Writing Right with Dmitri: The Horror of TL;DR

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Writing Right with Dmitri: The Horror of TL;DR

Editor at work.

TL;DR. My readership today will divide itself into two categories: those who know what that stands for, and those who don't.

Explain, please, oh internet-savvy individuals. That's right. TL;DR is an abbreviation that means 'too long, didn't read'. It's not really as rude as it sounds. It's a reply in a forum – such as, say, a h2g2 thread – that admonishes a poster for hanging up 'walls of text' that are wearisome and bog the discussion down.

TL;DR is a warning: Be succinct, or lose our attention.

Even in long-form fiction, weariness sets in. Be honest: when is the last time you read William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, or Victor Hugo for fun? It's a matter of holding the attention. Modern readers want sentences that get to the point. That doesn't mean you have to abandon subtlety or skip process. It's a question of pacing. Here are a few handy hints.

  • Write shorter paragraphs. That white space gives the reader room to breathe.
  • Set up your stories in a way that's easy to follow. Don't stop in the middle and start on a long side trip.
  • Eschew 'completeness'. Tell the readers what they need to know, when they need to know it. Want to do a 'deep dive'? Set up the 'deep dive' in a later section.
  • Keep the action flowing.
  • Try not to bury the lead. Re-read that paragraph as if you didn't already know what it was going to say. Are you mentally screaming, 'Get to the point!' Aha. Go back and rewrite.

Can you write reasonably paced, interesting narrative without sacrificing depth? Of course you can. It's more work than nattering on and on, talking to yourself. But writing is work, remember. That's why not everyone does it well. Part of your rewrite process should be to ask yourself: how can I make this more fun to read?


Try rewriting this. Leave your suggestions at the bottom of this page. Then go and read my effort here. I put it on a separate page because it was too long, and so I could add a picture and paragraphs for readability.

And truly the scene was of a nature deeply to impress the imagination of the beholder. Towards the west, in which direction the faces of the party were turned, the eye ranged over an ocean of leaves, glorious and rich in the varied and lively verdure of a generous vegetation, and shaded by the luxuriant tints which belong to the forty-second degree of latitude. The elm with its graceful and weeping top, the rich varieties of the maple, most of the noble oaks of the American forest, with the broad-leaved linden known in the parlance of the country as the basswood, mingled their uppermost branches, forming one broad and seemingly interminable carpet of foliage which stretched away towards the setting sun, until it bounded the horizon, by blending with the clouds, as the waves and the sky meet at the base of the vault of heaven. Here and there, by some accident of the tempests, or by a caprice of nature, a trifling opening among these giant members of the forest permitted an inferior tree to struggle upward toward the light, and to lift its modest head nearly to a level with the surrounding surface of verdure. Of this class were the birch, a tree of some account in regions less favored, the quivering aspen, various generous nut-woods, and divers others which resembled the ignoble and vulgar, thrown by circumstances into the presence of the stately and great. Here and there, too, the tall straight trunk of the pine pierced the vast field, rising high above it, like some grand monument reared by art on a plain of leaves.

It was the vastness of the view, the nearly unbroken surface of verdure, that contained the principle of grandeur. The beauty was to be traced in the delicate tints, relieved by graduations of light and shade; while the solemn repose induced the feeling allied to awe.

James Fenimore Cooper, The Pathfinder

Mark Twain complained about Cooper's prose at length in an essay entitled, 'Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses'.

Cooper's word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but it is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he doesn't say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician.
'Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses'

Do you agree? Or do you long to read more of this sort of prose? My response to Fenimore Cooper is TL;DR. Your results may vary.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

02.03.20 Front Page

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