Entr’acte: an increasingly common criticism that simply makes no sense in literate circles

I’m a trifle miffed today, campers — but probably not at you. If you are one of the many of Author! Author! readers who leave substantive, interesting questions in the comments (thank you!), or one of the overwhelming majority that do not comment at all (I hope you’re finding the posts helpful!), please accept my gratitude, but you might want to avert your eyes from this one. As I have noted many times, readers’ questions have improved this blog remarkably over the years — and certainly plumped up the archives. Indeed, having question-specific archive categories at all was a reader’s idea. (Thanks, Dave!)

I intend to post a new Queryfest entry later this evening for all of you. For the moment, however, I’m going to address those who post non-substantive comments here. Particularly those who have evidently picked up on the latest trend in spam commenting: criticizing bloggers who post more than a couple of paragraphs at a time.

It’s perhaps not surprising that commenters bring this up from time to time. My posts do tend to be unusually long, even for a business that assumes anyone seriously interested in pursuing it professionally would have the requisite attention span to read not only in-depth magazine articles (which are often about the length of my average post), but actual books. People looking for quick answers to simple questions might well find extensive, thoughtful discussions off-putting, but as I explained at some length in a recent post, both the writing life and the publishing world are complex. If they weren’t, why would they be interesting enough for an editor to continue blogging about them for six years?

Perhaps more to the point, my blog is known as a place to find out how to do the things that pretty much any U.S.-based agent or editor will expect a talented new writer to know how to do. How to query, for instance. How to write a synopsis. How to create a verbal pitch. How to format a manuscript professionally.

None of these are matters that can be explained adequately in just a few paragraphs. If they were, all that an aspiring writer would need to do to learn the ropes of publishing would be to plug a term like query into a search engine, spend 15 minutes reading, and walk away fully informed.

I assume that some of you, at least, have tried just that. How did it work out for you?

I’ve said it before, and apparently I need to keep saying it: I write this blog because, in my experience, it’s quite difficult for even the most talented new writer to find out what agents and editors expect to see. I write about matters at length because, unlike most of the rule-barkers out there, I don’t believe a reasonable, intelligent writer should follow a rule just because a self-styled expert says so. As I point out early and often, I don’t expect my readers to take my word for any of this: I presume that the members of the Author! Author! community are intelligent enough to want to know why they should be following my advice.

So if you just want to be told what to do in bullet points, this probably isn’t the blog for you. While it’s kind of you to want to take the time to post comments like, “My, what a long post this is,” I assure you, I’m already aware of it. I do it on purpose. Other readers seem to find it helpful, but if you prefer super-short posts, I can only encourage you to seek them elsewhere.

Instead of, say, ordering me to make my posts shorter. That’s not advice I’m likely to take until getting published magically becomes easy for first-time writers.

I’m especially unlikely to take it now, since so many serious writers on writing have been receiving scads of comments to this effect within the last couple of months, seldom couched in terms that indicate the objection is a response to the specific post’s content. All of a sudden, writers of helpful, practical blogs are being inundated with admonitions to be less wordy.

Why the rush to judgment on this point? Usually, when the same critique pops up on a wide array of blogs simultaneously, it’s either because a single person (known in blogging circles as a troll) has posted essentially the same comment everywhere under an array of different names, in an attempt to start arguments, or a new illegitimate link-creator has figured out that many spam filters will not weed out comments that appear to be critical. (You’d be surprised at how many web presence-boosting services accomplish it by posting links in fake comments on blogs.) Or — and this is the most common — some ostensibly authoritative online source has begun leveling that criticism at its competitors, and people are simply parroting it.

Which is why, in case some of you who have been passing along this type of comment have been wondering, many blog programs now automatically weed out comments that seem repetitive or prefabricated. Especially likely to trigger the filter: comments that neither address the subject matter of the post in question or do so under an obviously fake name. (For reasons that surpass understanding, a hefty percentage of spam-for-pay services simply use the product’s name as the commenter’s moniker.)

While my spam filter prevents most such comments from bugging my readers — a spam-clogged comments section discourages discussion, I find — not all of the recent iterations of the it’s too long! plaint have been as easy to categorize as spam vs. legitimate comment. I have in fact saved a few from the spam filter’s maw, because there seemed to be an actual human being behind the repetitive comment. The accompanying arguments in these have ranged from the commenter’s not having time to read a complex argument of any sort (on a post in the middle of a series that took up most of the summer; apparently, it took until Part XIII for the commenter to notice that my posts tend to run on the long side) to a claim that an entire post could have been summed up in a single rule (evidently, he had missed that the entire post was an explanation of that particular rule).

Heck, a recent commenter excoriated me for having taken the time to answer questions he had the comments. He said that my reply was too long.

I swear I am not making that up: a blog reader came to me for specific advice, then berated me for having written a complex reply to his complex questions. How awful of me to have taken his concerns seriously enough to invest some time in answering them.

Now, I don’t really mind answering questions on back blog posts: there’s a lot of practical advice here, and it’s completely understandable that writers new to the game might have follow-up questions. Indeed, past readers’ questions tend to contribute mightily to the length of my posts; as those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! are aware, I often incorporate readers’ questions into discussions of particular topics. Heck, it’s not uncommon for me to write a post, or even a series, in response to a particularly good question.

Like most bloggers conscientious about responding to comments, I don’t expect to receive credit for answering questions on sometimes years-old back posts. It’s an activity invisible to the majority of Author! Author! habitués who read the top posts regularly, archive-diving only when they have a specific question.

I do mind, however, having my time wasted. So, it turns out, do many other bloggers who write substantively on writing. In order to reserve our blogging time for those who actually enjoy our blogs, some bloggers have decided simply to mark all repetitive comments as spam, rather than responding to them as individual criticisms — as, indeed, they may not be.

I’m not going to do that, on the off chance that at least some of these comments genuinely are cris de coeur from serious aspiring writers in a hurry to glean as much bottom-line information as hastily as possible. Instead, I am simply going to refer any future commenters with this objection — at least, those whose comments have no other subject matter — to this post.

See why I warned away those who use the comments to ask questions — and are happy to receive thoughtful answers?

Because I suspect that this particular objection is just a fad, possibly picked up from ambient political discourse, I’m also going to take the time to explain to those who feel it is a legitimate complaint why exclaiming it’s too long! about writing as short as my average post is an objection highly unlikely to strike anyone even vaguely affiliated with publishing as a valid or even memorable critique. (FYI, the reason members of Congress have been complaining about the length of bills lately is not that bills have gotten longer — hundreds of pages has been standard for decades — but because the Speaker cut the budget for administrative staff in half at the beginning of this year. Fewer on-staff readers equals more disgruntlement at document length.)

Here’s the reason the objection will fall flat: anyone who works with books for a living hears this not as a plea for a more concise argument for its own sake; we all know that while brevity is desirable in some formats — poetry, for instance — a 400-word essay is not inherently better than a 4,000-word essay. It all depends on the content and the and the target audience. Heck, agents and editors of books seldom bring up length at all unless a manuscript is longer than 400 pages.

So what those of us who deal in the printed word hear when readers complain that a piece is too long is not gee, I feel that this argument didn’t require so many examples or wow, I’m interested in this topic, but I have only a two-minute coffee break in which to read it, but — brace yourselves, brevity-huggers — I have a really, really short attention span. As a result, I not only think the average newspaper article is way too long; I eschew magazines as well. And I would not even consider buying a book. Cater to my preferences, please!

I have news for you, short-is-always-better advocates: the Internet is largely set up for people like you. Go find 200-word discussions of topics that have perplexed scholars for centuries, if that’s what makes you happy; there’s certainly no shortage of them. If that’s how you prefer to acquire information, this is a great time for you to be doing it.

Go seek out those super-brief sources, with my blessing. All I ask, all any of us who blog in depth ask, is that you not demand that 100% of the information on the Internet take precisely the same form.

To each his own. Because I honestly do like to help aspiring writers, I would also add: please don’t assume that stating a preference for brevity is going to win you Brownie points with those who create or sell books for a living.

Why? Well, for those of you who have not had your ear to the ground in publishing circles lately, book sales have declined remarkably in recent years. So have magazine and newspaper circulations. It’s not altogether astonishing, then, that the people who make their livings by producing publications might harbor just a tinge of resentment toward folks who feel that any multi-page argument is inherently too long, regardless of subject matter.

At minimum, those who work in long form are unlikely to regard such complainers as their target audience. Why, after all, would purveyors of book-length writing pay much attention to the criticism of someone who makes it quite plain that he seldom reads books? Especially when such comments appear on blogs that agents and editors have been known to read, the backlash can be considerable.

So please bear in mind the probable impact of demands to shorten information that’s being provided to you for free online. Even if you’ve seen that critique leveled elsewhere often enough in recent weeks for it to seem valid, it’s just not likely to strike either those who write, those who represent writers, those who publish, or even those who like to read as a reasonable criticism.

Best of luck finding that 150-word summary of how to write a successful query letter elsewhere, though. Regardless of where you choose to glean the requisite information, keep up the good work.

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