Call them long reads if you must, but in-depth journalism online can’t begin with the word count

“Long reads” is a term I’ve quickly come to dislike, mainly because it’s often bastardised to mean something that’s been horribly over-written to imbue it with a sense of importance that is content doesn’t deserve. But it’s quicker than saying “journalism with so much detail, authority and colour that it needs a couple of thousands words to do it justice”, so I’ve had to learn to bear it.

Source: Call them long reads if you must, but in-depth journalism online can’t begin with the word count

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen someone share a link while summarising it as ‘good, but long’. Why the but? Surely if it is good then you would want if not as much as possible, then at least a bit more?

The article above discusses longer articles and features from a local publisher’s perspective. In my most recent job I would grit my teeth when I needed to commission an article from an academic and told to give them “500ish words”. For that site, a place to learn things, that’s often barely enough space to set the scene of the article. People who are interested in a topic, whether they’re novices or experts, will read something for as long as it remains interesting. That’s the key—it’s not ‘how long is it?’, it’s ‘how interesting is it?’.

Anyway, long live long reads, I guess? You have a stupid name but you are generally miles better than a 300-word amuse-bouche of a thing.

Writing as collage

You might think of my novel as a short book composed entirely of a long book’s quotable passages. Where stolen words are concealed within the body of the narrative. Writers are magpies. The prior visions of other poems are, for a true poet, as powerful as his own dreams and as formative as his domestic childhood. A man will turn over a library to make one book. Skim off the cream of other men’s wits, pick the choice flowers of their tilled gardens. Reassembling fragments of pre-existing images in such a way as to form a new image. Art is theft: the singularity of thievery.

Source: Notes on Craft | Jeremy Gavron | Granta

Jeremy Gavron’s novel, Felix Culpa, is a detective story composed mostly of fragments taken from one hundred other works of literature. This is a type of remix or collage that I’ve not encountered before; a sort of intentional, full-throttle plagiarism of words in order to create something new.

6 linguistic functions of emoji

  1. Substitution: a 🖼 is worth a thousand words, so why not prefer it to 📰?
  2. Reinforcement: the use of repetition to indicate strength of feeling 💯 💯 💯
  3. Contradiction: undermining what has been written through irony or sarcasm 🤔 🙃
  4. Meta-comment: the use of emoji to clarify the writer’s emotional state or attitude to what they are writing 🤷‍♀️
  5. Emphasis: underlining or emboldening, e.g. the word ‘weekend’ next to 🍷 or 🍻
  6. Discourse management: 🆒 the way emoji are used as punctuation in a conversation, usually appearing at the beginning or end of a statement 🔚

(adapted from Vyvyan Evans’ book The Emoji Code.)

The Daily Stormer’s style guide

Ashley Feinberg for The Huffington Post:

Back in September, Vox Day, a Gamergate holdover who has assumed the position of racist alt-right figurehead, published a handful of brief excerpts from what he described as the “Andrew Anglin” style guide. For the blissfully unaware, Anglin is a neo-Nazi troll and propagandist who runs The Daily Stormer, one of the more prominent sites of the white supremacist web. The passages selected by Vox Day in his blog post suggested that Anglin is persnickety about detail and presentation ― except on the subject of the Jews, who are to be blamed “for everything.”

HuffPost has acquired the 17-page document in its entirety, as well as transcripts from an IRC channel where the document was shared in an effort to recruit new writers. It’s more than a style guide for writing internet-friendly neo-Nazi prose; it’s a playbook for the alt-right.

This is, as you’d expect, appalling. It’s also fascinating; the lengths to which they will go to (a) blame ‘everything on the Jews’ and (b) create a state of confusion, all wrapped up in the sort of guide you see elsewhere:

The guide is particularly interested in ways to lend the site’s hyperbolic racial invective a facade of credibility and good faith. Or at the very least, in how to confuse its readers to the point where they can’t tell the difference. The Daily Stormer, for instance, uses block quotes for much the same reason Richard Spencer stuffs himself into vests. In explaining why a writer should heavily block-quote mainstream news articles, the guide notes that it allows writers to borrow some of mainstream media’s air of scrupulousness and good hygiene.

See also The Master Race’s Graphic Masterpiece:

Published in 1936, The Organizationsbuch der NSDAP (with subsequent annual editions), detailed all aspects of party bureaucracy, typeset tightly in German Blackletter. What interested me, however, were the over 70 full-page, full-color plates (on heavy paper) that provide examples of virtually every Nazi flag, insignia, patterns for official Nazi Party office signs, special armbands for the Reichsparteitag (Reichs Party Day), and Honor Badges. The book “over-explains the obvious” and leaves no Nazi Party organization question, regardless of how minute, unanswered.

Getting ratioed for your bad take

Technology is a constant source of new vocabulary – not just new words but new ways of using existing words. One I’ve noticed this year is ratio as a verb in internet slang, which I’ve bundled here with the more familiar take as a noun.

Ratio entered English in the 16thC as a noun borrowed from Latin, gaining its familiar modern sense decades later in a translation of Euclid. About a century ago – the OED’s first citation is from 1928 – ratio began life as a verb meaning ‘express as a ratio’ or similar. Here’s an example from Harold Smith’s book Aerial Photographs (1943):

Each print which departs from the average scale or shows any apparent tilt is rectified and ‘ratioed’, or corrected for scale, by means of a projection printer.

And now a new sense of ratio as a verb is emerging on Twitter.

Source: Getting ratioed for your bad take | Sentence first

Here’s an intro, if needed, to the use of ‘ratio’ on Twitter to describe Tweets which have disproportionately more replies than retweets or likes. And, after that, an exploration of how it is used as a verb.

See also nominalisation: how verbs become ‘zombie’ nouns. I’m particularly bothered by two (at the moment): ‘bake’, as in the thing that was baked; and ‘ask’, as in the instruction.

On dreaming

Ordinarily she didn’t tend to dream much. Even if she did, she usually had forgotten most of the dream by the time she woke up. Sometimes faint scraps of her dream would get caught on the wall of her consciousness, but she couldn’t retrace these fragments back to any coherent narrative. All that remained were small, random images. She slept deeply, and the dreams she did have came from a very deep place. Like fish that live at the bottom of the ocean, most of her dreams weren’t able to float to the surface. Even if they did, the difference in water pressure would force a change in their appearance.

—Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

The mind of John McPhee

McPhee has built a career on such small detonations of knowledge. His mind is pure curiosity: It aspires to flow into every last corner of the world, especially the places most of us overlook. Literature has always sought transcendence in purportedly trivial subjects — “a world in a grain of sand,” as Blake put it — but few have ever pushed the impulse further than McPhee. He once wrote an entire book about oranges, called, simply, “Oranges” — the literary cousin of Duchamp’s urinal mounted in an art museum. In 1999, McPhee won a Pulitzer Prize for his 700-page geology collection, “Annals of the Former World,” which explains for the general reader how all of North America came to exist. (“At any location on earth, as the rock record goes down into time and out into earlier geographies it touches upon tens of hundreds of stories, wherein the face of the earth often changed, changed utterly, and changed again, like the face of a crackling fire.”) He has now published 30 books, all of which are still in print — a series of idiosyncratic tributes to the world that, in aggregate, form a world unto themselves.

McPhee describes himself as “shy to the point of dread.” He is allergic to publicity. Not one of his book jackets has ever carried an author photo. He got word that he won the Pulitzer while he was in the middle of teaching a class, during a break, and he returned and taught the whole second half without mentioning it to his students — they learned about it only afterward, when the hall outside was crowded with photographers, reporters and people waiting to congratulate him. For McPhee’s 80th birthday, friends, family and colleagues arranged a big tribute to his life and work. But McPhee found out about the plan shortly beforehand and squashed it by refusing to go. Bill Bradley, the former basketball star and United States senator who was the subject of McPhee’s first book, “A Sense of Where You Are,” was one of the organizers. “You can’t celebrate somebody who doesn’t want to be celebrated,” he told me.

The Mind of John McPhee – The New York Times

To my knowledge, I’ve never read anything by John McPhee, but I expect that will change soon. This is a wonderful profile of exactly my sort of person: McPhee seems obsessively curious about the fine detail of everything in addition to being very process-driven in his work.

Fran Lebowitz on reading

There’s a great interview with Fran Lebowitz in the New York Times:

When do you read?

Pretty much all the time. Especially if I’m supposed to be doing something else. I was very frequently punished for reading as a child because I was reading when I was supposed to be doing homework. I got in trouble in school for reading, I got in trouble at home for reading. My mother would actually bang on my door and say, “I know you’re reading in there!” In my adult life, I’ve gotten in trouble for reading because I’m not writing when I’m reading. So it’s really rare that reading is unaccompanied by guilt for me. But I’ve learned to live with it. I feel guilty pretty much all the time.

The only time I read without feeling guilty is on a plane, because what else could I possibly be doing?

What moves you most in a work of literature?

I think it might be the word “move” that kind of perplexes me, because that’s a word connected with emotion. I don’t really seek out emotion when reading. The feeling that’s most important to me when reading is that I’m absorbed. I just want to be taken away. I really like being dazzled. That would be nice. The thing I care least about in reading is the story. I just don’t care that much about stories. That may have to do with being older. Tell me a story I don’t know.

But really, I read in order not to be in life. Reading is better than life. Without reading, you’re stuck with life.

I also highly recommend two other Lebowitz interviews.

First, a 1993 piece in The Paris Review (side note: always worth reminding people of this tweet):

You never enjoyed writing?

I used to love to write. As a child I used to write all the time. I loved to write up until the second I got my first professional writing job. It turns out it’s not that I hate to write. I hate, simply, to work. I just hate to work, period. I am profoundly slothful. Practically inert. I have no energy. I never have. I just have no desire to be productive. Now that I realize I don’t hate to write, that I just hate to work, it makes writing easier.

And The Awl from 2012:

I’ve read about other artists and writers who lived through the worst of the AIDS epidemic and felt like they had to take a break from their art. While reading your book, I wondered if that might have been the case with you, because the world you described was essentially obliterated.

It is exceptionally charitable that you call these 900 years “a break” but I’ll take that. And yes, it was very shocking to live through. It’s always shocking to young people when their contemporaries die. Even in a war, it’s shocking. I mean, as a soldier. It was shocking, especially because we were the only generation that thought sex was really good, like vitamins. We thought that about drugs too, okay? Sex was really good and the more sex the better. It was helpful. Like now, the way people think of bike riding, which I think is a childish activity. I know people now think the bike is a sign of virtue and I think it’s a toy, but we said sex was good for you and it turned out to it could be bad for you. Really bad. And yeah, people became terrified, of course. People were “terror-stricken” is the term I would use. And because when you look at it in retrospect, like all things you look at in retrospect, it seems very linear. The great thing about history is that it’s in the past and people have time to compile a narrative, but that’s not how it seems when you are living through it.

(NYT piece via Kottke)

How to keep a reading journal

Sarah Ditum:

I don’t really – not really-really – know anything until I’ve copied it out, by hand, with pen and paper. Note-taking helps me to memorise the most useful, interesting, beautiful or aggravating parts of a book. It also means that whenever I want to retrieve a reference from something I’ve read, I can find it in my notebook. Not marked with a torn-up train ticket and then replaced on a bookshelf but I’ve forgotten which bookshelf, or given to a charity shop in the hopeful belief I’d never need to think about it again; but in my notebook, with a page number, marked on the contents page.

Ditum goes on to describe her method and tools. See also this post about keeping a journal and collecting.

Do emojis have their own syntax

Rachel Tatman on emoji order (ignoring the singular/plural discussion):

So a while ago I got into a discussion with someone on Twitter about whether emojis have syntax. Their original question was this:

As someone who’s studied sign language, my immediate thought was “Of course there’s a directionality to emoji: they encode the spatial relationships of the scene.” This is just fancy linguist talk for: “if there’s a dog eating a hot-dog, and the dog is on the right, you’re going to use , not .” But the more I thought about it, the more I began to think that maybe it would be better not to rely on my intuitions in this case. First, because I know American Sign Language and that might be influencing me and, second, because I am pretty gosh-darn dyslexic and I can’t promise that my really excellent ability to flip adjacent characters doesn’t extend to emoji.

So, like any good behavioral scientist, I ran a little experiment. I wanted to know two things.

  1. Does an emoji description of a scene show the way that things are positioned in that scene?
  2. Does the order of emojis tend to be the same as the ordering of those same concepts in an equivalent sentence?

How social media broke our democracy

Mike Caulfield:

I could not sleep last night at all. So I organized my notes I’ve been taking over the last year on the problem of doing politics in distributed feed-based systems.

I know this election was about so much more than that (so much more), and our problems are so much deeper. But I remain convinced that even if social media is not the fire or the fuel of Breitbartian racism it is in fact the oxygen that helps it thrive and spread.

There are 537 pages of notes in this PDF, and it may not be immediately clear what each has to do with the book, but in my head at least they all relate. They are worth a read.


Wow—this is fantastic, and exactly what I was getting at in my earlier post about indiscriminate collecting. I’ve started using DEVONthink to collect and organise my notes and web clippings. I hope to get to a point where I have a similar collection. Not only does it help my understanding of concepts, but it enables me to make unexpected connections between them.

How to create your own thesaurus

John Saito has an interesting approach to writing product copy—he created his own thesaurus from common themes he frequently writes about.

These words aren’t exact synonyms of the word “mobile.” But they’re words that you can use when talking about the benefits of a mobile app. I found this list a lot more helpful than anything I could find in

Once I had this list, it was so much easier to write some quick copy:

  • “YouTube goes where you go”
  • “Bring your music with you and never miss a beat”
  • “All your favorite videos—right at your fingertips”

You get the idea. Once your list is big enough, you can just pick a few phrases and iterate from there. Copywriting becomes a lot easier when you have a list of words to start from.

Charles Paget Wade Before Snowshill

My pal Paul Capewell wrote a booklet on the artist, architect and collector Charles Paget Wade. Aside from wanting to read the booklet, I was caught by this paragraph in Paul’s post:

So I took some time off to get the words down. Fortunately, and partly as I was writing in chronological order, it flowed smoothly. It turns out that if you do the slow, painstaking work of collecting quotes, dates, examples and context beforehand, one’s brain actually does a pretty good job of condensing it all into a readable format.

I’m reminded of Rachel Leow’s great 2008 post Only Collect:

Only Collect; that is to say, collect everything, indiscriminately. You’re five years old. Don’t presume too much to know what’s important and what isn’t. Photocopy journal articles, photograph archives; create bibliographies, buy books; make notes on every article or book you read, even if it’s just one line saying “Never read this again”; collect newspaper clippings and email them to yourself; collect quotes; save your ideas for future papers, future projects, future conferences, even if they seem wildly implausible now. Hoarding must become instinctual, it must be an uncontrollable, primal urge. And the higher, civilizing impulse that kicks in after the fact is organization, or librarianship. You must keep tabs on everything you collect, somehow; a system must be had, and the system must be idiot-proof. That is to say, you should be able to look back on it six months for now and not be completely stymied as to why you’ve organized things that way. (The present versions of ourselves are invariably the biggest idiots, and six months will make that clear).

Steven Johnson has written about his writing process several times over the past decade. He’s an indiscriminate collector too, and he uses software (specifically DEVONthink) to organise it and reveal unexpected connections, which help direct his books and articles:

For the past three years, I’ve been using tools comparable to the new ones hitting the market, so I have extensive firsthand experience with the way the software changes the creative process. (I have used a custom-designed application, created by the programmer Maciej Ceglowski at the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, and now use an off-the-shelf program called DEVONthink.) The raw material the software relies on is an archive of my writings and notes, plus a few thousand choice quotes from books I have read over the past decade: an archive, in other words, of all my old ideas, and the ideas that have influenced me.

Having all this information available at my fingerprints does more than help me find my notes faster. Yes, when I’m trying to track down an article I wrote many years ago, it’s now much easier to retrieve. But the qualitative change lies elsewhere: in finding documents I’ve forgotten about altogether, documents that I didn’t know I was looking for.

What does this mean in practice? Consider how I used the tool in writing my last book, which revolved around the latest developments in brain science. I would write a paragraph that addressed the human brain’s remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I’d then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask it to find other, similar passages in my archive. Instantly, a list of quotes would be returned: some on the neural architecture that triggers facial expressions, others on the evolutionary history of the smile, still others that dealt with the expressiveness of our near relatives, the chimpanzees. Invariably, one or two of these would trigger a new association in my head — I’d forgotten about the chimpanzee connection — and I’d select that quote, and ask the software to find a new batch of documents similar to it. Before long a larger idea had taken shape in my head, built out of the trail of associations the machine had assembled for me.

Smart quotes for smart people

A cheat sheet for using the right quotation marks in your writing:

“Smart quotes,” the correct quotation marks and apostrophes, are curly or sloped. “Dumb quotes,” or straight quotes, are a vestigial constraint from typewriters when using one key for two different marks helped save space on a keyboard. Unfortunately, many improper marks make their way onto websites because of dumb defaults in applications and CMSs. Luckily, using correct quotation marks and apostrophes today is easier than you think.