Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

a lengthy post

The well-known computer scientist/entrepreneur Philip Greenspun has a recent post which is an interesting combination of insight and nonsense.

Nonsense first. Greenspun writes, “The pre-1990 commercial publishing world supported two lengths of manuscript: 1. the five-page magazine article, serving as filler among the ads; 2. the book, with a minimum of 200 pages.”

What? Has Greenspun ever actually looked at “pre-1990” newspapers and magazines? If by “the commercial publishing world” he means Time and Newsweek, he’s not too far off; otherwise. . . . Now, he does acknowledge that “a handful of long-copy magazines, such as the old New Yorker would print 20-page essays.” (Not sure what he means by “old” in that sentence.) Yes, and Esquire and the Atlantic and Harper’s and Playboy and Rolling Stone and The New Republic and the New York Review of Books and a great many literary and cultural quarterlies that paid their contributors; and then there were all thee venues for shorter pieces, 800-word op-eds and the like. Oh, and then there's the notion that there has ever been a 200-page minimum for books. . . .

So: nonsense. But the larger point of the post is an insightful one, or at least would have been if Greenspun had developed it more clearly. Let me do it myself. When you’re writing for a newspaper or magazine, especially if you’ve been commissioned to write something, you always have a rough word limit in mind. A little experience teaches you whether there’s a fit between an idea and a word limit. Sometimes I have turned down a writing assignment because I didn't think I could do it in the number of words available; sometimes I have said “I couldn't do it at 1500 words, but I could do it in 4000” — and I have found that editors tend to be open to such counter-proposals if they’re allowed the flexibility. And of course, while in “commercial publishing” there is and always has been much greater variation in article or story length than Greenspun acknowledges, it’s true that different publications specialize in different lengths; so when you have an idea that you know is going to come to a certain number of words once it gets written, and you’re thinking about where to send it or pitch it, you don't just think about the editorial stances of possible outlets, you also think about the length of article they typically publish.

Greenspun’s point is that online writing eliminates these concerns. When you’re writing for web publication you can just write what you want and need to write, because there are no word limits as such. Now, there still will be appropriate lengths for the development of a given idea — incoherent rambling is incoherent rambling, whether in print or pixels — but there are no artificially imposed ceilings. And the more prominent e-readers become — as I have suggested in this post — the more this wil be true in that environment as well.


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