Writing Long (And Getting Read)

Window in the roof, revealing a striking square of blue skyMost of you who have been following Novelr know what I see as the answer to the “Don’t Read Text Online” conundrum. In a sentence: shorter, bite-sized, standalone posts, with clear, unembellished writing.

I’m beginning to see that I was wrong. I’m beginning to see that Cory Doctorow isn’t completely correct.

Short text is not the only way forward, and I probably had this coming to me: Lee didn’t agree with my point that dreamy prose won’t work online. With good cause, as I now see. What brought about this sudden epiphany, you may ask? The answer may be a little ironic: an article entitled ‘Reviving Anorexic Web Writing‘, from A List Apart Issue 242. A design website for heaven’s sakes! It swept the carpet from under my feet and I suggest that you read it in its entirety before continuing with this post.

Seriously. Go read it now. Reading quotes will just dillute the point Amber Simmon‘s trying to make. Done? Okay …

In The Defense Of Brevity

Much of what I’ve talked about has been proven to work online: bulleted points, lists, (short) length, as well as subheadings. All this works to promote scannability of an article – to direct reader attention to ideas and paragraphs you want them to pay attention to. You see this everywhere you look: the NYT splits long posts into multiple pages; news sites put up subheadings to tell readers which part of the article says what.

In fact, writing like this probably works best in the majority of cases. I cannot imagine reading Faulkner-like prose while browsing Google News, nor can I imagine stinging social commentary while reading a blogging tutorial. My writing on Novelr follows this advice – it produces organized, rant-free posts with enough impact to start a discussion going – which is my ultimate aim.

(At least, I hope it does … most of the time.)

Fiction Is A Different Story

Now here’s the clincher: if online prose is condensed and changed to suit scan-click ADD readers … then doesn’t that sacrifice quality on the altar of readership? Changing the way people write to suit the medium is something Cory Doctorow champions, but Amber Simmons fights against.

She has strong reasons.

… the advice to omit words, chunk content, use bullets, and keep it short remains. This is sometimes, but not universally good advice. I thought I was the only one who felt this way until I read Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think! wherein he writes, “No one is suggesting the articles on Salon.com be shorter.” I cheered inside! Except that people are suggesting this. Because we haven’t yet figured out the difference between content and copy.

She even gives us an example. My Body, by Shelley Jackson, is ‘real writing: beautiful, lucid, captivating.’ The lack of headlines and bullets mattered not, the lack of pictures mattered not.

“Give me passion and give me flair,” she says, “and I will give you my full attention, page after page after page.”

I gave My Body a try, after reading her article. I found myself captivated. Enthralled. Pinned to my seat by a woman who loved her body and was not shy to pen it. Beautiful.

Writing long …. but getting read?

Much of what Simmons has written is heartening. She closes with a clarion call for writers of our (the Internet) generation, and asks us to provide what she calls the ‘heart of the web’. But there are two parts to this – she assumes there are already a great many designers out there who – in their chase for usability and wow – fail to provide good writing.

Design and writing has to go together for a great user experience. The entire Issue 242 in A List Apart was about writing – how better design can be achieved with your choice of words, etc etc.

The same goes for blooks.

A gold heartWe already have a one-up in the writing arena. If we don’t, we probably will be – what writer does not seek to improve? But Simmons is mistaken in the sense that all beautiful prose will be read. The writing may be the heart, but wrapping a heart of gold with a misshapen body isn’t going to win the writer any brownie points.

What I’m trying to say is this: long prose will be read, provided we do everything in our power to make it easier for the reader to read it. This obviously crosses over to the realm of design (A List Apart‘s forte).

I can already think of a few points off the top of my head: big fonts, a suitable font family, less links. But I’ll leave the nitty gritty and the details for another time. For now, I’m happy with the realization that short isn’t the only way forward.

Thank you, Amber.

PS: She has another brilliant piece on writing here, about (of all things) firing your readers. Hmm!

Possibly Related Posts:

Category: Writing · Writing Web Fiction
  • http://jpsmythe.com/fact James Smythe

    I’ve had this theory for a little while that the way to get people to read online fiction is to present it in a really beautiful visual shell – perhaps a swift and astonishing animation of a book opening (done in flash) which the words to the text then print themselves onto. The words sort of write themselves as the reader reads them, you know, a steady flow onto the page, and provide natural break at the end of paragraphs and chapters to allow the reader to choose, at that point, to ‘close’ the book. Next time the revisit the site a cookie remember where they were and the book continues, starting at the next page. It sounds basic and even crass, but for the majority of readers who won’t transition to the net, I think you need to hand hold them, tell them “It’s only the same as your books”, and prove that they have the same visual identity to boot.

    I still feel that there’s some dumbing down going on with the net now. It used to be – before Stephen King tried to make his pretty pennies with failed experiments – that the future of the net was in hypertext. Now, it seems, people are happy for poorly written texts with no concessions to the formatting bonuses of the internet to succeed if they can make people read on a screen (I did mention a blooker winner here, and then took the name out – I don’t want to start any flame wars yet. Regardless, if you’ve looked at them you probably know which poorly written and ill-formatted novel I speak of). Shame.

  • http://rebirthnovel.blogspot.com Scott McKenzie

    In my opinion the main stumbling block to the success of online fiction is getting people to find time for our work in their lives. People generally read books at home on the sofa, in bed or when they’re travelling, i.e. when they’re far away from a computer screen.

    We need to promote the idea of reading online fiction in short bursts, e.g. checking email, work breaks. Brevity allows someone to dip into a story and get away quickly and get back to their life, but hopefully leaves them feeling suitably entertained to want to return for the next chapter.

    Rather than animation of pages to simulate a book, I think a blog allows a more personal approach to publishing. Opinions and info about the author can be added in off-topic posts, offering the novel equivalent of DVD extras without having to worry about the price per page of the printed version. This is the approach I intend to take for the publication of my next novel.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @James. Amber has another interesting post called Making Love On The Web, about designing and creating an emotional connection through websites. (God I love her).

    It’s apparently a challenge to recreate the feeling a book creates – that textile wonder of flipping a page and smelling that 5 year old tea stain …

    So she does it through design. Through symbols and visual cues that mean something to the user.

    The book may actually be a good idea – if only it wasn’t flash. Flash has … semantic problems, so I’m told. But it being in book form is surely something readers can identify with?

    Though I probably think those people who do read online are used to other form of presentation (thinks NYT and news websites) – no longer book form.

    And, well. The web evolved beyond hypertext, didn’t it? It got better; and it got worse. I wonder how it’ll shape up to be in the next decade or so.

    @Scott: That’s another argument for brevity right there. But after reading an ebook last Sunday (and being rooted to my seat, at that) … I must say I’m no longer as opposed (as I was before) to reading long-form onscreen.

    Granted, the story was gripping. And it wasn’t an online medium.

    But it still had me reading! All 600 pages of it! On an LCD monitor!


  • http://www.technicalpoet.com amber

    Hi Eli,

    Thanks for the note letting me to come over and read. I appreciate what you’ve said here, and its good to be involved in some active discussion.

    Couple things:

    In the first draft of the ALA piece, I talked about the relationship between the writing and the design, and how designers and writers have to work together to create something people can and will read. If the content is wonderful but the font too small, the line lengths to long, the contrast to mild etc, people still won’t read, even if you write something magnificent. But including that shifted the focus away from my main topic too much, so the ALA editor advised me to save that for another paper (which I did.)

    But you’re absolutely right: the design has to make the writer’s job easier, no question. There’s a reason books come in standard sizes. The standardization is both economical and practical: certain sizes are easier for our hands to hold. The same kinds of things are true on the web as well.

    @Scott: I’m not really sure what terminology I want to use to express this succinctly, so the longer-winded approach will have to do ;) Most writing on the web is done all in one go–you have articles, essays, reports, etc. delivered to a reader all at once rather than serially. What so many web writers have done, then, is to try and make their point, or tell their story, all in one quick breath without stopping to entertain my ear or my heart. What I want to see is these people, who are only making a single point, take the time to really develop their theories and deliver something beautiful to me–all at once.

    Storytelling is a different beast, because you’re breaking up a longer piece into small chunks at a time, and I don’t think that approach is wrong. It doesn’t change the *way* you write, it just changes how much you give me at once. But when people say “give me chunks and bullets” that changes writing as a discipline, and that’s what worries me.

    There’s a difference, then, between “summary writing” and “serial brevity”. The latter I get; the former is what I want to reconsider.

    Am I making sense?

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    You’re welcome, Amber. Glad to have you here.

    One of the factors that made me uncomfortable with my support of short storytelling was the scope of each post. It would be perfect onscreen, but when you bring it off and onto the page it’ll start to look … chopped up. Jilted. A cliffhanger every few pages.

    Because we do change our writing for the web. And the more it’s suited for the Internet, the less it is suited for the traditional dead tree book.

    Just a random thought: there can be a balance, I suppose – 13 bullets does this pretty well, and being on the web doesn’t change his writing drastically (it works both onscreen and off). But if I were to write … I’ll probably make it short … and then not publish it in book form.

  • amber

    Well, every case is unique. Whether people want to write long or short pieces is an individual choice; my mission is to squash the idea that there is one true way.

    On my other website, breathlessnoon.com, I’ve been posting a series of vignettes from childhood. They could be read as part of a single narrative or each a stand-alone piece (that’s one of the beauties of memoir). They’re fairly short stories, but they’re complete. They might be too short for print…but who cares? We’re not talking about print. And, what’s more–who determines what’s good for print? Well, publishers (And having published an honest-to-god book with a real publisher, I can say with certainty they don’t always have the writer or the material’s best interest at heart. They bow to the dollar.) Once you take those guys out of the equation, you’re left with very different “requirements” for print writing, too.

    Nobody knows what they want to read until they read it. And it’s people like you who should be deciding what you’re going to present. Not publishers. Not your medium. You decide. If it works, excellent. If not, you refine. But I don’t like the idea of deciding how something must or should be before we even try other ways. I don’t want writers to stop experimenting before we’ve figured out how the web really works.

  • http://mortalghost.blogspot.com Lee

    James has some very interesting ideas, and Amber’s two pieces are fascinating (I’m going to link to them from Lowebrow.) I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about designing a website for my fiction, i.e. how to use the web more effectively to present the sort of fiction I alone write, but I’ve been a bit lost in terms of design. Amber, I feel, is completely right that people don’t know what they want to read till they read it: mostly, conventional publishers are clueless about predicting future success and failure.

  • http://extremeholiday.blogspot.com/ L.M.Noonan

    This is all very daunting stuff. I have been inspired by quite a few ‘blookers’ especially Lee (mortal ghost), and after quite a few stiff drinks have followed suit and put up the first couple of chapters of YA blook. I agree there are problems with reading big chunks on a screen as opposed to a printed page, but it’s about adapting to changing modes. To shorter attention spans. To shorter chapters, paragraphs and possibly sentences? I’m very new to this and trying to get a handle on it all, but I love the democracy of blooking.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Ahh. Welcome to the writing adventure of a lifetime. There’s no one true formula, so have fun while you’re at it, and experiment the socks off your text.

    Good luck!