Friday, July 11, 2008

Apologia For Lengthy Papers

This issue comes up now and then: this time in private correspondence. Here's my reply.

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I think periodic complaints about the length of my writing are very much overdone as a criticism. I'm a thinker. I always write as much as I think is necessary to drive home whatever point I am making. You can observe that in this very letter. If there are four different ways to make an argument, I'll do all four, because that makes my case stronger and that much less able to be refuted.

And when one is defending the Church and spiritual and theological truth, I think those qualities are virtues, not vices. It's not like I'm writing about sports or the weather or something. These things (matters of faith) have eternal consequences and supreme importance. And so I write a post like one of my better-known ones: 150 Reasons Why I am a Catholic. You might say, "15 reasons would have more than sufficed." 15 is indeed good, but 150 is much better, which is the point. 150 reasons have a strong cumulative impact on the reader, which was precisely my goal: just keep piling on reason after reason, until the reader is overwhelmed with the number of things that Catholicism can offer over against its alternatives. It's almost a psychological goal as much as theological (starting from the very title). The good writer finds ways to persuade that go beyond the content in terms of ideas.

Secondly, on another less "weighty" level I understand that some people will think I put in too many words. That's fine. How can a writer possibly please everyone, anyway? It's silly for anyone to think that a writer can do that or come anywhere close. I always say, too, that if someone doesn't care for my writing, either its content or style, then I'm the first to tell them to find someone else who is more agreeable to their tastes. Different strokes.

This doesn't offend me at all, anymore than a blonde should be offended when a man prefers dark-haired women (that's me!!!), or Mozart should take offense because I often find him boring and am a lover of the romantic bombast of Wagner, or the champion Detroit Red Wings should be hurt because I couldn't care less about hockey (but love most other sports: both to watch and to play).

Thirdly, those who object to long posts of mine seem to be unaware that I have also done a ton of stuff that specializes in brevity. Two of my books are completely of this nature (The One-Minute Apologist and the bestselling New Catholic Answer Bible notes: both devoted to very short, summary explanations, with two and one-page sections, respectively). I've even compiled a list of my shorter posts:

33 Short Apologetics Papers For the Time-Challenged

Several times I've done playful posts replying to anti-Catholic critics who make this charge (desperate, for lack of any rational counter-reply), proving that the very ones who make the charge outwrite me literally by a 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 margin; sometimes even more than that. For example:

Anti-Catholics Poised to Utilize the "Too Long to Respond" Canard (Gene M. Bridges and "Saint & Sinner" [?] / The Hyper-Lengths of Steve Hays)

Double Standards On Lengthiness of Papers (Steve Hays' & Frank Turk's Gargantuan Output)

Perhaps the most hilarious example of this double standard is anti-Catholic writer, The Anonymous One (TAO). He once complained about one of my papers:
. . . that's 27 pages if printed on normal paper and adjusting font size up from 8.5 to 12, and there were plenty of off-topic excursions . . . frequently off-topic post . . .

The same person posted a ridiculously, breathtakingly long reply three months later to one challenge from one person that "generally focuse[d] on an exegesis of the parable of the sower." Now, how many words do you think that would require? One parable!!! Are you sitting down? It comes out to 56,103 words, or 182 pages in Times New Roman 12 font, with appropriate margins (the same I font and format I use with my Lulu books): all in response to someone's challenge regarding one parable. And this guy and other anti-Catholics want to complain about my lengthiness? This is perhaps the most absurd multiplying of words, on a limited topic at that, that I've ever seen anyone arguing theology on the Internet, write. This writing machine should be put to work revising a huge dictionary or a concordance. His talents mustn't be wasted!

I even did a satire of my voluminous output:

Making Fun of Myself: Paperback [Blogosphere] Writer

I've written seriously about this isssue in the past, too:

Why I Write "Long" Papers: A Short Apologia

The general trend in my writing is actually towards shorter entries, because I'm doing less dialogues than I used to (and I simply have less energy, as I approach the big 5-0: on the 30th of this month). In dialogue I answer my opponents point-by-point, so that requires a LOT of writing.

Fourthly, it's silly to criticize someone simply for length, when the far more important thing is the content of the writing: whether it is good or bad, and constructive and helpful to people.

Lastly, while various folks (nothing personal!) criticize my voluminous output and lengthiness, I continue to:
1) have three bestselling books in their field (Top 100), according to amazon lists (one of them, ironically, devoted to one-page summary apologetics inserts), and to

2) have a hand in helping (judging by "testimony" reports that I receive) hundreds of people to convert or come back into the Church, and

3) have a very successful blog, that continues my old website (that received Envoy's website of the year award way back in 1998, in just its second year of existence), representing now over eleven straight years of Internet impact. I'm almost up to a million readers now on my blog after 4 1/2 years, and close to 1.5 million page views. And that is not counting the numbers of readers for the previous 6 1/2 years, which could be another two million or more, for all I know.
I'm not trying to "brag" (this is what my harsher critics would immediately conclude, of course); I'm making an objective analysis of how a writer's success or lack thereof can be measured by some rationally ascertainable standard (not merely subjective tastes and preferences, that are valid, too, in their own more limited purview). If people were so turned off by my lengthiness, then why have a million kept coming back to my blog? Obviously, they think they are getting something out of my writing, and find it worth their time to keep visiting and reading. They're "voting" with their blog hits.

Even if some of these same people who keep coming back think I write too much, yet they keep reading and visiting, don't they? Obviously, then, for those people, they must think other factors besides length are more important. I certainly don't keep reading writers if I think they write way too much or are repetitious or lack content or exhibit some other annoying flaw. I know one guy in particular who consistently outwrites me by many many times (this cat has written more words than there are atoms in the universe), and he is getting 20-30 visitors a day average on his blog after five years. No one has the time to read his endless tomes, irregardless of content. I know I don't (i.e., when I used to visit). If I see that posts are of a certain inordinate length, I ignore them as a waste of time. I'm not all that different from anyone else in that regard.

But I don't get 20-30 visitors a day on my blog, so there has to be some major difference in play. If the "lengthy" writer has appealing content, so that the time spent is worth the effort (even "excessive" effort) folks will read him or her. Look at Tolkien, for example. I don't read fiction myself and would never ever sit and read his endless books (though I love the Lord of the Rings movies and the fantasy genre in general). But millions have done so, because his books are among the bestselling novels of all-time (perhaps #1). Length is irrelevant because they love the material and are entertained and have found a great diversion from life's problems.

My writing (most of it) is not to entertain, but to edify, so if folks keep coming back and reading, they must be edified and educated, and this trumps mere length. If you like a great movie, in other words, you won't mind at all if it is 170 minutes rather than 100.

Now, I submit this question to reasonable and fair-minded readers: is it more important and relevant to keep telling someone he writes too many words and isn't "succinct" enough, or is it true, on the other hand, that the only "objective" way a theological writer can be measured in terms of successfulness and impact is to see how many books he sells (people "vote" with their pocketbook, after all, and buy what they think is worthwhile) and how many lives he has affected (by the grace of God only, as a vessel) spiritually?

I have fun with this topic at times, as we saw above, but I also have some dead-serious reactions and observations about it, that I can never get anyone who makes these criticisms to talk about. Criticisms are readily made (they're a dime a dozen), but interaction with the reply of the one criticized is a far less common phenomenon, for some strange reason. Yet it is in that stage that something can actually be accomplished, if anything at all is to be achieved by way of progress in understanding (here my passionate adherence to the socratic method is coming out).

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