Almost every time that one of my posts is widely shared on Facebook and Twitter, I can predict with some certainty that I will receive several remarks among the length and style of my writing. These remarks run the gamut from humorous digs from friends to harsh judgments upon my character from hostile critics. I find these more of an amusement than an irritation.
I happily admit that my posts are about as far from concise as one finds online. My five most read posts, each with several thousand hits, are 3,952, 3,427, 10,937 (the fourth part of a series), 5,436, and 5,194 words in length, in order of their popularity. I am halfway through a forty part blog series that already runs to 80,000 words and I am currently writing a blog post that already exceeds 20,000 words (watch this space). Such blogging habits make a startling contrast with the general norm, for which blog post length probably hovers somewhere between 500 and 1000 words. Reading through such lengthy posts is far outside the comfort level of most people’s attention span. I suspect that many, perhaps most, people read the first couple of thousand words and then move on.
While my prose is very accessible compared to the texts of academic theology and philosophy that I read, it is a great deal denser than the more journalistic or popular pieces that are more common in the blogosphere, and fairly atypical of pieces that are not explicitly written for an academic audience. I do not know of many blogs that are comparable in style and length, although Ribbonfarm, one of my very favourite blogs, isn’t too far off.
As people so often ask me why I don’t make the effort to write shorter posts and in simpler prose, I thought that it would be worthwhile to devote a post to the subject, so that I have a ready answer to which to direct anyone who asks me in the future.
One of the reasons for my style is my desire for my blog to serve as a place where I can think out loud. I want to take on big subjects and deal with them thoroughly, reasoning through them comprehensively and methodically, rather than merely tackling matters in a piecemeal fashion or articulating the conclusions of thought that occurred elsewhere. I think and learn by writing and my blog is primarily a tool for my own thought. I want to write as I am thinking through issues, rather than as a report declaring the conclusions arrived at by thought that occurred elsewhere. If I had to adopt the latter approach, my blog would cease to serve much of its original purpose, and I would be less inclined to use it.
I see this blog less as a means for publicizing my ideas than as a place where my thinking can find a home, in the company and community of a select group of interlocutors. This is the audience for whom I write. Although on occasions a post of mine will reach an audience of many thousands beyond this core community, it is not for that audience that I chiefly write and I will always prioritize my interests and those of my core readership over everyone else.
I also want my readers to leave, not merely with a set of answers or even stock arguments, but with some of the means with which to reason creatively through some of the matters under discussion for themselves, and with an understanding not merely of my position but also some grasp of the manner by which I arrived at it. A huge concern for me has always been to think about how everything fits together. Expressing this in my writing will usually require that I anticipate lots of objections, identify root dynamics, marshal a lot of evidence, and come at an issue from several angles. This means that my writing will be lengthier, more rambling, and often difficult to read, and will require patience, perseverance, determination, and commitment from the reader. However, I would like to believe that those who are prepared to take the effort to read in such a manner will be rewarded.
Not long after I started blogging, almost ten years ago, I realized that, if I were to retain my sanity, I would need to keep clear boundaries, blogging on my own terms, rather than those of my audience. If I were to allow others to set the terms of the style, frequency, and subject matter of my blogging, it would soon become a chore and a burden and I would abandon it. I would start to work for my blog, rather than my blog working for me.
My blogging here is appalling inconsistent. I will go for weeks without posting anything and then have a flurry of posts. I will start series and abandon them, or only return to them after a considerable delay. Many posts are occasioned by some online discussion (the dynamics of online theological discourse and communities being a particular interest of mine), while I tend to view the bread and butter of my posting as being posts on biblical theology.
My blog isn’t a public service from which you can expect consistency, predictability, and efficiency, but an inconsistent and random assortment of my ramblings on a wide range of subjects. Sometimes I will talk about one thing for months on end. Other times I will jump from subject to subject with some rapidity. Having the freedom to use my blog completely on my own terms makes it a pleasure, something to which I will always want to return. I regard my blog as somewhat akin to my front yard. When something is going on, I enjoy having friendly passers-by stopping and joining in or lingering to watch, provided that they are happy with things not operating on their terms.
However, perhaps the most important reason why I write with the style and length that I do is as an act of resistance to the prevailing forms of writing and discourse in many quarters of the Christian online world (for a very detailed discussion of this, read this series). I have argued in the past that this online world is often ruled by reactive cycles and by unhealthy emotional dynamics, such as those of outrage. Many people showing little capacity to extricate themselves from the polarizations that characterize it.
Everyone participates in these discourses and reactive cycles, encouraging a lowest common denominator form of communication. While discourses in the past would typically exclude most of the public from direct participation, with gifted and articulate representatives advocating for particular positions, now there are hardly any barriers to entry, no moderation, and few quality controls. The result is much as you would expect. Most people are incapable of keeping a cool head under such circumstances and few are truly knowledgeable concerning the subject matter of debates, so we are left with considerable heat and little light. Conversations move like firestorms of reaction through social media, making it very difficult for careful reflection to occur and saner voices to calm things down.
When most people have undertaken little detailed study of the issues under debate, do not have a deep grounding in a canon of sources (especially, in this case, the Bible) of which knowledge could previously be assumed, and have little relevant training, the quality of debate will typically plummet. I have argued in the past that a significant number of people in many Christian debates lack the necessary level of literacy or skills and virtues as a reader to process adequately what is being said.
The form of communication that has increasingly come to prevail in many contexts is one where the forms of advertising replace those of close theological or discursive reasoning. This form of discourse functions primarily in terms of impressions and emotional resonance, rather than in terms of logic, evidence, or careful demonstration. People raised by TV, advertising, and such forms of communication, for which persuasion occurs primarily through impressions rather than developed reasoning, often lack the capacity to process traditional reasoned arguments. Attempts to forge a productive conversation that includes such persons will seldom achieve any success.
Texts written for and by such persons tend to be written in very simple, universally accessible prose, with short and often incomplete sentences, paragraphs that frequently consist of a single sentence, and simple vocabulary and syntax. They are designed to create impressions, typically emotional ones, to which people can react by affirmation or opposition, rather than responding with counter-arguments.
Given the nature of our context, I have purposefully chosen to communicate in a manner designed to shape the discourse according to my principles. When the length of my writing alienates people with short attention spans and little self-discipline, this is as I intend. My writing is written for people who recognize that, when you read a text, you are the servant of it, rather than being written for people who see the author as someone who always has the duty to make their reading as effortless as possible as word consumers. I write as a way of selecting and producing readers who are attuned to my patterns of thought or prepared to become so, readers who approach reading as a discipline and seek to be attentive, sensitive, and responsible to the authors that they read. Readers accustomed to reading texts on their own ease of consumption driven terms are the most inclined to use texts against their authors’ intentions.
Lengthy and dense prose stifles the processes of reactivity. It temporarily removes people from reactive environments and challenges them to think and to control their impulses. It doesn’t lend itself in the same way to mere ‘like or dislike’ reactions, calling for processed response, rather than instant reaction.
Good thought writing should not merely give us content, but by its very form, it should train us in the art of thinking appropriately about its subject matter (this is one reason why philosophical writing can be some of the most difficult of all writing to read). This is especially important in the context of the Internet, where intelligent and reasonable discourse is beset by myriad threats. In such a context, good thought writing will often be difficult to read, as it must pressure us to develop habits of reading for which online media are seldom in themselves conducive. As such, writing is the imposition of a discipline upon the reader by the writer, a discipline designed to help him or her to develop the hermeneutical skills and virtues of a gifted and truly literate reader.
Wittgenstein, for instance, once remarked that he wrote to slow his readers down, preventing them from reading at the pace to which they were accustomed. Accustomed to a journalistic style, we have been trained to read texts rapidly and inattentively. The careful thinker must often learn how to read all over again. This is especially important for Christians.
In conversations filled with shrill but uninformed voices, without the more traditional means of policing the boundaries of discourse and restricting it to those who are competent to engage in it appropriately, we must develop other effective means of excluding people who lack the capacity or knowledge that must be a prerequisite for every participant in a conversation that hopes to yield genuine insight.
Wittgenstein once observed: “The book must automatically separate those who understand it from those who do not. … If you have a room which you do not want certain people to get into, put a lock on it for which they do not have the key.” Nietzsche wrote: “all the nobler spirits select their audience when they wish to communicate; and choosing that, one at the same time erects barriers against the others.” My style is designed to press people to develop the skills of developed argument and sensitive reading, to resist the populism of consumer-driven ‘thought’ pieces, and to learn to operate with the machinery of thought themselves, rather than expecting to have its pre-packaged results handed to them. It helps to weed out most of the impatient, reactive, and illiterate early on. As such my length and style serves as the lock on the door of the discourse that I want to encourage here.
One thing that I forgot to make explicit in the post, which really should be stated, is that this is why I so value those who are in regular conversation with this blog, whether in comments, or in other contexts (e-mail discussion lists, other blogs, Twitter, Facebook, forums, etc.). I am acutely aware of the fact that my blog requires dedication and perseverance to read. I have always appreciated that most of the work that occurs on this blog is undertaken by my readers, rather than by me. This is one reason why, for instance, I have always sought to go to considerable effort to give detailed responses to comments, even though I know that they may only be read by one person. I am fortunate to have such determined and faithful company as I seek to sharpen my own thinking. The fact that many are prepared, time after time, to accord my writing such generosity, is not something that I take for granted. I write to select for patient, charitable, and careful readers and feel immensely blessed to have found many.