Tweet by Charles Dickens
(Not a real tweet)

What is Long Winds?

Among friends who have the misfortune privilege of being on the receiving end of my emails, or readers who have had occasion to see me in comments or on discussion boards, I have a reputation for long-windedness. I like to think of it as a reputation that also includes wit and thoughtfulness, but even if I’m not regarded that way by all, I’m pretty widely recognized as someone who won’t settle for a couple sentences when paragraphs will do.

I don’t set out to write that way, but it’s what comes out. I often start out with what feels like a short thing to express, but as the keys start clacking, I think of more points to express, more jokes to make, more potential misunderstandings or rebuttals that I want to preemptively address, and more commas just begging to be inserted. I would never advise that as a wise or efficient way to go about writing, but such is my process. Every once in a while I’ll make the effort to go back and tighten things up, but to paraphrase a famous quote of disputed origin, I usually just feel sorry that I didn’t have time to write something shorter.

When I’m feeling self-conscious about my verbose tendencies, or teased about it, I seek comfort in one of my favorite authors, Charles Dickens. I’m no Dickens scholar, but I’ve read enough of his work to have a feel for him, and my favorite novel of his is A Tale of Two Cities. In it, he pulled off one of the most famous openings and one of the most famous closings in all literature, which I facetiously mashed up into the fake tweet above. Here, though, is the actual opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles Dickens - "A Tale of Two Cities"

Take a close look at that paragraph. It’s not just a paragraph—it’s one sentence. I never set out to write like Dickens, and I don’t expect anyone to credit me with Dickensian skill, but I look at sentences like that—which are not at all unusual for him—and they make me feel like he must be my Spirit Animal whether I consciously selected him or not. Character limits are anathema to writing like that.

From time to time, especially in the context of some debate or disagreement with online strangers, I get criticized for length, or some bullshit nitpick like comma splicing, as picked by some nitwit who thinks more than two commas is all that comma splicing is. I direct your attention again to that opening passage. Would anyone like to say it was amateurish because the first sentence had fifteen commas? It’s not the number of commas—it’s how you use them.

A buddy who only meant to tease me once hurt my feelings without realizing it by comparing me to Tolstoy instead of Dickens. This was not some nerdy burn between English Lit majors. It was locker room teasing that my nickname should be “Tolstoy” because of my War-and-Peace-sized emails. That’s a mild tease and not enough to hurt my feelings; I joke about my long emails myself. What hurt my feelings was when I said if I was going to get a nickname for being long-winded, I’d prefer Dickens since his wit makes him fun to read, and my buddy’s response was, “Yeah, that’s why I suggested Tolstoy.” Well, ouch and fuck you very much. I’m sure it was just light-hearted trash talk to him, but I’ve thought of him as something of an asshole ever since.

I understand that more than ever before, people have short attention spans and think that anything that takes more than 20 seconds to read is a waste of time, but that doesn’t mean I concede the validity of the complaint. I agree that when the quality of writing is poor, shorter is better (or at least less tedious), but length alone is not a sign of bad writing.

...it's not my goal to come to those points as quickly and concisely as possible.

I can’t think of many kinds of writing where it would be true in the editing phase to think, “Hmm…this would be better if it was longer,” but when executed well, a longer, more winding path to the end need not feel like a waste of time. It can even be pleasant. Until recently, such paths were called books, articles, or essays, and many people enjoyed going down them. In the new era of character limits and getting impatient if one has to scroll more than a tiny screen’s worth of content, there’s fewer people strolling, and more people who get bored if there’s not a cat picture attached.

I could shake my stick at how written communication and attention spans have changed for the worse, but that’s as pointless as railing against horseless carriages or bathing suits that expose ankles for all to see. Change is always gonna come and I’m as mixed up in it as anyone. Like anyone else, I get annoyed at long-winded emails, comments, and posts that say too little with too many words, especially if they don’t know how to throw in some frickin’ white space for legibility. Despite all that, I know my preferred (or inevitable) writing style, I know at least a few people who seem to enjoy it, and I’m handy enough with blogging tools to carve out my own space to share it.

I’m calling this space “Long Winds” with at least two intended meanings. When pronounced like the kind of wind that blows, it’s a self-deprecating acknowledgement that yes, I’m prone to long-windedness. With less self-deprecation, it announces that what I post here will most likely wind around in a long and winding road kind of way. I’ll usually have some point to write about in the first place, but it’s not my goal to come to those points as quickly and concisely as possible. As much as anything, it’s my way of unpacking and organizing my own thoughts, but if I’m lucky, that process will be interesting or entertaining enough for people who aren’t in a hurry to wind along with me.

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