(image: http://medievalfragments.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/folger-library-stc-25004-c-2.jpg?w=474&h=382)
from medieval books, Washington, Folger Library, STC 25004 c. 2 (binding waste): uncut sheet from a 16th-century print shop (Photo: Folger)

  • How long is a piece of string?
  • How long is a day, an hour?
  • Who's got your attention at this instant? What are they doing with it?
  • People today are busy so we need to fit their information into instant bites.
  • Techno-determinism. Are you up for it?

Make me think about length

One of the Big Debates on the web is the length of a web text. And one of the significant changes in thinking about reading and length is the entry of metrics into the consideration. Back In The Day, we wrote. But In Today's Modern Society, we look to metrics to normalize reading. This is a new flavor of techno-determinism.

Economies have played into length since The Start: economies of time, attention, and money. But length is also associated with genre: sonnets have a line length, stanza length, and set number of lines. Commercials come in varieties of length by the second. Novels were and are still pretty open-ended in length and so the novelist can make the length of the work and its sub-parts a part of the meaning of the work. Tweets have a max length of 140 characters, sort of. (You can always include an image that include more writing.)

The practical end of things: how large a book can you carry comfortably? How small of a book can you work with? Line length and resolution, size of margins, cost of paper, all play into text length. But so do attention, training, purpose, desire.

What's the economic balance between readable copy and advertising? How to we factor in reading the ads? Are they part of our attention or not? Are ads written for us to skim? Or are they written to slow us down to think? The link is skimming.

The social side of things: How much can you read in a month - between the volumes coming out? Got leisure time? We can write to that. Need a 2 hr read on a red-eye? We can write to that.

Keep it short! starts to sound a little simple-minded.


None of these are simple. Each one complicates the idea of reading / writing / length of engagement in various ways. Skim them at your own risk.

The ill-informed way to go at this question is by thinking there is a normative length. How long is a novel? How long should a blog post be? What's the best length for a sentence? Where does the wind go when it's not blowing?

The more vital way of looking at this is to think about the connections between the (reading) length of a text and web affordances that allow writers to change length and semantic density.

Our notions of appropriate length were formed by our education and training in print. Those 10 page research papers we wrote in HS might have been written by hand, but the apparatus around them - end notes, in-text citations, documentation styles - are stems from print. Web-based research papers link, not just point. Our sense of sentence length, paragraph length and organization, and word length all stem from reading print and trying to create, in manuscript or typed form, a print-like document. Much of this sense of length is based on reading with a book, magazine, or newspaper in our hands, sitting down, not walking, in a space dedicated to reading, whether it's an office or a bus ride.

The web isn't print. And we don't read it the same way as codex print, nor in the same environments, nor with the same aims. That's why we have to think about these things, such as length: To question the print-based commonplaces we've been taught, and to see what the differences are and how they can be used.

Before you read this page further[1], read the sources above. Here they are again:

You read. I'll wait here.

Welcome back

Now that you've read the sources [2], I hope you're of two minds about all this. Sure: the screen is a different reading surface than paper, but there's nothing new about the size of screens. 18th century readers read tiny pocket volumes, barely larger than a smart phone. Twentieth and twenty-first century paperbacks are poorly adjusted in line-length to type size, with narrow margins, on cheap paper - all to keep costs down. Yet they are read. For hours. And hours.

There are some echoes of our consideration of the editorial style. Price gives advice on how to shorten paragraphs to 2-3 lines: "Use short words we all know" (92). This seems to be good advice that enacts one of the virtues of style from Sylva Rhetorica: Correctness - if we're looking at the mythical General Audience.

But it sidesteps fine distinctions between words (car and vehicle, is Price's example) that are part of larger stylistic choices. Both car and vehicle, as well as banger, boat, and ride are words we all know. Limiting word choice to imagined common words seems to even limit how I can introduce myself: Hi! Howdy! Greetings and Salutations. So, what might be a better way of thinking about word choice and length?

Price rests his advice not on personal preference but on external ideas such as "The fewer the syllables, the higher the impact". But this evidence is more complicated than it suggests. The statement itself - "The fewer the syllables, the higher the impact" - is effective (has impact) not by syllable count but owing to the figures: the use of iambs, the phrasing as a maxim, the balanced comparative of fewer the ... - higher the ... At root, the maxim 's validity depends on what impact means for that sentence, and a very tenuous connection between syllable count and emotional and cognitive affect.

Other suggestions in other sources are just as interesting. Advice to move vital but tangential material to sidebars and brackets and links doesn't shorten the text but moves it around the screen, and gives options to readers on when to read the tangential material.

All of which is to say that the advice is only straightforward if we don't think to hard about it. And we're going to think about length.

Our question is

What happens to exposition if advice about length is followed? What happens to the relation between writer and reader? In fact, when we escape the marking fluff, is the advice really followed? Or, rather, when is it followed?

Assignment: The Notes

The end of this project will be an article in Medium of 3 - 5 minutes reading time that addresses Make Me Think about Length. But start with notes - not an essay, argument, story, exposition, draft of an article ... but notes. Extensive notes. Nothing brief or superficial. Notes. Lots of them, and best posted over a number of days.

Go to your wiki name page and start a new page titled NotesAboutLength - followed by your 3 initials. Post your work to pages on the wiki.

For your notes, compile a list of recommendations from the various sources above. Maybe put them in headings and subheadings (h3 and h4). Maybe use bullets to indicate developed ideas. Maybe organize your notes by idea, or by source, but organize them in some way. The act of organizing is a way of creating an opportunity for insight.

For each point you bring up, draw up notes that support and counter it. Rationales. Examples. Counter examples. Implications. Quotes from and links to web text that illustrate or complicate the ideas. Use text written for the web and other internet spaces. Web, FB, Twitter, Tumblr.

Use the sources above as a starting point and a guide - a heuristic - for your own thinking and your own notes on that thinking. Ideas do not come from the gods. They come from other ideas. Rehearsing those other ideas tends to lead you to others. Salt leads to pepper. Apples to oranges, and Samsung and Widows and Bill Gates to doorways ...


1. Keep in mind that in these sources you are considering not writing for print but web and internet text: text as it works on the web and the internet, including Twitter, FB, Tumblr, blogs ... The entire issue of length rests on the idea that web text is not the same as print text.

2. You're also looking to base your thinking something other than personal preference. You're making us think, so pat answers that rest on commonplaces of personal taste, "That's just the way it's done!" or "That's just the correct way," or "I like ..." are not options. The sources tend to base recommendations on external evidence: so ought you. That's why I'm asking you do to notes: to investigate those other options and consider what they are based on, and what the implications are.

So, go looking for current web examples that complicate the advice.

3. Draw up notes on the recommendations. Don't do all these notes at once. Do some, then stop, then return and do some more. Re-read what you have and develop those notes further.

Deadline for Notes

The deadline for the notes is Wednesday, midnight. We'll review what we have on Thursday, and start considering how to handle an article.

1 And how are you reading it? Are you sitting down? Standing up? Reading on a laptop in the kitchen, or on your phone while waiting for a latte? Have you printed out the page so you can see the entire thing even as you read closely? Are you still skimming? Skimming is dangerous.

2 You probably skimmed them, if you read them at all. Go back and read them.

Octos - 1/2 the size of a modern paperback, and even half that.

What you'll read here is techno-determinism.
How the internet changed the way we read: http://www.dailydot.com/opinion/how-internet-changed-way-we-read/. "In the great epistemic galaxy of words, we have become both reading junkies and also professional text skimmers." If this is at all valid, then it's a matter of reading habit and acquired literacy. Writers can sell to the habit but they don't have to.


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