Friday, September 16, 2005

Short Paragraphs, Short Attention Spans?

I have noticed, partly as a result of blogging, I guess, that a style has developed toward making paragraphs short. I mean, I do it, news sites do it, birds do it, let’s fall in … er, sorry about that. I sort of got into a rhythm there.

Seriously, though, it seems that the one-to-three sentence paragraph has become de rigeur in most writing today. News and business have tended toward the short, choppy, but direct writing. In both cases, it’s because the target audiences are not going to take a lot time to read a great deal of verbiage. (Two..three. Okay, new paragraph.)

When I got my first jobs in business, it was difficult to adjust to this terse style. In college, exposition is important, primarily because a skill at slathering on blarney can pay dividends on the GPA. In fact, I was in demand as a lab partner because of my ability to rescue a flopped lab session with a brilliant write-up that had little or nothing to do with the fiasco that took place during the experiment. The same techniques were golden in lit classes and, of course, philosophy. Unfortunately, when I had to start writing business reports, it became obvious that, if I actually wanted the reports read, I would have to trim down considerably (my writing that is; my girth stayed the same, unfortunately).

On the other hand, if I didn’t want any action taken, I could guarantee getting the matter shelved by writing a major opus. One trait shared by most managers is that they don’t want to appear ignorant an issue, particularly if they’ve received a report on the subject. Thus, they’ll avoid making a decision nearly forever.

News writing is designed to get to the point, because newspapers were designed to be read quickly (except the Sunday edition, but the objective there is to get to the funnies and sports). The object is to get all of the key information into the first paragraph of the story. Nowadays, though, it seems we’ve got the short paragraphs, but you have to read about thirteen of them to actually find out what’s going on.

Literature once abounded in long, languorous paragraphs, constructed with sentences that were intricate threads woven into a complex cloth that eventually came to be the tapestry containing the author’s innermost thoughts.

Didn’t think I write like that, did you? Well, I got more.

wrote descriptions so detailed that you could feel the warmth of the sun crossing the forest floor. Edgar Allen Poe could build suspense and terror to such a pitch that the reader might begin tearing up the floor of his own living room trying to stop the Telltale Heart. Melville, in Moby Dick, wrote the single longest sentence in English literature, yet it’s not the only one in the paragraph. Even in our century, Ayn Rand could write page after page of Howard Roark laying out his beliefs to what would have been a stunned jury.

This is not a lamentation of how modern authors are not the equals of the giants of the past. There are writers who will be recognized in years to come as the equals of those mentioned above. It’s just a recognition of how our approach to information has changed. The only lament, if there be one, is that the Internet generation has become used to getting its words in bits and nibbles, concisely packaged, designed to fit a specific time period of web page space. It was hard enough for kids of my generation to appreciate the writings of the past, which seemed stilted and archaic. How must it be for current teachers to maintain interest in The Return of the Native?

Okay, bad example To me, Thomas Hardy could be mind-numbing. However, the point is still valid, because a lot of people, including my wife happen to enjoy his books. I do find that when someone tells me how much they enjoyed Hardy, they're never talking about The Return of the Native.

Perhaps that's part of the problem. There should be more of an effort to choose books and stories of wider appeal, maybe less Thomas Hardy and a little more Alexandre Dumas.

I hope this generation is able to see past the quick-and-easy-to-digest prose of today and, at least, occasionally take in the gourmet meal of a well-written novel or short story collection. The long paragraphs may be a challenge, but there’s gold to be found there.

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