Of Bloated Prose and Books That Should Have Been Blogs

February 28, 2020 § 7 Comments


dugganBy Cherone Duggan

Books that should have been blogs. Blogs that should have been tweets. Tweets that should have been thoughts. Waffle-fed and fluff-padded, bloated prose waddles around every section of the written world. As does the well-worn writing advice to slim down our copy to skeletal leanness.

“Omit needless words,”

“Show don’t tell,”

“Less is more,”

“Kill your darlings,”

“Brevity is brilliance.”

Excellent advice, in theory. But rarely practiced. Because writers are economic creatures who respond to incentives. Money and attention are our sugar and fat.

From gold stars for effort for longer answers in our single-digit years, to mandatory 10-page minimums for college papers, our education system uses word count as a proxy for intellectual complexity. Length is easier to measure than merit. It’s more objective and it takes less effort to grade. And, the more serious and senior your degree, the longer your papers had to be.

Rewards for wordiness don’t end with formal schooling. As workers, the plumping incentives continue. Most desk jobs involve writing of some sort and few people are ever fired for producing fatter wads of work. Submitting padded reports and sending puffy emails help us show our bosses that we deserve our paychecks for putting in our hours and hitting our keyboards.

Professional writers are also rewarded by the word. Authors get more attention for novels than novellas. Freelancers get more money for long articles than short ones. Professors get tenure for publishing more than their peers. And copywriters get more job security for constantly churning out copy rather than finishing one project a week.

The resulting overwhelm of long-winded emails, hollow books, and deep-blog-buried online recipes isn’t surprising.

We reap what we reward. If writers are rewarded for length, we’re going to continue to ramble. And no amount of sage writing advice to trim our fat is going to change that until we change our incentive systems to match.

Yes, the current incentive system surfaces some beauties; Dickens’ rambling descriptions and thick-bound novels were born from a serialized publication format where he was paid by the word.

But most of the rest of us probably shouldn’t be.
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Cherone Duggan is a User Experience Writer who designs micro-content. She’s from the Irish midlands and she lives near San Francisco. Find her on Twitter: @cheroneduggan

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§ 7 Responses to Of Bloated Prose and Books That Should Have Been Blogs

  • A college professor staring down a stack of fifty undergraduate essays wants the writing clear, compelling, and concise. Under five pages is a typical requirement.

    When a college professor asks for no more than five pages what he or she really wants is eight or ten pages carved back to less than five—more content in fewer pages. A former student once asked if he could come back to speak to my class in the middle of his senior year at Reed College. He told my current students that he thought I’d lied about page count in college but for four years he’d been given maximums and now he was writing his senior thesis his advisor warned she would not read past his prescribed maximum word count, which he’d already reached in draft and still needed to write the conclusion.

    Academic writing does not pay by the word. You might blame wordiness in everyone from Dickens to King on that pay scale. It also might go some way to explain how they learned to write wordy passages so very, very effectively.

    • Fariba says:

      That’s been my experience too in academia. The page and word-count limits are usually quite modest. Nevertheless, my colleagues struggle to stay within the limits. I have the opposite problem. I’m an under-writer.

  • Thanks, Cherone.

    I hate being enticed by a great headline, only to find a humongous article padded with non-essential fluff. What could be written in 500-1000 words ends up taking 3000. Blech. I have better things to do with my time.

    We need more writers who employ the flash fiction approach.

  • Marilyn Kriete says:

    Great article! I’ve never thought about how wordiness is rewarded from grade school onward. But I’ve abandoned more than a few bloated books before the 100-page mark.Thanks.

  • adirondackoutlaw.com says:

    Yup!

  • […] via Of Bloated Prose and Books That Should Have Been Blogs — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

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