Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Too Long; Didn't Read - An Explanation of The Writer's Task

     Too long; didn't read. More colloquially expressed as "tl;dr." 
     Have you ever encountered this expression in the wild? If so, that 'wild' is certain to have been a digital one. This expression, used mainly within internet forums and online comment sections, indicates that the comment or forum post which came before is of such a great length (oftentimes no more than a few sentences) that the person using the term isn't even going to bother to read what is written. It usually seems to carry an undercurrent of purposeful dismissiveness - 'Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I don't care what they are.' It's also, quite unfortunately for writers, a very common attitude.
     Consider a stranger who doesn't know the difference between you and the random people at the grocery store they wish would stay out of their way while they reach for Pringles. This stranger is, if you're lucky, willing to invest perhaps five seconds into reading what you might have to say. The average person won't spend more than a handful of extremely guarded and distrustful moments reading something written by someone they do not know and have no pre-vested interest in. 
       This, though sad, is a fact.
       The writer's task, in this modern 'tl;dr' era, is the same as it ever was. As Kurt Vonnegut said, a writer 'must use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel that time was wasted.' This quote can be looked at in the light of two truths: 

      1. Strangers are inherently unwilling to spend their time reading writing by writers unknown to them
      2. Once a stranger decides to entrust you with their time, that trust has to be immediately and continually earned.
      Ensuring that you fulfill the standards of the second of these two attributes is a prerequisite for writing which engages the reader, and by skillfully obviating the first of these attributes, writing can get a foot in each of the three successive doors blocking one from converting an uninvested reader into an invested reader. These three doors are:

      1. Trust - The first door writing needs to unlock in the reader is the door to their trust. The reader needs to be able to trust, from the very beginning, that the writing is both going somewhere and is technically executed at least to the standards of their minimum acceptance level. This level is different for each reader, but the best option for the writer is to ensure that their own standards for writing are of greater than average acceptability.

      2. Mind - The second door leads to the mind of the reader. If a piece of writing can get its foot in the first door, it then needs to quickly establish some link between its content and the reader's thoughts. If a piece of writing can produce empathy, understanding, and - most importantly - identification at an early point, it will contain resonance and immediacy for the reader. These are the lubricants to the hinges of the third door.

      3. Imagination - If one is so fortunate to have opened a reader's third door, their writing would have unsealed the innermost realm of the reader's sense of reality and self. Just as it sounds, this is not a thing done lightly. The effect of good writing in combination with a reader's imagination is a magical thing indeed. Respect the capacity for imagination that lies within all of humankind. The purpose of good writing isn't to show off one's own imagination, but to kindle the imagination of the reader.   
       If something in your writing can touch a reader's memories in an uncanny way, or show them a highly-focused aspect of human nature in a manner that hums with resonance for them, that is an experience that a reader will appreciate. If a piece of writing can produce this effect consistently or even sporadically, people will be grateful for this relatively rare experience.
       Going back to our earlier parlance, writing that makes consistent sojourns through the reader's third, imaginative door will maintain your reader's trust. The cognitive and/or creative work going into the perpetual earning of this trust can be thought of as taxation, in the sense of 'to tax ones wits.' Strive to continually tax yourself in this regard as you write, revise, and refine a piece of writing.
      To close this essay, I wish to return to the opening thought. In a world where two sentences strung together often strikes potential readers as being 'too long' to even bother starting to read, a person interested in producing quality pieces of engaging writing must make rapid progress from a very lowly initial position indeed if they hope for their output to prove a worthy expenditure of a total stranger's time. 
       Consider: being forced to read something you absolutely hated for forty-five hours would be a most perverse torture - yet the same amount of time, when spent with a favorite book, could never be enough in a lifetime of years.
       Strive always to turn the common reader's complaint into 'ts:dwite' - "Too short; Didn't Want It To End."


  1. I have given this comment in reviews of writing. I think you have explained why. Hey, I read yours all the way through. I'm going to share this article with some writer friends of mine.

  2. Thoughtful, Troy. I read you all the way through and shared. Thanks.

  3. Love this piece. Thanks for posting, Troy.

  4. Here are two examples from one (great) writer that worked for me, exactly as described above: the opening paragraph of "Rabbit, Run" and the first paragraph of "Rabbit is Rich", both by John Updike. The former is the better of the two. Read it.

  5. Well-said. I read every word. I think trust is extremely important. I recently read a book that shall remain nameless that was awesome all the way to the climax. There was none. Protagonist died. It just abruptly ended. I felt like I had been dumped! Betrayed! I stayed with the book all the way through (3 days) and then...nothing. It made me want to read the endings of new books first.

  6. Concise, and well written, Troy. As an invested reader who has bought all of your available books after first reading every story on your website, i consider all 3 of my doors to be opened and the hinges of those doors to be well lubricated!
    I am of the opinion that a good method for a writer to grab a reader's attention is for the writer to concentrate on writing in short story format when starting out, honing one's craft before moving on to tackling a novel, and it shows that you have done this yourself. Your writing shows consistent improvement, and you've never failed to capture my imagination.
    Thank you for sharing your gift for storytelling with us.

    1. You shouldn't be shy about posting. :). I enjoyed your article.

  7. Got through the first paragraph but tl;dr.

    I'm joking!! Oh my God I'm hilarious! Another great blog, Troy. Very insightful too! And true!

  8. Very well put. Really insightful and coincidentally a quick read for me. Thanks for the "ah ha" moments and the "yep, so true"times. Thanks for sharing. Reposting :)

  9. Very well put. Really insightful and coincidentally a quick read for me. Thanks for the "ah ha" moments and the "yep, so true"times. Thanks for sharing. Reposting :)

  10. Thanks for the post. As someone trying to be a writer, it's easy to get lost in your own exposition and ideas, but it's important to think about what the reader wants. Sometimes, that means taking a great idea and distilling it down to its essence to make a more brief, yet poignant, narrative. Other times, if you're resonating well enough, you can maintain length and flourish. Nice post :)

  11. "The purpose of good writing isn't to show off one's own imagination, but to kindle the imagination of the reader."

    That right there is the ultimate key to writing, besides knowing your alphabet. So many times I read stuff from new writers that fails miserably in this area, making the work read like a boring history book, not engaging my mind in the least. Fortunately, your work makes me think, even if those thoughts are often twisted.

  12. This is excellent. I couldn't have said it better. I'm always relieved when I find someone else is able to formulate words for the thoughts I carry, especially when I haven't found a way to express them myself.

    In this digital era, and in a time where writers are more likely to self-publish rather than try and get the attention of a fickle publishing house, the whole overcoming the obstacle of tl;dr is more crucial than ever.

    Anyway, sorry if this comment makes no sense. I'm a little deprived of sleep at the moment, haha.

  13. Great post! Though I would add that nobody can be all things to all people. Someone who would take the time to comment "tl;dr." is intentionally being a jerk and might not be the person you want to spend your creative energies trying to impress.

  14. Well worth reading. I always try to keep this is mind in my blog. I get it all out in the first draft, then cut semi-ruthlessly (they are my darlings, after all).
    In the interett of true confessions, though - although I read your worthwhile post and enjoyed it, I kept glancing toward the bottom of the screen with each scroll, hoping for the appearance of the biography, comments, etc that would assure me the end was near. A sign of our rushed times, I guess. Must go before this reply becomes tl;dr

  15. ...As capture and enrapture ....a person's eyes...I's too...needs thought and soul searching...I want to write..but I left my mind behind....down at the ......friend of mine...please keep inspiring..

  16. My twitter friend ~ read it in January ~ re-read it tonight, and it still holds true.

    Now that I'm blogging, I'm TRYING to keep this in mind... You make some very valid points in a person 'spending' time.

    Thanks for the re-distribution of this.