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Attention. Period.

blog talks: tl;dr vs. "quicker to write a long letter"

Attention. Period.

If you're reading this on your computer, you probably have fifteen other tabs open in your browser window, and maybe several other browser windows in the background. One or other of them may chime or sing or yell random phrases at any moment.

If you're reading this on your phone or tablet, as an ever-increasing percentage of you are, this post will have all that browser competition plus apps, phone, and text.

If you've even clicked on "continue reading," you've probably already scrolled ahead, or looked at the size of the scroll bar, to see how long of a read you're in for, whether you can settle in for long enough to see the post through, how many  times you'll need to click away to refresh your attention.

Please click "continue reading" now, and do as I just described. I promise I won't keep you long.

Lengthy articles are often prefaced by a mercy summary headed "tl;dr" = "too long; didn't read"--so prevalent is the perception that a post longer than seven hundred or so words simply won't be read by most, even if it contains important information, that it has its own appropriately brief acronym.

I'd better be giving you some information and/or entertaining you, and I'd better be doing it right away, or else you're going to close this tab and maybe not return ever.

"tl;dr" "One, two, skip a few, ninety-nine, a hundred." "No more than three sentences per paragraph,  and no more than three clauses to a sentence."

Are these my cues to kvetch and cavil about today's attention span, to bemoan the erosion of respect for the literary word? Perhaps it's time for me to point out that "period" in the context of grammar did not originally mean "full stop." It referred to the expanse of text starting at the capital letter and ending at the full stop.

In the Greek of Plato or Demosthenes, in the Latin of Cicero, this chunk of prose comprised far more than what we'd think of as a sentence, with multiply nested subordinations "having done x, considering that nobody was going to arrive for three days and thinking better of setting fire to the harbor, he did y, but..."

Period was not a simple declaration "this is the truth. period." It was "peri" as in peripatetic/periphrasis (aka paraphrase) and "od" as in "odometer" -- i.e. it was a route around, a circumnavigation.

It was a thought journey at a time when there weren't fifteen other tabs competing for attention.  A time when slates and shards of pottery were the notepads and tablets and paper, in short supply too, so diagrams and bullet points weren't much practiced, and a lot of logical diagramming was done grammatically through live words in air.

And ironically, some speakers in political councils and law courts (even to the present day) use(d) these immensely long, convoluted verbal circumnavigations, page-long single-sentence periods, to prevent anyone else getting a word in. That's called a filibuster.

I say ironically, because if I tried to do that to hold your attention, you'd be out of here so fast. One can't filibuster a non-captive audience. One can't take an audience for granted anymore!

Does that mean that the Ciceros and Platos, and those of us raised on their prose style, have longer attention spans than people who work in bullet points and short sentences, "skip a few, ninety-nine, a hundred, period"?

Even if we did, and even if that were a good thing, I should point out that already in The Odyssey someone gripes about the short attention spans of audiences, who only want to hear the newest songs.

On the flip side of tl;dr:

"I wrote a long letter because I didn't have time to write a short one." Who said this? I thought it was Mark Twain, but apparently it was Blaise Pascal. Someone else says it was T. S. Eliot and someone else  Cicero, although I somewhat doubt these last two, as lengthier-windedness seems more of a point of pride for them.

With so many attributions, there must be something truthful underlying the witticism. More words isn't more value. In fact, it may well drive you away. As an editor, who's also worked as a tree trimmer, I know that I can trim a third off most anything simply by tidying up the grammar/sentence structure and logic (and crossing branches). This will always clarify the key points of the piece and make it easier to read.

But that's the part the writer (myself or someone else) wants to say. That's the easy part. Is it also what you want to read? What will hold the attention of my very much non-captive audience whose whole online experience is engineered to encourage rapid clickaway?

Knowing that this post is extending down your screen, competing with many other candidates to be at the front of your screen, knowing that this blog is a drop in an ocean of blogs, I respect your time, I appreciate your visit, I wish to connect with you and get to know you better.

Beyond the line-editing, I undertake to cross-examine the content of my post before unleashing it, look at it through a different lens, as if I were a stranger to myself with fifteen other tabs open, deciding whether to keep reading. And I understake, always, to be courteously brief and to offer something of value: entertainment, information, food for thought; ideally, all of the above.

Please let me know how I'm doing! I'd love to connect with you more.

About the Author

Ela Harrison

Ela is a wordsmith and herb lover who has lived in many places and currently resides in Tucson, AZ.

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