Morgan's Notes on the Length Exercise


The nature of advice - and the dangers of taking it

6 Feb 2015

We want to have a close look at advice about length - and a consideration for the writer and reader who attempt to follow the advice. Following advice blindly will change the prose - we can all see that. We can consider, then, how the advice will change other things: If changing the prose, changes the relationship between the reader, writer, and topic - you saw that in writing four intros. So let's consider how the relationship between writer and reader and reader and text changes.

We can use Price's advice to bring out the implicit relationship between writer and reader, and to bring out the assumptions about reading that the advice is based on. We can also use the advice to consider the distinctions between short and brief and concise, comprehend and understand, and the various ways of understanding - by rote, for instance, and by practice. We can use the advice to bring to light the upshots of suggesting that shorter = better. We can use the advice to ask what are readers doing if they aren't committing themselves to reading - and even re-reading - and how we might think about how readers consume content.

Your notes, I figured, will have prepared you for a critical perspective. Except most of you transcribed Price.

Here's the request I made:

Have a look at how Hot Text is designed, and use that design to organize your notes. For each chapter in Part II, Price makes a set of recommendations. They are listed as a table of contents for each chapter, as you can see on p 85 and p 113. In the chapter, for each recommendation, Price presents Background, which includes some explanations, rationales, and some more detailed advice about how to address the general recommendation. He then includes some Before - After examples to illustrate how the editing can work.

For your notes, do the same. List each of Price's recommendations. Maybe put them in headers (H3) Then for each, 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.

In your notes I see that there were very few notes that either support or counter Price's recommendations. Very few examples of anything. Little rationale. The notes in which you develop ideas were, for the most part, transcripts of what Price wrote. Not notes. Transcripts.

Transcription is a technique that was and still is used for rote learning. Nothing wrong with rote learning. It's a foundation. But when confronted with a request to build on rote learning, it's interesting how many sets of notes took it as another opportunity to go again, uncritically, down a well-worn path.

The fact that you tended to approach the problem by walking down a path, not looking to the left or right is curious.

So, in class we looked at Price as a guide and starting point and go through what you noted recommendation by recommendation. I set out the plan this way:

The discussion went its own way, starting with the nature of advice, then moving to some considerations of the rhetorical situation on the web, the aims and purposes of content when it isn't being tailored for marketing, (Craig pointed this out), the implicit relation between writer and reader when we advice writers to use words of one syllable, the nature of attention, the exchange of attention from writer to reader (If you put in 20 hours of work on a paper, how much attention, measured in time, do you expect to be paid? And while we're on the subject, what are we to make of equating time with attention, under the formula that the writer spends a lot of time so that the reader spends little time? When is anyone going to bring up the idea of reading to understand, to learn, to do something other than buy something?)

That's the way discussions go when they are discussions.

Advice: Use short words we all know

That advice can be presented as an equation is interesting. Advice as math? As algebra? But is the formula true? Valid? Any evidence of this? Or is it taken w/o much criticism because it's so often repeated? What does comprehensible mean in this case? Is it synonymous with "understandable"? If something is comprehended, it is understood? If we can't tell what comprehensible means in this case, is the advice any good? How do we distinguish between a clear word or clear sentence and a fancy one? Are shorter words inherently more clear than longer?

Are we more concerned with appearing clear than having an idea be understood?

Does this variation of the equation work? shorter words→short paragraphs→ understanding?

If things are simple, using shorter words→short paragraphs
How does this advice apply if something must be complex - must rely on technical terms, which tend to be longer, or less well known, do we just do w/o?

What's lost?
What's gained?
What else changes?

Advice from Price
Cut away stuff that doesn't add to your point. But how do you know the fluff from the other
And what's meant by "add"? in this case? Are points cumulative? Is adding a matter of more, or of sentence structure or other elements? Is not adding to your point a matter of cutting? Or are there other techniques for working with articulating a point? What about the point in the first place: is it worth making? Is the fluff concealing the fact that there is no point worth making?
In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in a crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

No fluff in this poem - not even a verb. Is it readily understood? Is it's understandability a result of no fluff?

A self-reflective question

Are your notes on Price chaps 5 and 6 an example of this positioning? Does cutting and making simple mean reducing the ideas to a simple track, eyes on the road, not looking to alternatives or boarder cases or complexities?

To what extent are you repeating BY ROTE what Price is saying?
What's wrong with confusing people? Putting people off base can be rhetorically effective -

On the nature of attention while reading

I'd suggest that the tendency to repeat advice rather than think about it illustrates the most general advice of "Keep it simple" with the implicit ideas that

Look to your intros and difficulty in considering the sentence styles and registers you used - by habit? Training?

To what extent does following this advice
And then
Look to what Price has written and how you have worked with it - reduction of obviously complex matters to "useful examples!" that demonstrate but don't critique the point. The advice is easy to cook up, easy to follow. But it's harder to actually make the advice work because there are other elements to consider.

Two sets of notes give us a way in to the problem, an alternative to mechanical advice -
To what extent does following this advice determine - limit? - who you say it to?
To what extent does following this advice determine even who you become when you write web content?

Is there a way out? Does "writing like a human being" mean following Price, which seems to mean reducing the writing voice to a readily digestible cartoon? If we don't follow Price, then do we depart? To do what?

You're now asked to explore these ideas - make us think - in this project: MakeMeThinkAboutLengthWithAFolkTale

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