You could have written shorter

September 12, 2014|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

For reporters, writing online must seem like admission to heaven. No space limits, no damn copy editor ruthlessly cutting forty lines of burnished prose to make it fit the page. Little interference from an editor, or even, bless us and save us, no editor at all

Unfortunately, the online writer falls victim to the same fallacy entertained by the print writer: Because it's published, people read my stuff.*

A couple of days ago, Craig Schmidt, formerly of the Star-Ledger, posted this comment on Facebook to the link to my post "Wait, wait, don't hang all the editors":

"What we've really lost -- especially online -- is making every word count. I find the internet an inefficient way to consume news. For example, to digest the day's baseball games on takes considerably longer than reading two 10-inch roundups in the paper. We FILL the paper with stories that are longer than necessary because we lack the manpower to trim them to what they are worth. The internet offers quicker access but not faster reads."

Online publication enables overlong, slack, self-indulgent writing, even more than print. And I think it's a mistake for writers pleased that their work is not cut by editors to imagine that readers are devouring every word. 

Text doesn't daunt me; no one who has read, say, Boswell's Life of Johnson or Middlemarch,** shies away from extended prose. But on the computer, something has to be pretty distinctive to hold my attention for more than a couple of screens. (Perhaps it's the fixed posture, peering at the screen, that induces fatigue. With a book, a reader can shift posture in the chair and move the book to different angles.) And even something special is not going to get much of a commitment from me on a smartphone. 

You must remember this: The fundamental things apply as time goes by. Editing adds value. After accuracy, the main things are clarity and precision, which come from editing (including self-editing). Rigorous editing--sharpening the focus, tightening, making every word count--significantly improves the odds that the reader will pay attention to what you have to say. 


*It's salutary to recall the time I heard a top editor of The Sun, administering a bit of drive-by praise to a reporter, say, "I really liked your story this morning. I read it all the way to the end." If you imagine that readers are going all the way to the end of your texts, you may be delusional.

**Yes, I'm boasting. English majors need to be proud of something. 

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