Why Long-Form Writing Still Matters
This coming year is likely to be one of evolution. As services mature,Â policiesÂ change, and new ideas try to break through, we’re required to adapt. But one adaptation I’m hoping we resist is the wholesale adoption of short-form brevity at the expense of long-form revelation. What do I mean by that? Yes, I love my Twitter stream, but I still buy 10-12 books a month, readÂ The EconomistÂ weekly, and get throughÂ The AtlanticÂ monthly. I worry that in pursuit of more we’re adapting our reading habits without consideration for the consequences.
Don’t Believe the Hype
On and off over the last few years, many of us with interest in quality content have watched the debate about short form versusÂ longÂ form. On one side resides the argument that given a limited amount of time and an overwhelming pile of data, we want short. On the other side sits the group who believes that 140 characters isn’t enough for every idea and that we still benefit from reading something that takes multiple minutes, perhaps even hours, as opposed to just seconds. Clearly there are great Twitter streams that make us laugh, teach us something new, and introduce us to great people. But how much weight should we put on the shoulders of short form?
As part of the ongoing debate about the value of long-form writing, people point to the ever-shrinking size of magazines and newspapers. We’re told that people don’t want to read. They want sound bites and synopses. Bullshit.
We have more tools and resources than ever before to aid us with consuming information. Long form is evolving. Whether it’s reading books on your iPhone or using a magazine’s app on your tablet, how we read long form is no longer limited to a printed page. And this is a good thing. Wider accessibility only lends itself to a wider audience.
The problem as I see it has less to do with quantity and more to do with quality. What are we willing to spend time consuming? In the same way that Michael Pollen and the eat local movement have encouraged us to think about our food, we need to ask similar questions of what we read. In the vein of you are what you eat, I believe you are what you read. And in the same way we could survive on junk food if we had to, we could get all of our information from tweets and Facebook updates. But I’m not convinced that we’ll continue to thrive intellectually if we only consume the mental version of junk food.
What are we reading, watching, and listening to? Does it really deserve our time and attention? Could we be getting more of something better? Like eating some junk food won’t kill us, reading some tweets won’t destroy our ability to reason. However, how long can we rely on the short form to sustain us before the mental muscles and discipline we need to devour long form are lost?
Friends vs Explorers
It reminds me of an argument inÂ The American PresidentÂ (feel free to debate its value) between President Shepherd and one of his advisors:
Lewis Rothschild: People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.
President Andrew Shepherd: Lewis, we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.
It’s that last line in particularâ€”they drink because they don’t know the differenceâ€”that sticks with me. For a while now, we’ve been letting these tools tell us what to drink. Granted it’s happening via “friends” (whatever that means anymore), but when did we stop wanting to be explorers, to be the one who discovered something new?
In some respects, technology has made us lazy. When it was incredibly difficult to get information, say pre-Gutenburg printing press, people treasured long form because of the implied sacrifice to create it. Now that it’s as simple as sitting down at a keyboard, stringing together a few words, and hitting publish, we’re quick to look for the latest post in our stream and consign the rest to the past with little thought.
We’ve become obsessed with the viral to the point that I wonder if we really like what we’re seeing or if we hit that damn Like button out of habit. My wish for you in 2012 is that you rediscover what it means to find something new. You may end up the only person who likes it, but isn’t that still worth something? For a group that prides itself on individuality and self-expression, we need to let others stop defining what that means for us.
At What Price Brevity?
A couple of weeks ago, the Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar,Â announcedÂ that the much-maligned inscription on the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial would be changed. The abbreviated quote, â€œI was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,â€ was criticized for being taken out of context and making Dr. King sound conceited. In full, the complete thought goes as follows:
â€œYes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.â€
When asked why the full quote wasn’t used, the architect overseeing the project responded that â€œthe decision to paraphrase the full quotation had been made by the design team in the interest of brevity.â€
What else are we losing when we opt for brevity?