The Quality-Length Correlation

I was enormously heartened to read on Language Log recently a post by the eminent computational linguist Mark Liberman entitled “The quality of quantity” that reported on a result relating to quality judgments in wine reviews revealing a genuinely surprising correlation between quality as judged by ratings that readers of Wine Enthusiast magazine supply and a single property that accounts for some 25 percent of the variation in rating and just happens to be the very one that I have so often found myself unable to avoid in my own writing, namely that of sheer bulk, size, length, verbosity—call it what you will, excess wordiness is the failing that every first draft I write for Lingua Franca always has, the thing that I have to sit for hours each week striving to rectify by dint of rigorous tightening, rewording, erasure, paraphrase, ellipsis, anything that might help to avoid digression and get the piece down to the size of approximately 500 words that The Chronicle recommends as ideal on grounds that your attention span is (no disrespect) likely to be not very much in excess of that figure, meaning that straying much beyond it (and I always have with every single post so far) risks losing you from our blog when the one thing we absolutely want the most is to keep you here as a loyal reader we can count on to pore over the material we lovingly craft for your pleasure every working day of the year with so little tangible reward, fitting in our Lingua Franca writing chores around the many obligatory meetings and classes and work sessions that constitute the majority of our working days (God bless the advent of lightweight laptops, which enable us sometimes to fiddle with posts even during our meetings and classes and work sessions without anyone knowing we are not taking relevant notes or checking our calendars) and very seldom being able to commit a solid block of uninterrupted time to working on the blog despite our earnest wishes to be able to do so without losing the lifeline that permits us to pay the mortgage or whatever (it could be rent, it could be just maintenance, or salary for security guards in the case of those of us who live in highly secure gated communities)—for, heaven knows, if we did this for a living we just might be able to perfect the knack of producing entertaining and interesting pieces of exactly the right length with all the fluency that one sees in an experienced musician playing an improvised solo with no trace of strain, just the sheer joy of being one with the instrument, and perhaps (if this is not too wild an ambition) achieve that grail of the blogger’s art, the perfect 500-word post with a topical tie-in and the perfect level of readability and (even more difficult to learn, possibly the hardest of all, the ultimate sign of mastery of the writer’s craft) the magic of a perfect ending.

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