An Awareness Campaign About Reading Online
It’s a good thing William Faulkner is not alive today. He would not meet success as a writer – at least not online. Such writers today are advised to use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. Words should be three syllables or less; sentences should be 20 words or less; paragraphs should be 150 words or less. Meanwhile, Faulkner once held the Guinness World Record for longest proper sentence used in a book. The book is Absalom, Absalom, and the sentence contains 1287 words. Oh my, what a failure he’d be.
I write about this as an awareness campaign, to explain what online writing is all about. I feel it impacts the way we read, indeed that it trains us to only read easy stuff. This does not bode well for our intellect, nor does online content give us the pleasure found in a good book. Let me explain what I mean.
When I started my creative career in the mid-1990’s, I would send my stories out to appropriate magazine editors be they literary, ladies’, or life style. Of course, I only sent my most polished pieces because competition was stiff. (Today, anyone can publish anything online. Forget good grammar, creativity, or even facts. But that’s a story for another day.) Per submission guidelines, I also touted its unique qualities. If twenty other writers pitched stories about Independence Day, for instance, I told them why mine was noteworthy. Content was king, but uniqueness crowned the king.
Today, things are different at least when we talk about writing online. In this arena, format is king. I get it that it is difficult to read large hunks of print on a computer screen, but the tools writers use to alleviate that problem standardize the finished product. Uniqueness works against the writer.
For instance, when I write for my website on WordPress, it grades my story in two ways. One is for search engine optimization (SEO), and the other is for format. For SEO, I need to state a keyword for my story. I need to use that keyword in the title of the story, in the first paragraph, and three more times in a story that is 1000 words long like this one.
Think of a writer who starts off by telling a joke that introduces the topic peripherally but doesn’t really get to the point until after getting his/her laugh. This does not work with SEO. You have to be specific about your topic in the first few breaths.
In high school, when we learn how to write an essay, we are told to tell the reader what we are going to talk about, then talk about the topic, then summarize what we talked about. By the time we get to college, we learn this is a great concept for hammering home a point, but it is not a very creative way to discuss a topic, it’s boring, and it’s a guarantee for a poor grade. However, for the purposes of SEO, this methodology is perfection.
My other grade from WordPress is for format. This is where they count how many words I put in a sentence or paragraph and how many syllables I have in a word. They frown when I am over the limit. By the way, the frown is literal. My grade is given as an emoji. In order to get a smiley face, I need to break my story into sections with subheadings. Listicles and stories with bullet points also get smiles. Anything you do to break up the story gives you high marks.
Unless you are William Faulkner with a 1287-word sentence, then you fail.
It’s hard to imagine a sentence that long, so for our purposes, let’s examine this 121-word sentence. It is from the book Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem and involves a scene in a hospital emergency room.
“The waiting area was jammed with the sort of egalitarian cross-section only genuine misery can provide: Hispanics and blacks and Russians and various indeterminate, red-eyed teenage girls with children you prayed were siblings; junkie veterans petitioning for painkillers they wouldn’t get; a tired housewife comforting her brother as he carped in an unceasing stream about his blocked digestion, the bowel movement he hadn’t enjoyed for weeks; a terrified lover denied attendance, as I’d been, glaring viciously at the unimpressible triage nurse and the mute doors behind her; others guarded, defiant, daring you to puzzle at their distress, to guess on behalf of whom, themselves or another, they shared with you this miserable portion of their otherwise fine, pure and invulnerable lives.”
WordPress likes that as a paragraph, but wants it broken into six sentences. Additionally, these words have far too many syllables to earn a smiley face: egalitarian, indeterminate, petitioning, unimpressible, and invulnerable.
But here’s my complaint – multi-syllabic words aside – if we break this sentence up, don’t we lose its visceral impact? Being in a hospital waiting room is a long, never-ending experience. Jonathan Lethem didn’t tell us that, he showed us it with his sentence.
I have written about this topic before, and I will probably write about it again because I have strong feelings about this dumbing down of the things we read online. Borrowing again from Motherless Brooklyn, this is a topic about which “I’m tightly wound. I’m a loose cannon. Both – I’m a tightly wound loose cannon, a tight loose.”
That being the case, I leave you with this parting shot: Often when we love a novel, it is because “the language was gorgeous.” Do we say that about the stuff we read online? I don’t think so, yet we spend so much of our time reading online. Hopefully with this story, awareness is king. Now we understand. Now we can make informed choices.
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