I’ve never posted here before, at least not in any official capacity, but this post didn’t feel like it fit on my other site. What I want to talk about is a frustrating issue I see on websites I read: the notion that quantity of words is the same thing as quality of words.
Before we tackle that, there’s backstory needed. For 2017 I have been focusing on simplifying many areas of my life — this is not the same as minimalism, though the two terms are often confused.
Minimalism is reduction for the sake of reduction, whereas simplifying can be both reduction, or addition, whichever actually makes the “thing” simpler. Minimal, then does not mean simple, it means “less”. Simple means removing that which is complex. Often, having less can make things more complex — as counterintuitive as that may feel on the surface. I suspect most people think ‘simple’ and say ‘minimal’.
An example I read: an individual in his pursuit of minimalism had whittled his possessions down to just one towel — a hand towel. He uses this to clean his house, to clean and dry his dishes, and to dry his body after a shower. This is minimal. It is not simple. This creates complexity in his life. If he wanted to shower, then do dishes, then dry them — he has but one towel, so he first needs to wash and dry (one would hope) between uses. What’s simpler is having more towels.Minimal does not always lead to simple, and often makes things more complex.
In my pursuit towards simple, I kept seeing a phrase which is attributed to many:
If I had time, I would have written a shorter letter.
I love that phrase, and for much of this year it has guided what, and how, I write. That phrase codifies the notion of the complexity involved in making the most minimal statement possible. (And explains why people liked that Birdhouse twitter app. But hold one because this notion is complex as fuck.) And yet, the complex-to-make-yet-minimal statement, then becomes the simplest way to communicate something.
It takes time to write fewer words, because to do so something magical has to happen. What is that magic though?
I’ve written about the perverse nature of overly long bullshit on blogs before, so this was a refinement to my thinking. I couldn’t succinctly explain why I loved that quote until I read this one by Richard Feynman as mention recently by John Gruber and Jason Kottke:
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it
When I originally wrote the “Fifteen Hundred Words and Stop” post I linked to above, I didn’t have a word count associated. The reality is that word count doesn’t matter. Any written thing should be no more, and no fewer, words than is necessary. The problem with making this argument is how easy it is to counter: ‘I used what was necessary and that was 10,000 words.’ Bullshit, but whatever. I put a word count to avoid an easy excuse for many.
I couldn’t yet grasp how to explain this concept of why concise reviews are better, to those who have not explored it, because I didn’t fully understand it. I just knew it, but knowing and understanding are miles apart.
I understand it now.
The reason I hate reading an overly long review is not because I don’t want to take the time, but because those posts show a general lack of comprehension on the subject of the review by the writer themselves. And, if by chance, the writer has a masterful comprehension, then these reviews prove out the fact that what was written is not a review, but rather a walk through which was wrongly labeled.
I have no interest in walk throughs.
Here are the elements which make for a good, and a succinct, review:
Anything else is superfluous — and I am certainly guilty of the superfluous on this matter.
It took me until I saw that Feynman quote to see this, because at the beginning I could not write a short review of a backpack, and I couldn’t understand why I needed so many words for a bag. It was not until I fundamentally, at an embarrassingly deep level, understood what makes a good backpack, that I could then write a succinct review on a backpack. Because you can’t review even a backpack unless you truly understand backpacks.
Most people writing reviews do not have this level of understanding in their subject matter. It drives me nuts.
A typical reviewer stops once they reach the understanding of what makes something fundamentally good for them, in their personal use case, but not good in general, across a wide spectrum of niches. They’ve never done a deep dive to understand every element, use case, and more. They don’t go deep on the category before deciding they are qualified enough to write a review.
Most reviews get 75% of the way to a good review and then publish. That’s not a review, and would be more helpful as a tweet.
This is why most reviews are overly verbose. To go that last 25%, is to edit out 50% of the shit which doesn’t matter to anyone else, but which matters only to you. To simplify the argument is a complex task.
In other words: To take the time to make it shorter requires a fundamentally deep understanding of the subject.
When I write, striving for anything less then going all the way to remove this verbosity, is to treat those who may read my writings with disrespect. My genuine hope is these words find those who need them.
Copyrighted like a motha fucka