Thinking Out Loud

November 9, 2017

The Essential Art of Concision

I debated between calling this “The Lost art of Concision” versus “The Developing Art of Concision.” First, a definition is in order:

Therefore, when I speak of the concision as a developing art, I mean the necessity of being able to put ideas across in a short-and-to-the-point manner; something you need in a world of soundbites. Last year I wrote,

It was Noam Chomsky who introduced me to the idea of concision. I’ve taught it as, “You’re selling your car through a media which is charging you $1.50 per word. How do you describe your vehicle persuasively, but keep the cost down?”

But when I speak of it as a dying art, I’m thinking specifically of the migration of many bloggers from what I’m doing now — typing/writing words — to podcasting; and to Twitter’s decision to gift everyone with 140 additional characters on Tuesday evening.

Twitter is obsessed with the number 140. (Originally videos were limited to 2 minutes and 20 seconds, which is 140 seconds.)  The new length, 280 characters, doubles this even though 160 would have been a nice gift in itself. Or 180 or 200. 280 seems long, it seems to rob Twitter of it’s basic character, heretofore. But I didn’t always feel that way. When I joined, I wrote:

I can’t say what I have to say in 140 characters.

In case you missed it, I tend to write long.

But the word concision has come up on this blog somewhat frequently. Earlier this year I wrote,

I have for a long time questioned how much time sermon has left.  With all due respect to those of you currently honing your homiletic craft at either the undergraduate or graduate level, I really think that this particular form is destined to go the way of the CD or the land line phone. I’m not saying there aren’t some great preachers out there; I spend my evening hours listening to sermon after sermon online. But that’s me. For others there are a host of reasons why sermon doesn’t work. ADD or ADHD comes to mind. Some sermons are simply too long. Some say it’s just not how they learn. Some claim that high profile Christian pastors have simply set the bar too high and average pastors can’t achieve the quality that is now widely available online. Others would argue that we’ve become accustomed to media bursts, sound bites, and increased concision.

The Bible itself is amazingly concise. Readers are often fascinated to learn how narratives they had heard about — Creation, Jonah, The Prodigal Son — when they actually got around to reading them, were expressed in a very limited fashion. In an article about Christ’s ascension the subject was raised (pun intended):

A reader wrote, “We’re told… at his ascension that he will come again in like manner as they have seen him go.” But what do we know about that manner? How long were the disciples staring as he rose into the sky? Was there a low cloud ceiling that day? The Bible’s tendency to brevity and concision makes me think that perhaps God didn’t just beam Jesus up, but his ascension may have have been more prolonged; a vertical processional to heaven.

It also came up in a piece on diminishing attention spans:

You see this in the way books and articles in periodicals are written now; in fact you’re seeing it in the piece you’re presently reading. Pick up an older book — say 60 years or more old — and you might find an entire page consisting of a single paragraph. You might even find several consecutive pages consisting of a single paragraph. (I’m told that some chapters of Paul’s epistles were often a single sentence in the original Greek, no doubt a weaving of dominant and subordinate clauses that the reader of that time would follow easily.)

Today we use paragraph breaks to keep the content flowing; to keep the eyes moving on the page; to force us writers to adopt a greater degree of concision. Our writing is also broken up by more numbered or alphanumeric lists, by bullet points, by sub-headers and by pull quotes. (We use them often at Christianity 201, where the devotions are by definition somewhat longer, and we want to make what would otherwise be an entire page of text more interesting.)

The trend towards podcasting is actually surprising, given the push toward brevity in a bullet-point world. Have you ever thought of what a full transcript of your favorite podcast would look like printed out? It would run for pages and pages. A blog post on a similar topic would be less than 2,000 words, and easily digested in under 7 minutes. (Or spoken in 15 minutes. Compare word length to spoken time at this speech minutes converter.)  We wrote about podcasts on an article on the trend from literacy to orality:

Inherent in podcasting is the right to ramble. Listeners get the nuance that’s missing in a traditional blog post (and this is one of the great liabilities of email) but they have to take the time to wade through the host(s) stream-of-consciousness narration. There’s no concision, a quality that decades ago Noam Chomsky had predicted would be, moving forward, a key asset in communications. A great concept that’s probably a seven or eight paragraph blog post instead becomes a 53 minute podcast.  Andy Warhol’s comment that “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes;” might be modified to, “In the 21st century, everyone will have their own talk show or be the host of their own radio station.” 

As Christian communicators however, we have to be careful when we try to reduce to mystery or complexity of the gospel to a concise motto, slogan, tag line or formula. In an article titled What is the Gospel, I wrote,

I also think that, when considered in the light of the Jewish appreciation of the scriptures as a great jewel that reflects and refracts the light in infinite ways each time we look at it, the idea of trying to formulate a precis of the Bible is to venture into an endless and perhaps even frustrating mission. What would Jesus think of trying to consolidate something so great, so wide, so high, so deep into a finite number of words?  Concision is great, but maybe it doesn’t work here.

Anyway Twitter, thanks for the extra characters; but I earnestly hope I have the wisdom to not overuse them. Readers, it’s a busy world out there; keep it short!


Yes, today I basically quoted myself throughout this article. To further embellish Chomsky’s teaching on concision would have made the article…well…not so concise.

For those mystified by the final graphic image, TL/DR stands for Too long, didn’t read.

For further reference in thinking about the difference between podcasting and blogging, this article is less than 1,100 words; you can halve the minutes in the above example.

 

November 10, 2016

Diminishing Attention Spans

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:01 am

 

war-and-peace

When I was in high school, some of my cohorts weren’t interested in reading an entire novel or Shakespeare play and would purchase the Cliff Notes (sold in Canada as Coles Notes) instead. It was cheating to be sure, and sometimes English teachers would arrange test questions in a manner that only those who had read the text in full could answer properly.

save-time-summaryMore recently, when Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath was released, I discovered that similar products were alive and well, sold as Save Time Summaries, New Books in Brief, Instaread Summaries, and others. Seriously, why consume vast amounts reading the book when you can outsource that to someone else?

These attempts at gaining the knowledge of what a particular book contains are in some ways noble when compared to the prevailing attitude of “I didn’t bother” expressed by the acronym TL/DR — Too long, didn’t read. It turns up in a variety of settings.

Person A sends Person B an lengthy email, or a link to an article of substance and simply gets, TL/DR as a reply. Writers will sometimes include their own TL/DR summary in the first (or last) paragraph. (See below.) Reasons might include:

  • Our activities keep us so busy (or too distracted) that we don’t have time for a particular item if it’s over a certain length; or,
  • Exposure to different types of input/stimuli have left us with attention spans so diminished we can’t follow the argument/thread of a longer piece.

You see this in the way books and articles in periodicals are written now; in fact you’re seeing it in the piece you’re presently reading. Pick up an older book — say 60 years or more old — and you might find an entire page consisting of a single paragraph. You might even find several consecutive pages consisting of a single paragraph. (I’m told that some chapters of Paul’s epistles were often a single sentence in the original Greek, no doubt a weaving of dominant and subordinate clauses that the reader of that time would follow easily.)

pull-quoteToday we use paragraph breaks to keep the content flowing; to keep the eyes moving on the page; to force us writers to adopt a greater degree of concision. Our writing is also broken up by more numbered or alphanumeric lists, by bullet points, by sub-headers and by pull quotes. (We use them often at Christianity 201, where the devotions are by definition somewhat longer, and we want to make what would otherwise be an entire page of text more interesting.)

The use of varying rich text elements (changing fonts, bold face, italics, arrows, different types of headers and sub-heads) would probably surprise even an early 20th Century reader, let alone someone from the 18th or 19th Centuries. If the subject matter is cerebral enough, they might wonder why you’ve decorated as though it were written for children.

Again, in a visual-media saturated world, such things are necessary to keep the interest of readers, but if the piece is deemed too long, readers will pass. A coincidence we have three graphic images today? Maybe not.

TL/DR: The writer laments the increasing incidence of readers passing on material deemed too lengthy.

October 26, 2014

The Busyness of Life

Filed under: family, parenting — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:53 am

When Life is Busy

This is the three day schedule for a family we know that lives north of Toronto, Canada. My first reaction when I saw this was, “Hey, this is nuts!” But my second reaction was, “Hey, this is fairly normal for a lot of families.” I’m sure when their kids were younger it was no different, only it was about soccer practice and music lessons and youth group. So how is it in your family? To read this at source with additional commentary at Murray’s Musings, click this link.

Now that we’ve moved north of Toronto our daily ritual is figuring out who needs to be where and when and who their going to carpool with to minimize the number of cars that leave the driveway. With four cars and five people this could be easy — if money was no object — but the rising price of gas forces us to do our best to minimize movement.

However, we have three kids, in three different schools, me at work in the city most days, and my wife who has commitments in town at the Pregnancy Care Centre and visiting her Mom, so it makes for interesting schedules and planning.

For instance this is how our schedule has looked (or will likely look) this week:

Monday:

  • M, N, T & B leave at 6:30am
    • B gets dropped off at the bus stop in Newmarket (and this didn’t even work, as the bus got B to school 15 minutes late!!!)
    • T gets dropped off at school in North York
    • M gets dropped off at work in Scarborough
    • N takes car and visits Mom and goes to PCC
  • D takes leaves home at 8:00am
    • D parks at Don Mills and takes subway to school downtown
  • N picks up M at 4:30pm and drives home
  • D picks up T at 7:00pm and drives home
  • M picks up B at 10:15pm from bus stop in Newmarket

Tuesday:

  • B leaves for work at 6:30am in Newmarket
  • M & T leave at 7:00am
    • T gets dropped off at school in North York
  • D leaves for school at 10:00am (parks at Don Mills and takes subway to school)
  • N stays at home and works
  • B returns at 2:00pm
  • D returns at 6:00pm
  • M picks up T at 5:00pm and travels home

Wednesday:

  • B leaves for school at 6:00am and drives to Newmarket where she catches the YRT bus to York
  • M & T leave at 7:00am
    • T gets dropped off at school in North York
  • N & D leave at 9:00am
    • D gets dropped off at Don Mills subway and goes to school
    • N runs errands, visits Mom, and has a meeting in the evening in Scarborough
  • B returns from school at 3:00pm
  • M picks up T at school at 4:30pm
  • M & T pick up D at friends at 5:00pm and drive back
  • N returns from meeting at 10:00pm

April 23, 2009

Driving Against The Clock

Filed under: Christianity, family — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 2:57 pm

whatever-nexxt-clockFor some reason, it seems that every time we get in the car to go somewhere we are in a hurry.    The digital clock on the dashboard is a reminder that in order to get where we need to be on time, we really need to push it.   We call this situation, “Driving against the clock.”

First of all, I know some of you are thinking, “You need to ‘back-time’ your trips.”  Be assured, I am the master of back-timing.   I lay in bed at 4:00 AM thinking of what events need to take place before we leave and set the target departure time accordingly.

But then some of you are thinking, “In addition to ‘back-timing’ it, you need to also add a ‘buffer zone,’ some additional margin for unexpected delays.”  This is also good advice and we do that also.   Frankly, I’d rather arrive relaxed ten minutes early than be rushing in late.

Of course, some of you will say, “In addition to ‘back-time’ and ‘buffer zone,’ you need to analyze what throws you off your targets.   Are the events you need to do before you leave given sufficient time?   Should you set a larger buffer margin?”   These are good questions, perhaps you should go into the time management business.   Trust me, I’ve done the analysis and the problem is always something different every time.

Finally, some of you will dissect my original statement and say, “Obviously the problem is that you are driving against the clock; you need to let your wife drive and be free of the responsibility and pressure that comes with being the driver.”   While my wife will agree with this, and whereas it sounds good in theory; in practice I am a more restless and impatient passenger than I am a restless and impatient driver.   Being the driver at least keeps my hands and eyes busy.

Some day perhaps, I will ask God a question.   I’ll set it up by mentioning that in American football (for you Brits, it’s the one we play with a rugby-shaped ball) there are 50 yards on either side of the field.   In Canadian football there is an extra ten yards due to a “Center yard line;” though it’s probably spelled “Centre yard line.”   So my question would be, “Why couldn’t there have been a center-hour; midway through the day, that was neither morning nor afternoon, but a middle hour just for people like me to catch up?

At that point, He will probably look around and ask if anyone else has any questions.

So what have we learned today?   At the end of the day, we’re rarely late for anything.   That’s good, I suppose.   We just arrive totally frazzled.

Whatever clock sold at nexxt.com

Today’s Bonus — The Shack: Some Balanced Comments

With all The Shack-bashing taking place online, I thought posting links to these two reviewers would provide a bit of balance:


http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2009/04/the-shack-liking-it-wont-send-you-to-hell/
and
http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2009/04/seven-more-points-about-the-shack/#comments
Well known blogger C. Michael Patton at Parchment and Pen
along with 63 comments and over 200 comments respectively

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