802 words, 4411 characters

Recently, someone asked me for my take on brevity.

I write long pieces. The essays that I put on my blog run thousands of words long. They’re long thoughts, best digested with a cup of coffee. The first article I published was a little over 2,000 words. I had spent months pouring over every word and couldn’t bear working on it for another moment. So, it was complete. My next piece was even longer, at over 2,500 words. I haven’t looked back since.

A part of this comes from my childhood, where my mom took me to libraries and the local Barnes & Noble with its brick facade. Free from the world, I’d wander through the shelves and find a nice, hefty book. The weight of the book was somehow a proxy for the knowledge that it contained.

So, when I started writing, I tried to emulate the greats that I had read. Authors like Robert Caro, Frank Herbert, and Alexandre Dumas. Writing a long essay was natural to me. It felt like a conversation where I could fully express my thoughts.

Some part of this came from a belief that shorter pieces mean weaker ideas. In my mind, a book with a hundred pages explores a subject in more depth than an essay with a thousand words could. But that’s not exactly true. In the words of SBF (disclaimer: he’s not exactly the best role model), “I think, if you wrote a book, you fucked up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.”

In some cases, he’s not wrong. I’ve read books that had such low information density that they probably should have been a tweet. It felt as if they had been written to hit a word count. They stretched the original idea, repeating it, rephrasing it, and adding frills around its edges. The end result is still just a lot of words with not a lot of meaning behind them.

Ideas need friends. In isolation, they can be witty, insightful, and provocative. But a single idea is ephemeral. They scroll past, lingering for seconds rather than days. I think of writing the same way I do of cooking. Good dishes need multiple ingredients. Some essays might only use two or three ideas. Others might toss in dozens. These distinct ideas are tied together, each one building on the previous and collecting into a unified narrative. They produce writing that’s memorable.

But just ideas alone aren’t enough. My favorite essay of all time is this 9,245-word essay titled “The Art of Dying.” It’s a collection of experiences and thoughts. Half of it feels like an old man’s ramble. The other hard speaks a fundamental truth of the human experience. At 9,000+ words, an editor could take out a paragraph or two and leave the essay no worse for wear.

There’s a fine line, though. Take out too much and the piece loses its magic. So that leaves the question - what made this rambling story good?

Context. It’s the fact that Peter Schjeldahl is capturing his life sections as short as, “Swatted a fly the other day and thought, Outlived you.” There’s no idea behind that section, it’s just pure context. But the sum of all these different pieces of context is a portrait of Schjeldahl’s life and who he is as a person. [0]

My heroes follow this theme. Caro’s motto is to turn every page. He spends years going through dusty files to uncover history. Herbert discards plot in favor of expansive descriptions. Dune is not a great read, unless you read textbooks for fun, but it is undeniably beautiful. Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo is a tale of someone being wronged and then exacting his revenge. It’s a story as old as time, played out over a 464,162 (translated) word epic. And it’s a fantastic journey from the first word to the last.

There’s a very good reason for brevity. It simplifies things and sometimes, that’s all we want. A line between black and white. Some things, like a nice sunset, are good. Other things, like a category 5 hurricane, are bad. Or, the idea that some books are useful while others are only fit to be fire starter. But these are only opinions. The truth is that every type of weather serves a specific purpose. And as much as I rage against low-information density writing, they serve as a great stepping stone to discover more nuanced content.

Good writing shines a light on the space between opinion and truth. And the only way I know how to do that is, I guess, by writing a lot of words and explaining all the nuance and context behind each group of ideas.

[0] I can’t do the essay justice with these words. Everyone should read it.

· Personal, Writing