You Won’t Read More Than Ten Words – So Why Write Them?

Chances are good that most people who read the headline of this post will not read past this sentence.  In fact, if you got to this sentence, it’s a feat of readerly endurance, so congratulations to you.

The latest proof of reader laziness came from a rather brilliant NPR April Fool’s prank on Facebook, in which a click on a  provocative headline (Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore) was followed with this:

Congratulations, genuine readers, and happy April Fools’ Day!

We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven’t actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let’s see what people have to say about this “story.

Sure enough, the outraged comments piled up.

When I teach, I’m often asked about how long a blog post should be. I’ve previously written about how that standard as shifted with the whims of the Google Algorithm Gods, and how lately this Capricious God irritatingly equates with quality with length.

Irritating not because I dislike comprehensiveness, but because the overwhelming evidence is that very few people stick around for more than a few words. Or, as Farhad Manjoo put it in a Slate piece. “The more I type, the more of you tune out.”

As someone who enjoys wrestling with complex subjects, both as a writer and a reader, I like the freedom of a luxurious word count. Besides, it’s faster and easier to write longer than it is to write short. (“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” – Mark Twain.)

But if communication is the goal of writing — and I daresay it is — pragmatists must concede that length isn’t the way to go.

I recently read about the work of artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, who has created works designed to draw attention to the problem of street harassment. These are drawn portraits of women responding to men who feel free to comment/”compliment”/harass women, along with captions of retort, i.e. “My Outfit Is Not an Invitation,” or “Women Do Not Owe You Their Time or Conversation.”

I wrote about this issue in a slightly different context for the Washington Post travel section a few years ago, a piece I called The Ass Grab.  I like this piece; it came off well and it generated interesting reactions. But it occurred to me that Fazlalizadeh’s work has a far greater impact and reach than my 1,200 or so words in a newspaper and online.

So what to do? Clearly, I have no intention of giving up on words or only writing captions.  But, I do think that it’s important to learn to translate complex ideas into visual communication, which is why I’m now intensely studying art.  In the past few months, I’ve essentially become a full-time independent art student, piecing together a course of study from the classes and workshops that interest me at the School of Visual Arts, The Art Student’s League, The Center for Book Arts, The International Center for Photography and who knows where else.  If people won’t read more than a caption, I’ll communicate in a different way.

(N.B.: Irony noted, that I’ve chosen to communicate these ideas in 500 words, with no accompanying image.)

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2 thoughts on “You Won’t Read More Than Ten Words – So Why Write Them?”

  1. You trigger another rant of mine.
    How many people think they can write a book when they can’t read one? (Or won’t.)
    Sometimes I suspect the longer blog posting may be meant for only one reader, and you may as well view it as an open letter. And sometimes that reader will be grateful for opening the envelope.

  2. I like the idea of looking at a blog post as an open letter. As a writer, you have no idea who, if anyone, will read what you’re writing, or finish it, or understand it. So while you have to write for a reader you hold in your mind — sheer competency demands this — you also have to concede the possibility that this reader may never become more than imaginary.

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