February 25th, 2006

Mark Twain had the same problem I do

I’ve written before, here, about how hard it is for me to write short posts.

But now I’ve learned that I’m in very good company. This NY Times piece on the demise of the Western Union Telegram (RIP, telegrams!) describes how Mark Twain dealt with the same problem:

Mark Twain, like most writers, found it easier to write long than short. He received this telegram from a publisher:

NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS.

Twain replied:

NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES.

But just to prove I can write short–there. That’s it.

22 Responses to “Mark Twain had the same problem I do”

  1. Ymarsakar Says:

    Much of artistic creations are unique, and going back and removing certain articles and paragraphs changes the art from the original to something else. One of the reasons why many people want to read the entire book of a favorite author, not the abridged version, and certainly not the version that the author had to slim down for an editor. Stranger in a Strange land is a very good example of that.

    On the internet, multiple draft formats require multiple rereading, editing, and locamotions which are contrary to the stream of consciousness, vivacity, and verisimilitude of blogging. Double goes for comment writing.

  2. douglas Says:

    Solomon 2-”People who are inspired generally write more.”
    Probably. More often, likely. It’s not the specific length of a work, it’s whether or not it could be edited down without losing anything important. I’m from a visual arts background, and the great artists usually created prodigiously, and in the process of trying to create something good, made an awful lot of lousy stuff too. Volume helps in that case, but in the individual piece, one has to ask not ‘can I add anything else’, but rather ‘can I take anything away, and still maintain the essence of what I’m doing?’.

    “Criticism is in fact the greatest of man’s achievements in the entire history of the written language.”
    Amen to that!

  3. Ymarsakar Says:

    Yeah, but crap can be fresh too.

    Criticism is in fact the greatest of man’s achievements in the entire history of the written language.

    I wouldn’t presume that what you think of as 9 dollar words is the same thing I would consider as words in ten or greater denominations. Individuality still counts for something, as you well know.

    I wonder if you noticed that I had changed my writing style between the previous comments I used to write and the comments I wrote here. It’s a catch 22. I can take 5 sentences to express 2 ideas or I can take 2 sentences to express 5 ideas. It’s a little experiment I used to do.

  4. Solomon2 Says:

    People who are inspired generally write more. :)

  5. armchair pessimist Says:

    Brevity is a requirement of our modern times and conveys for the most part meagre and boring thoughts. If I had more time I hope that I’d write less concisely. Neo, you write effortlessly, which is more important than acheiving a low word-count.

  6. douglas Says:

    Ymark-”This is always the trade off between new ideas and old ideas. You trade security for freshness and a different pov.”
    Yeah, but crap can be fresh too.

    It’s not so much the length of the writing, it’s the density. I find Neo generally very easy to read, and even though she is able to use everyday language to express her opinions, she demonstrates her capability to handle nine-dollar words deftly and accurately when needed. Layering verbosity upon verbosity isn’t refined or intelligent, it’s laziness (and selfishness) from the educated. Editing is like taking showers, it’s not so much for yourself as it is to spare others the stink…

  7. Bezuhov Says:

    From when the Grey Lady wasn’t quite so old and tired:

    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9903EFD61638F931A35751C1A962948260

    “Since Pericles may be a bit much and since I don’t envy his early death, I would settle for Pierre Bezuhov in Leo Tolstoy’s ”War and Peace.” Absent-minded but inquisitive, Bezuhov suffered imprisonment, deprivation, a bad marriage and loneliness. He explored serious ideas in his search for the meaning of life. Despite an unassuming appearance and a fondness for good food and comforts, he, unlike his fellow characters, made it to the very end. He married Natasha and found faith along with domestic bliss. He avoided becoming a bore. One would like to be as intelligent, resilient, observant and ultimately fortunate. Alice Adams Author”

    A close enough approximation for my choice of nom de blog. My actual name is David Warner, which not being famous I imagine signifies little without even managing sound and fury.

  8. Mike Says:

    What is with the comment section and crazy names? I am sure that my comment was probably racist, stupid or something other then polite, but seriously what is ymarsakar and how do you pronounce it? Same question for nikolaides, gcortharn and bezuhov? Is this some sort of hobbit type thing that I am unaware of?

  9. Ymarsakar Says:

    No, in actuality, the quoted difficulty is that as I write, my thinking exceeds the word format of the medium. From which results short to long disconnections between the topic of one paragraph to the topic of another.

    Because Neo uses the multiple or discontinuous draft technique, she is able to space her thoughts to the time format of the written post. Since I reduce my writing to fit my time, I trade consistency for impact and verisimilitude.

    I can read 50% of Neo’s writings, while skipping the other half, and still understand the points as she had written.

    In fact, I do that on certain posts to save time.

    Some people need to read it 200% over, to get even close to a similar level of reading comprehension.

    Knowing the vocabulary does help but all new ideas require time to digest regardless of individuality.

    There are different levels, from which different results occur.

    For example, for someone that uses anti-warrior in his writings a lot, it creates a sense of practiced ease, in the reading, the writing, and the formation of arguments.

    Because I dislike repeating one idea many times over, I prefer new and experimental ideas, forms, and constructions. If I only used one form and one idea, then experience would lead to the conclusion that I will eventually make it easier to understand as well as easier to use.

    This is always the trade off between new ideas and old ideas. You trade security for freshness and a different pov.

    Not only do I personally dislike being agreed with, I don’t even like it when I agree with myself. Therefore unlike other people, I never tend to stick to one form of expression, and hence people will always find reading what I write, disorientating. It is in fact, one of intentional conduct.

    As with the Iraq War, all techniques, styles, and actions have good and bad consequences, remarked and distillated into separate tradeoffs and gains.

    The way I look at it, some people are conservatives and say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

    Me?

    I say, “if it ain’t broke, try and break it”.

  10. Bezuhov Says:

    “brevity is the soul of wit”

    Ymarasakar has more to consider here than our host. I have difficulty making it through his comments, not so the original posts that engender them.

    Perhaps this is his difficulty:

    “For wit and judgment often are at strife,
    Though meant each other’s aid, like man and wife.”

    – Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism (l. 82)

    The sentiment our host kindles in me:

    “True wit is nature to advantage dress’d,
    What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”

    – Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism (pt. II, l. 97)

  11. Sissy Willis Says:

    Sometimes it’s hard to pare down one’s perfect prose, but often — with apologies to Mies — less says more.

  12. David Holliday Says:

    I like your writing, long and short.

    As an aside, I find it ironic, that after prognostications several years ago that email and electronic communication was killing the ability of people to write, that electronic media has fostered a growing population of writers that practice writing every day and excel at it.

  13. gcotharn Says:

    When I comment, I just throw it out there and publish. When I write on my own blog, I throw it out there, then I go through and clean up, and clean up, and clean up, and clean up, and re-arrange, and shorten – it is nothing for me to read through a blogpost 10-20 times before publishing – changing (and shortening) the post each time. When I can finally read through it without making changes, I go ahead and publish.

    Blogging has taught me the difficulty of writing, and the difficulty of thinking reasonably. Both are quite hard, unless you do them a lot. Many times I have gushed out material for a post, only to notice, upon reading through it, that my logic did not hold up to scrutiny. Had I not attempted to blog that reasoning, I would’ve gone right through my days clinging to that particular illogical opinion. Humbling.

    One last benefit of blogging has been to teach me to trust myself more, and to care about the approval of others less. You receive so much criticism when you blog, or comment. After a while, you start to notice the illogic and unreasonableness of much of the criticism, and you start to see how silly it is to desire the approval of such illogical persons. Over time, as your own opinions start to look relatively good in comparison to the unreasonble opinions, you begin to have more confidence in your own opinions, and you worry about the approval of others even less. At least, thats been my experience.

    Now, to type the password, and hit “publish”. “Preview”? Feh! Live on the edge!

  14. Ymarsakar Says:

    Just to dilineate my previous position in clearer ways, I am refering to one sentence positions, or at the most, 2 sentences. Not multiple paragraphs of descriptions.

    Such simple constructions such as “Bush is this way because of that, and this I believe”. Or the same thought broken in 4 separate sentences, all inaccurate and hard to tie into a single matrix of belief.

    It is the purposeful witholding of information, that I place the most importance on.

    The thing about Shakespeare is such that there is a specific combination of words, when formed together, that can strike at the soul of the question and the heart of the reader. Analogous to such things as the blitzkrieg and the a priori logical axioms of philosophy.

    The conflict as I see it, is how you arrive at the point from which your thoughts have coalesced into the final conclusion, without first going through the substantive and lengthy motions beforehand.

    I never did hold worth to the belief that great thoughts came at no cost in space or time. To me, great worth was always attached to great efforts and rather strenous deductive and inductive logic of the sort in which the unconscious mind plays as much part as the higher frontal lobes.

  15. camojack Says:

    As a “single digit” typist (that doesn’t mean I only have a single digit, just that I only use one with which to type) my comments are generally brief, or terse if you prefer, consequently somewhat cryptic at times.

    However, as William Shakespeare opined via one of his characters, “brevity is the soul of wit”.

    This shouldn’t ever be misconstrued to indicate a lack of thought, or a dearth of lexicon, only a pragmatic application of limited keyboard proficiency.

    But since the post was quite abbreviated, I figured I’d compensate to a certain degree by waxing loquacious.

    Know what I mean, Verne?

  16. Ymarsakar Says:

    Whenever someone writes short sentences meant for semi-literates, I get suspicious of their bias.

    You can’t analyze a person’s thought patterns or logical inconsistencies without the template and the data to work from.

    And you can’t have that without a lot of the person’s thoughts in written or spoken form.

    Like all open sourced data mining techniques, more may be harder but it also produces a more accurate verdict at the end.

    The statistical anomalies are far less in magnitude.

    The overall conclusive problem is simple. Those who don’t write much don’t practice enough to distill their opinions and views down into a paragraph or less. So what occurs is 50 questions, a waste of time. Not only is it harder to understand their view, it is not possible to have a true conversation on the net. We’re back to the olden days of writing each other letters, and waiting for a reply.

    In such cases… there is a kind of versimilitude to the clarity of thought in the length of proclamation.

  17. vanderleun Says:

    Even more boldly:

    “I’ve written before, here, about how hard it is for me to write short posts.

    Not any more.”

  18. vanderleun Says:

    If you really wanted to write short, you would have stopped at “There.”

  19. Nikolaides Says:

    I thought it was E.B. White who wrote to a friend, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter,” but in hunting around on the web, I see variations on the quotation attributed to White, Mark Twain, Pascal, and T.S. Eliot. SOMEBODY said it, anyway!

  20. Steve Says:

    Back in the day of handwriting let alone manual typewriters communication was much more difficult.

    Word processing since the early eighties has made it a lot easier to transfer thought to text.

    Email and internet has made it a lot easier to transfer text to audience.

    Together, they have brought text communication very close to oral communication.

    Of course when we are on the phone we don’t try to be as brief as possible — unless it’s long distance — but that’s the nature of this form of communication.

    Drafts and outlines would certainly cut everything down by 50% or more.

    But blogging is an exercise in self-expression and (mutual) communication and therefore we all tend to be lax.

    I think that you (Neo) should just do your thing. If you want us to be briefer, we will.

  21. Ymarsakar Says:

    The funny thing about the art of writing is that you find that you can condense it down to 50%, but it takes like 5 drafts to do it.

    If your first draft is relatively clean, and you don’t take that long editing, then there’s not a lot of incentive to shorten it down by using up more precious time.

    Heh. No. Can. Do. Telegraph slang.

  22. Mark Twain Books Says:

    Hmm, guess I need to write more often. It seems many great writers have this problem, but I do not. I seem to have writers block at the drop of a hat. Seems to take me forever to be able to write more than a few pages, unfortunately for me.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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