Tag Archives: why I write long posts

, , ,

Why I now side with Paul, not Eutychus

On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!” Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted. — Acts 20:7-12

St. Eutychus: Where being boring kills.

When I changed the name of this site from nathanintownsville to st-eutychus, I did it because I thought the story of Eutychus falling out the window in Acts — to his death — was hilarious. Eutychus will eternally be known as the guy bored to death by Paul’s preaching. Paul. Potentially the most effective teacher ever to have lived. In my reading of the story, for the sake of the title, he fell into the trap of preaching too long. As a PR hack, who wrote pithy 500 word press releases for a living,  I genuinely believed this trap was deadly.

So what’s happened?

Somehow in recent times the tagline of this site should almost be read as an indicative — this is the place where you might come to be drowned in words, lulled to sleep, and might fall from a window to your death. Where being boring kills. Yes.

This is deliberate. I’m raging agains the TL:DR; machine. If you want short, punchy, simplistic and inane reactive viral fodder, then, well, pith off.

I’m raging against this machine because I think Eutychus was wrong. I think being bored kills. I think Eutychus should have worked harder to pay attention to Paul, and to the world — he should have known the dangers of sitting on a window sill, in a dimly lit room, listening to someone speak for hours.

We’ve lost the ability to pay attention, and the only way we’ll gain it is to start paying attention. Copious attention. To the world, to the Gospel, to the people around us. TL:DR; (too long didn’t read) is at least as much an indictment of our collective failure to pay attention as it is on poor content that is too long and convoluted.

Sure, a thing might not be worth your attention — that’s on you to figure out, and your attention is yours to give. I’m writing as an attempt to pay attention to things myself. To notice. To seek understanding. To avoid knee-jerk outrage in response to whatever is going on in the world, and to try to understand the world as people see it, and the world as I believe people should see it. Attention is what is required to live well, and love well. It’s what prevents outrage, and what causes someone to bother with fact checking before sharing something designed to create outrage. Any pithy thing I ever do write — anything under 2,000 words, the posts I typically see shared the most — is always, always, the product of thinking I’ve extensively outlined, out loud, here already, at much greater length.

At the end of the day, I write about things that interest me, that I hope, over time, might prove of interest or value to others. You don’t need to pay attention to me or what I write. That’s fine — I don’t check stats, this stopped being about my ego or my ‘brand’ a long time ago. But I do feel like I need to keep explaining the shift of gears in this corner of the interwebs.

You don’t need to read everything I write — not even my wife or mother do that (I think dad might, hi dad) — but if I could leave you with one plea. One desperate, heartfelt, plea:

Please pay attention.

To the world.

To others.

Give it generously.

Lavish it in droves.

Use your brain, and your eyes, but think about what you’re filling them with. Ask yourself why we fill a 24-hour news cycle with 10 second grabs from spokespeople forced to reduce complex issues into a memorable zinger. Ask what that’s doing to our media, our politics, and our ability to be civil. Ask yourself why we’ve got a 24 hour news cycle that we then pad out with input from multiple devices, feeding us those same 10 second lines from those same glib speakers. Read Nicholas Carr’s famous piece Is Google Making Us Stupid. In his book, The Shallows, Carr says:

“Media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

The internet has the capacity to stop us concentrating, and contemplating — other words for paying attention.

And then he says, according to neuroscientists and because our brains are ‘plastic’ — they change as we use them…

“We become, neurologically, what we think”

The Psalmist behind Psalm 115 says:

But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see…

Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.

We become what we behold. And what we behold isn’t just the messages we pay attention to, but the mediums that deliver them too.

Paul, in Romans, says:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Things in this world shape us. Things external to us. You might believe you’re in control of this shaping, but the only way to be in control is to pay attention — Christian or not — testing and approving of how you live and the decisions you make is what keeps you in the driver’s seat for your brain, and what keeps us able to live well in this world.

Ask yourself if you really believe that we become what we behold — then ponder why media theorists, theologians, and neuroscientists all agree that the information we consume, and the way we consume it, has the power to shape the way we think and physically re-shape our brains and communication.

Maybe a ten second sound bite or a seven hundred word opinion piece isn’t enough to do justice on any real issues in this world. And maybe consuming these things and thinking they do our thinking for us is starting to cost us our ability to see the world well, and thus live in it well. Maybe you’ve got to read ten seven hundred word opinion pieces, or one seven thousand word opinion piece to really know what’s going on, and to react appropriately.

That’s what I think. That’s why I’ve switched camps from Eutychus to Paul. Paul was also a nice guy. He didn’t punish Eutychus for not paying attention, he saw what happened and picked him up.

And then he talked some more. From midnight to dawn. That’s a lot of words. Because sometimes its words that give life.

St. Eutychus: Where being bored kills.

,

5 reasons my posts are often so very, very, long

One overwhelmingly common response to stuff I’ve been posting here in perhaps the last couple years (it hasn’t always been like this) is that there are just too many words. Here’s an attempt to explain why this happens. Just read the headings if you want the short version. I’ll use this post a bit as something to link people to when they ask about the length of my posts (or complain about them). But here’s an answer, or five, to a question you just might be asking every time you see me post anything with the words “it’s long, but…” appended to the link.

1. I write to dump my thoughts somewhere without editing. Editing would significantly, significantly, change and lengthen the time I invest here that I need to invest elsewhere.

“I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.” — Blaise Pascal (and many others)

I don’t do this for money, or attention. I think of this site as something of an external version of my brain. I do it to clarify my thinking, to offer my thoughts, unedited, to others, and to take part in wider discussions. I like to think that what people experience when they read my stuff, in bits and pieces, or as some sort of integrated whole, they’re getting a sense of how my brain works and how my thinking develops (or doesn’t). In one sense my greatest desire is to be understood. Sometimes people like what I write, and share it, but I’ve been blogging for nine years now and have never particularly cared about traffic. I very, very, rarely look at stats for my blog.

I don’t edit because I don’t have time. I have a wife. I have two young kids, with another one due in the next two weeks. I have a pet dog. I have a church family. I have a job. Writing takes me away from these things some times. To be honest, I spend too much time here for too little tangible return in the relationships that matter most (though I think the clarity and catharsis writing brings me helps me be a bit better at many of these jobs, perhaps with the exception of the dog).

2. Life and truth are sometimes more complex than 140 characters or a clickbaity list of n-things might allow

The internet is great for many things. But complexity isn’t always one of them. Our world reduces complex arguments to soundbites and slogans. The internet is not like a traditional media outlet with limited column space or airtime. Which is great, but it also means people sink to the bottom in order to compete for attention. Hence headlines that promise I don’t want to do that. Maybe I overcorrect. But I want to subvert the patterns people adopt to “succeed” online, because I don’t think traffic is success. I’m much more interested in developing some sense of what it looks like to be a virtuous writer and citizen in this new media landscape (here’s part 1 on humility, and part 2 on eloquence, from a never completed five part thing I once started on what this looks like).

3. Context takes time (and words) to establish

I don’t assume that anybody reads every post I write. And I don’t assume that people who read stuff here know me in real life. But since I want to be understood, I feel like each post has to present who I am and how the thing I’m writing about is a product of point 1, but I also want to be showing my workings a bit. I want to provide this context for people. But this isn’t the only sort of context I’m interested in. I want to show how a post relates to other posts I’ve written (because that’s how my brain works, nothing really gets developed in isolation, the integration of thoughts and ideas is what gets me excited).

Again. This isn’t the only way I think context works. I want to fairly represent others too. I quote large slabs of other sources, especially the Bible, because I don’t want to rip things or thoughts away from their own context without care. I also don’t expect people to follow a link to an external site to check that I’m representing a third party well. If I’m disagreeing with someone I want their argument to be clearly represented. I haven’t always done this well. But I want to treat others online the way I hope to be treated when someone wants to disagree with me.

Also, just for the record, I’ve posted more than 6,000 articles here, and the average length per post is just 258 words, so it may be that I’m not actually as wordy as you think, you might just be reading something that someone else has decided is worth sharing because they think it could be of value for you… According to the stats (at least a couple of years ago when I did check my stats as an experiment), my longer posts are shared more frequently than short posts, which seems to fit a broader trend. According to this article in the Huffington Post:

“We analyzed the top 10% most shared articles to see if this was the case. And according to our research, the opposite is true. On average, long-form content actually gets shared more than short-form content.

If you look at the chart below, the longer the content, the more shares it gets, with 3,000-10,000 word pieces getting the most average shares (8859 total average shares). Not surprisingly, there was a lot more short-form content being written. How much more? There were 16 times more content with less than 1000 words than there were content with 2000+ words.”

That’s enough about me. Here’s some about you.

4. Your media habits shape your brain. 

Do you want your brain to be shaped by a bunch of unnuanced, sensationalist, short garbage that moves on quicker than a newspaper becomes fish and chip wrapping? I don’t.

The way we use media profoundly rewires our brains. Here’s a (long) six part series on how social media rewires our brains, picking up some insights from neuroscience, theology, and media ecology.

Maybe you should take time to read a bit. It’s good for your brain. Take some time out, grab a coffee. There’s a little thing at the top of each post that even warns you how many minutes an average reader might take to read every word. I don’t think people consume the web like this. Eye-tracking technology shows that when people are reading something online they scan for headings, and tend to scroll quickly through a page to see if it’s worth investing in. Slate.com has a cool article on how people read things online, even long things, that explores this a bit, I try to write knowing that people will tune out when they feel like they’ve had enough. A blog post from Buffer, an online media tool, suggests 1,600 words is the ideal length for a blog post, which is longer than most people think they want, and equates to about ten minutes of reading time. This post will be just shy of that.

5. It’s possible your complaint about something being too long means its not actually written for you. And you should simply stop reading when you stop being interested

There’s a strong argument that has been made by people I respect that what I write as a Christian, where whatever gifts I have in this area coming from God for the benefit of others, should serve as many people as possible and that means making my writing as accessible as possible. Which means shorter. I think there’s some truth here. But I also believe the primary people I’m called to serve are those in my family, and my church family, and that takes time which I can’t devote to making this site more useful for you. Sorry. And I’m not always sure shorter is better, as the above suggests…

Look. I know you’re busy. Who’s not?

But it’s also possible that your assumption that your time is somehow more precious than mine, and those I serve with it, misses the point that reading anything on the internet is a completely opt-in activity. You can choose to close the tab any time. It’s not like a sermon where if I waffle for ten minutes, to 70 people, I’ve wasted 700 minutes for people who couldn’t easily leave. The opt-in/opt-out distinction is incredibly important, it’s a bit like permission marketing v interruption marketing (see wikipedia).

Perhaps when I post something it’s not for you. Perhaps its for me. Perhaps its for the one person googling something a year from now. One of the other media ideas that fascinates me is the idea of the long tail, that it’s not initial ‘viral’ success that counts, but a thing that has a long shelf life that is returned to by a few people here and there over a long time. Incidentally, that’s why the most ‘successful’ thing I ever wrote is the recipe I shared for Sizzler’s Cheese Toast (which is a super short post).