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!

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Category: Writing · Writing Web Fiction