Long form writing has seen a bit of a rebirth in the last few years. The difference between long form and short form writing is best illustrated by the difference in a single, local newspaper article and a 10 page New Yorker article. Beyond the different lengths (1,000 words seems to be the accepted cut-off for long form versus short form), the goals of each are different as well. A quick news article is short, sweet, and on point with regards to what happened, where, and how. Long form provides more in-depth explanation that supplies context and perspective on the topic. It allows a reader to engage more with complex subjects and dig below the surface. Both have their place, but the balance between your consumption of long form versus short form writing is important.
There is an incredible amount of information for authors on why writing long form or short form is better. I’m here to ask you to read more long form writing to better balance the mix with short form. There are selfish reasons, of course. While I don’t consider my writing to be long form, most of my posts do fall between 2,000 and 3,000 words. Personally, I don’t think my writing would hold a candle to most accomplished long form authors. However, there are many benefits to adding more long form to your mix of reading.
The numerous forms of long form writing each add to a more well-rounded and thoughtful individual. Classic books provide for perspective beyond our modern age. Sometimes realizing that the human condition has changed dramatically through the decades and centuries can be enough to allow your mind to open more fully. Today’s societal structure is not the only way to organize ourselves. Novels allow your underlying creative juices to work and grow behind the scenes. And today’s non-fiction writing, especially when it involves topics outside of your comfort zone, can help generate solutions that you would have never thought of without reading it. Often, persistent problems are just a result of the same old thinking and a solution in an unrelated subject can provide the jumpstart needed to solve them.
Long form writing helps to build concentration and depth of thinking. It forces us beyond the superficial and challenges us to go beyond our preconceived notions. In today’s world of complex problems, reading long form provides us the ability to break through the chatter, and maybe, just maybe, form our own well-thought out opinion.
What Short Form Creates
Short form writing has a lot of advantages over long form. It gets the author’s point across quickly and easily. It can be visually appealing and less intimidating than looking at a 10,000 word tome. It is inexpensive to create and hence, there’s a lot of it. But short form writing creates a lot of problems too.
Short form writing tends to be shallow. Not shallow in the negative sense (at least not necessarily), but shallow in the sense that you can only go skin deep in a few paragraphs. There’s no ability to provide needed background, or the multiple points of view that are relevant to any topic. There’s a risk that we mistake imitation for originality, and originality is something that is sorely lacking today. With as much content as is available today, weeding through the garbage to find the good stuff is both more difficult and more important than ever. With exclusively reading short form, we run the risk of having breadth, but no depth on any topic. A Jack or Jill of all trades, but a master of none.
Our ability to focus and concentrate as a whole appears to be decreasing. Anecdotally, I feel that my ability to absorb large amounts of information in a single sitting has decreased in the last 10-15 years. From the time I received my first smartphone (a Blackberry, at the risk of showing my age), I seem to be able to only read a couple of paragraphs or a couple of pages before getting an itch to look at something else. Particularly with online reading, be it blogs, articles, or white papers, I do far more skimming and find myself constantly switching between browser windows. This lack of concentration and focus concerns me, and I suspect that I am not alone. This problem is something we should all work to correct.
The natural next question becomes, is short form changing our minds negatively? The Atlantic published an article by Nicholas Carr in 2008 called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”. The crux of the article was about both the anecdotal decreasing of attention span and the lack of ability to do serious research beyond a Google search. As the story noted, Google returns the most popular site based on the search term, not the most correct one. But I was more interested in the discussion regarding the impact that the internet, text messaging, and yes, blog posts, were having on the mind. Much like any other muscle, the brain must exercise or it loses strength. Also much like any muscle, cross-training and doing different types of workouts make for a stronger and fitter body. Reading only short form is like only doing only squats to work your legs; what about presses, lunges, or curls?
Perhaps what is most interesting about the changing mind is this: neuroscience has determined that the adult brain is still surprisingly pliable. While adults can’t rewire their brain as quickly as children can, the neuropathways are not set in stone. The brain of an illiterate individual is structurally different from a brain of someone who can read. Does jumping from story to story and only reading 300 words at a time change our brain? Seems likely, but more importantly, what does this change do to our ability to solve big problems?
Build Concentration and Focus
Can reading only short form writing be that bad? And if it is, can reading long form writing change things for the better? As Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, says, “We are not only what we read. We are how we read.” Long form reading has several benefits over short form; benefits that both impact us personally as well as those around us.
From an individual perspective, reading long form can help to improve concentration. Concentration is the ability to focus your mind and body on a single task for long periods of time. Microsoft did a study recently that found the average attention span of a person is only eight seconds. Eight seconds! That’s a drop from 12 seconds as recently as 2000, so yes, it appears as though all this web browsing, texting, and short form reading is negatively impacting our ability to concentrate.
Concentration helps to improve your memory and helps you work more efficiently. How many times have you read a paragraph or a whole page only to get to the end and have no idea what you just read? If you’re like me, this happens more often that you’d like. Reading long form helps build the brain muscle that allows us to concentrate for longer periods of time. Not having to reread something or having the ability to remember more of what we read gives us a huge advantage over others. The ability to retain and quickly access things that you’ve learned and read has positive impacts on performance. Multitasking, which is definitely not a friend of efficient and effective work, diminishes as well. Our desire to multitask is merely a reflection of our inability to focus. Building concentration and focus reduces that need.
I’ve written recently about deep versus shallow thinking. Our understanding of the way the brain works is quite limited and where and when “Eureka” moments will happen is impossible to pin down. It’s amazing how you’ll find a solution to a nagging problem at work or at home while doing something completely unrelated. A solution to a project your boss gave you pops into your head while raking the lawn or figuring out a way to get your kids to work together comes to you while you zone out in the car. Deep thinking doesn’t imply that you sit still and concentrate on a specific problem; rather, it allows those thoughts far below the surface of your brain to percolate.
Our modern daily living forces us to jump from one issue to another. Rarely do we get long periods to focus. Reading long form allows the back of your mind to mull over ideas more easily than jumping from one topic to the next does. Much like deep thinking promotes independence and creativity, so too does reading long form. An article written by Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman in Scientific America in 2009 discussed the concept of “psychological distance” and the positive impact it has on creativity. Psychological distance relates to anything that we do not experience as occurring here, now, or to us. It allows us to identify our problems in a more abstract and non-personal way. This distance lets us contemplate more nuanced and uncommon solutions than if the problem was perceived in a more concrete fashion. It’s a fascinating topic, and dispels the complaint that “I’m just not very creative.” Yes, some people may be more creative than others at an absolute level, but they may also be better at promoting psychological distance in themselves. The use of long form reading can help us achieve some of that distance.
Today’s Problems are Complex
Today’s problems are complex and go far beyond simple solutions. Climate change, economic inequality, racial tensions, automation, and geopolitical conflict are all big problems with layers of webbing connecting different players. Simple solutions, unfortunately, don’t exist.
Facts matter and building depth of knowledge helps us to be more informed. Just because you feel something is true does not necessarily make it true. Reading a single quick article or picking up a “fact” from your friends on Facebook does not make you an expert and should absolutely not solidify your opinion. Hardening your opinion in the face of opposition is a sign of weakness, not strength. We should always be open to other arguments and be willing to change our opinion as the facts emerge or change. Pragmatism should be our goal. Changing an opinion has become political taboo for some reason, but we should instead view it as a sign of emotional maturity and strong personal character.
Long form writing provides a narrative around a problem and gives context and perspective. Context provides an understanding of both the internal and external forces acting in the problem. Reading long form allows for a more complete understanding of the facts, laid out in a more objective manner. Opinion naturally lends itself to short form writing, while long form can help lay out abstract ideas and specialized terms. Do you know what thermohaline circulation is in the context of climate change or what the Gini coefficient is in the context of economic inequality? Thermohaline circulation is the ocean circulation caused by heat and salinity differences that allows, for example, the United Kingdom to have a moderate climate even though it’s further north than Labrador, Canada (London has a 10° Fahrenheit higher average temperature in winter). The Gini coefficient is a statistical measurement representing the level of inequality in a country or organization. Knowing these things is important to understanding the nuances of these problems. Without long form writing, we may never learn more than a cursory understanding.
Mix It Up
I am not suggesting that you stop reading short form writing. Such a task would be impossible anyway. However, we’ve become too heavily tilted to reading short form. Adding more long form writing to your life, in many different types of mediums, helps make us more well-rounded and complete individuals. It also gives us an advantage over our peers. Reading white papers on a subject helps you develop expertise. Reading well-written and researched articles about today’s problems provides context, perspective, and even some level of understanding that allows us to have conversations with each other and maybe find common ground. Reading classic novels and writings from history allow us to think about the human condition in the broadest sense; we haven’t always lived this way and we don’t necessarily have to.
Adding long form to your reading has both personal and broad based benefits. Improving concentration and focus, allowing deep thought, and developing creativity help us with our careers, our family, and our personal goals. The better understanding that arises from long form benefits us all as we can use a more pragmatic approach to solving our personal and collective problems. So get off twitter for a while, stop reading this blog, and go pick up a book you wouldn’t normally read!
Keep building my friends.