Thursday, December 4, 2014

On Not Blathering

I was digging through the ass end of my Facebook friends list the other day.

I have a tendency to friend people and then unfollow them after a while. It keeps my Facebook status updates clean and relatively clear of drama. You get three strikes as a FB friend. If you post too many game invites, too much political shit (from any part of the spectrum), too many image memes--particularly of the fitness variety--too much drama, fight-picking, whatever, you get unfollowed. I won't unfriend you, but I don't want to see that shit when I do my regular Facebook check. It's annoying to scroll through.

It tends to drown out the stuff I do want to see: pretty girls, kittens, weird news and updates from my friends who are actually doing interesting things or have interesting things to say.

I'd say about two-thirds of my friends list is unfollowed at any given time. If that's what it takes to filter out constant baby photos and awful motivational memes, I'll do it.

Every once in a while I think of someone and I'll check their page, see what they're up to. If the majority of their updates don't tick one or more of the five hundred or so things that piss me off, I'll re-follow them.

Some time ago, I'd friended this one guy whose updates seem to fall into one of two patterns: constant family-raising shit and rambling philosophical posts about nothing in particular.

Good guy, fine to hang out with, has roughly the same tastes in beer and television as I do, but definitely in the periphery of my social circles, so into the dust bin he went along with the obscure family relations I'm obligated to follow even if I don't know, exactly, where in the family tree they fall, people I used to know back in high school, but only care about a little now, friends of friends and so on. Basically, it's the junk drawer of my social network where I keep the human equivalent of mismatched socks, power chargers for devices which no longer exist, strange screws and widgets and cables and so on.

Reading through the last few status updates he posted reminded me why I'd unsubscribed in the first place.

Every one of his posts runs into the multiple paragraph range and can be summarized as "pseudo-philosophical meandering." Bloviation. Just acres and acres of verbiage, each entry easily summarized into a very short sentence. Pseudo-deep: "people like people", "grief sucks", "people are different", "be nice to each other", and so on.

It's like suddenly finding an entire wall of awful high school commencement speeches. Stultifyingly boring. Dull.

I was originally planning on dwelling more on his posts and why they bother me, but frankly I'm more guilty of bloviation than just about anybody else on this planet. I probably deserve an award of some sort for wasting vertical footage pointlessly. I have too many posts on this blog, I think, that aren't strictly about anything in particular. This one included, I guess.

It made me think, though. I see this sort of thing a lot. Do it too much myself. Spend thousands of words writing something which can be summed up in much shorter form, as if adding more to the word count will make a simple concept deeper, simply by added poundage.

The contrast between that kind of writing and that Dashiell Hammett book I'm finishing up is startling. The Hammett book was written in the golden days of the pulps. Short, brutally terse, just the bare minimum of words to get an exciting story across. No padding. You don't see a single chapter, paragraph, sentence or word there that isn't doing something, dragging the story forward by its fingernails. There's not a single description of a place or person longer than three words.

I'm not kidding. He summarized a fast drive over a very poorly paved road as "we took turns sitting in each others' laps." Great writing.

I think one of the biggest dangers of electronic media is the tendency to just fire hose thoughts out there.

Terseness is something of a lost art. Back in the old days, before the digital interwebs, you were paid by the word and had to find physical space on actual, honest-to-God paper. If you ran over, there simply wasn't room for you. Literally. Unless they used microscopic type, your shit would run off the end of the page.

Editors had to be fierce because they had no other choice. Space was limited, after all. If you didn't keep to the limit you were given, they would slash you down to your ankles with the editing razor and make you fit in the available space, by God, even if the results didn't strictly make sense to the reader. Or they simply would refuse to run your piece until you made it shorter.

These days, things can be as long as they need to be. This post? Could go twenty thousand words, no problem. Nothing will break if I go longer than that. I could copy and paste War and Peace here in its entirety and it would display just fine.

Nothing except reader attention span, which is still a limited resource. Maybe even more than it used to be back in Hammett's day.

TL; DR. So it's something of a wake-up call, I guess. A big strong dose of "get to the point." Which I need--even though there's no limit to what you can write anymore, no limit to how long you can go, there is definitely a limit to reader attention span.

I'm always a little hesitant to go negative in my updates. I don't like to dwell on things that bother me, complain about things I dislike in writing, bitch about people. I'd rather be constructive. But sometimes it's worth it as an exercise to look closely at something that pisses you off and figure out why it pisses you off.

Reading my friend's updates makes me want to edit my own writing more strongly. I see a lot of my own weaknesses in those pointless blatherings, which is why it bothers me to read them.

When I write, sometimes I don't know exactly what I'm going to say ahead of time. I have no idea what path I need to explore when I'm making the arguments I make. I get there when I get there.

But I just wrote what I wrote. I don't want to throw any of that shit away. It came from my brain, so it's something like a child to me.

There's a reason my writing teachers used to call the editing phase "killing the babies." Sometimes you have to throw out stuff that sounds awesome simply because it's a waste of the reader's time. It might even be stuff that you think really works, maybe some of the best writing you ever did. Or maybe it's just crap, but you like the way the words sound when you read it to yourself. In the end, though, it's all about the poor bastards who have to read your shit. You have to get to the point and, the more efficiently you do so, the better.

And of course, I just wrote a 1200+ word post to the effect of "get to the point as quickly as possible." Story of my life, really.

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