Verbosity and Importance

If my writing were shorter, would it lose any illusion of gravitas?   I tend to write verbosely. I recognise that it is often a problem with my writing, here on the blog and professionally. I like to think that I prefer to read short, intense prose: why read ten thousand words if a thousand words will carry it?

The obvious reason for having longer text is to methodically make a point. You can say the same thing in different ways, allowing readers to understand the issue from several directions. You can qualify and support your statements, so that your claims are set in context. And you can communicate the importance of your insights to your readers, so they understand how hard you’ve thought about it, and journey through your thinking with you. That’s part of it, but I’m not sure many arguments really require that kind of break down. And I suspect we ignore most of the breakdown for those that do.

For example: when I was reading back through a whole ton of philosophical classics a few years ago, I was amazed to find that the philosophers had put forward many later objections to their works and defended it against them. When I was learning some philosophy, I acquired little historical gems such as “Bentham/Mill’s utilitarianism was later shown to be inadequate because it doesn’t give any mechanism of quantifying or calculating happiness and therefore utility.” But read Mill’s Utilitarianism, and arguing against that objection is a good chunk of the book. So what benefit did it do him to argue his thesis at length, if all that is remembered is the thesis itself? I had the same experience reading Ayer and Popper. Even the young Wittgenstein defends himself against criticisms he’d come to make later in life.

Most of us, I think, don’t confuse the length of a text for how important or deep its conclusions are. But being forced to read through an argument at length, we are perhaps more likely to absorb it.

Most academic monographs, of all kinds, are rather ponderous. My textbooks tend to take things slowly (I co-authored one of them, and was aghast when my co-author turned in a 3000 word explanation for a key concept – I reworked it into about 12,000 words!). This is so pronounced, that I rarely close-read any books any more. I find the thesis, jump from evidence point to evidence point, and I’m done.

But if I pay for a book, and it arrives, and it is 60 pages long, I confess I feel rather duped.

And when reading the 60 page book, I tend to read it as a 300 page book, and am through it and onto the next thing in an hour. I spend longer with 300 pages than with 60. The collective consciousness might only remember a paragraph’s worth of Nietzsche’s reasoning, but if he’d only written a paragraph, would he have been remembered at all?

So, selfishly, and mostly unconsciously, I keep writing. Finding new ways to express the same idea. Trying to keep you here for as long as I can in an effort to impinge on your thought processes in some way, if only through repetition and longevity.

Does it work? Do I demand more thought from you than I would if I wrote in tweets? Do you mind?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Verbosity and Importance

  1. I know this is completely non-scientific (unlike my day job), but you should write until it feels done. In a textbook that’s about explanation. In a blog, it’s about expression. Neither are really that pure but the size of the writing should match the size if the thought. If you think in discrete basic observations, you tweet. If you think in detailed supported theses, you write longer. If, like me, you think in never-ending chains, you babble on ’til you’ve bored yourself and then stop.

  2. Ian

    If, like me, you think in never-ending chains, you babble on ’til you’ve bored yourself and then stop.

    I love it! Yes, that’s basically how it goes for me!

  3. John Clavin

    For myself, philosophy is rhetoric. I think you could sum up the ideas of any great philosopher in one short paragraph.

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