake of observing every torrential rain storm. (And it's also why I broke the article up into a lot of sections, so that readers could pick and choose only the parts that might be of interest to them. Mind you, this admittedly entailed hubris thinking that there might actually be parts that would be of interest...)
Of course, not liking any article for any reason is just fine, but not liking it for being a journey that would rival Odysseus is a particularly good reason. A reason I often agree with. Even for some of my own articles, At times I find myself shouting, “Stop writing, for God’s sake!” But alas, the fingers keep replying, “Sorry, bucko, you’ve only told part of the story. You're not leaving here until you tell the whole thing. If we have to do this, you have to stay here with us. That's your responsibility as a writer. If you didn't want to finish it, you shouldn't have started it.”
If this article was wildly too long for some people, believe me I get it. The complaint is perfectly valid. And I like hearing people’s comments, good and otherwise. It’s the only way you keep a full perspective on your work. I make mistakes all the time, and do my best to correct them and learn from them. So, as much as I or anyone prefers compliments, it’s all appreciated. Taking the time to write in is exceedingly thoughtful.
And this was a good, appreciated note that only went ever-so-slightly off-track when it got to that one little, pesky part when it decided to go into a lecture on how to write.
Many valuable points, though. All very thoughtful. And even several important writing tips. Like being instructed: “Brevity. That is the most important product to a writer.”
How could I argue with that? It's the very reason why limericks are so highly prized in the world of literature. And knock-knock jokes.
And why the Harry Potter saga got told in a single volume. And why few people today know anymore of Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Melville, Tolstoy, Umberto Eco, John Barth, Salman Rushdie. And why Will and Ariel Durant gratefully trimmed their Story of Civilization to a manageable 12,000 pages. And why The Lord of the Rings was as blessedly brief as it was. Though not as brief as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, that kept going into seven novels.
(No, I’m not remotely comparing an article on Windows and Office to my betters. Just noting that Brevity is not the most important product to a writer. Getting to the point is high on the list, but sometimes it takes 12,000 pages to get to the point.)
What brevity is, of course, is the soul of wit. And even that isn’t an actual immutable law. It's more like a theorem.
One of the odd things I've learned over the years is that what annoyingly gets in the way of brevity is that on occasion a substantive subject requires substance. And more oddly is I've learned that many people shockingly do sometimes even appreciate it, and say so. Hey, I don’t always understand why they like my things that are so long, but far be it from me to disagree with them. I don’t even always understand when some people love articles in the New Yorker and New York Times that never seem to end. But they do. Brevity apparently has its limits. Which I guess is the point of brevity.
Was this specific article too long? Absolutely. That said, I happen to think an article about an operating system running 1.25 billion computers around the world, as well as about the leading office suite is a substantive subject. Good people can disagree. But -- still, did it have to be that long? No, it didn't have to be. But it was best that way.
And here's why.
Ultimately, it’s important to recognize that this wasn’t just a basic review, and to perceive it that way misses the stated intent. It was made clear upfront that the column was to help people who’d put off upgrading to Windows 8 and might like some help and hand-holding with the entire process -- a process that included upgrading hard drives and software suites. As such, it’s important to realize that there are entire books on just that “how to” subject, 250 pages long, and more. The article was 17 pages.
And in the end, if you want brevity, there you have it.
And if you really, deeply want brevity, and being respected, that's why I explained how long it was going to be, and that you should skip the whole thing if it wasn't for you.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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