In defense of wordiness

In a month I will be writing my annual report to the congregation. It will be the 42nd annual report to a congregation that I have written in my career. Not long ago I read an article on the design of annual reports for the corporate world and the article suggested that a report should consist of about 150 words. The rationale was that people rarely will stay focused and read a report that is longer than 150 words. I was dismayed at that thought. I don’t know for sure but I guess that my average report to the congregation I serve is in the neighborhood of a thousand words. I have a good feel for what 1000 words feels like because that is the rough length of my journal essays. I came up with the idea of writing a 1000 word personal essay every day a dozen years ago. I wanted to teach myself more about writing, feeling that I was at a point in my life where making a transition from being a contract writer to writing my own material was in order. Previously, I had done quite a bit of professional writing on contract. Publishers hire writers to produce material and specify the length of the content. I wrote educational resources to contract for years The idea of a 1000 word goal for my personal essays came from the proverb, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” When I started my journal, I would post a single picture and a 1,000 word essay each day. I enjoy photography, but haven’t been as disciplined about my photography as I have about my writing. As a result, I often do not publish a picture with my essay.

A customer service representative of the company that hosts my web site was amazed at the amount of data in my journal. A dozen years of 1,000 word essays every day adds up to quite a bit of data. That representative said that most people make blog posts in the 100-word range. I decided to stop calling my journal a blog and have been referring to it as a journal since that conversation. I don’t want to mislead people who aren’t interested in reading that much.

I do, however, want to defend my use of words.

I think that one of the problems with the lack of civility in our society these days is that we don’t take time to really understand other people. We want short identifiers that will quickly allow us to categorize others. Is this person with us or against us, friend or foe? Of course there are lots of other options. The world does not consist of only two categories. We can have allies with whom we disagree on many subjects. Human beings are complex. When we reduce others to simple categories, we fail to understand them. Conversation looses nuance and subtlety. I think we need to teach people to use language more fully.

When I was a student, the common assignment was a 10-page paper. A ten page paper contains around 5,000 words. Of course you can get by with fewer words by using longer words and more than a few college students expanded their vocabulary in order to fill the assigned pages. Ten pages gives enough space to explore a topic. It allows for consideration of opposing viewpoints and discussion of small differences. A ten page paper allows enough room to demonstrate that research has been conducted and the field of literature on a topic has been explored.

Ten page papers may still exist, but they are nowhere near as common in college work as once was the case. I recently spoke to a professor in a college of education who said, “I’m lucky to get two or three pages out of my students. If I assign more, it will just be a jumble of things cut and pasted from the Internet. I don’t have students who are capable of writing 10 pages of original content.” The students to whom he was referring are the future teachers in our public schools. It is a depressing thought.

Social media seems to be redefining not only the way we speak to one another, but the way that we think. Most famous is twitter, which began its service by allowing only 140 characters. The character limit was based on the limit for a text message at that time. It isn’t possible to communicate a complex thought in 140 characters. The limit produced a strange adaptation of language. According to the company, when the limit was 140 characters, the average tweet was only 34 characters. People developed abbreviations, known as “text speak.” “u r” replaced you are; “b4” replaced before; “sry” replaced sorry. Of course the last one wasn’t used very much because manners and politeness went out the window with the lack of characters. People didn’t use tweets to apologize. They didn’t waste characters on please or thank you, either.

When the limit on the number of characters in a text message, Twitter doubled the allowable number of characters in a tweet. The current limit is 280 characters. Most messages sent, however, are much shorter than the limit. In fact, the company says that the average character count has gone down to 33 characters since the new limit was announced.

Very little communication can be accomplished in 33 characters. (That sentence would read: “Very little communication can be ac” in 33 characters).

If we are to maintain civil society and civil conversations, we need more than aphorisms and tweets. Human beings are complex and we are capable of complex thought. We can make subtle distinctions, given the opportunity. So far, I have only used my Twitter account to point towards more substantive ideas. I will continue to defend longer and more complex modes of writing. I will continue to read books and other long forms of writing. And you can count on my annual report to be even a bit longer than usual this year.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!