Wikipedia:Too long; didn't read

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I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short

— Blaise Pascal[1]

(Warning: this page is self-referential)

Overly long unformatted statements present fellow editors with a dilemma: spend excessive time parsing out what a writer meant or be mildly rude by not actually reading what was written. It is generally held by editors that lengthy writing is a sign that the writer didn't take an extra few moments to distill their thoughts into reasonably-sized pieces, giving rise to the shorthand tl;dr which indicates that the piece in question is being protested.

Traditionally, the phrase too long; didn't read (abbreviated tl;dr or simply tldr) has been used on the Internet as a reply to an excessively long statement. It indicates that the reader did not actually read the statement due to its undue length.[2] This essay especially considers the term as used in Wikipedia discussions, and examines methods of fixing the problem when found in article content.

As a label, it is sometimes used as a tactic to thwart the kinds of discussion which are essential in collaborative editing. On the other hand, tl;dr may represent a shorthand acknowledgement of time saved by skimming over or skipping repetitive or poorly written material. Thus, the implication of the symbol can range from a brilliant and informative disquisition being given up due to a reader's lack of endurance, interest, or intelligence, to a clustered composition of such utter failure to communicate that it has left the capable reader with a headache; judging this range is very subjective.

The label is sometimes used by an author to introduce a short summation of a longer piece.[3]

Reasons for length, good or bad[edit]

Many people who edit Wikipedia do so because they enjoy writing; however, that passion for writing can influence what they write to be longer than necessary. Sometimes this is because the writer incorrectly believes that long sentences and big words will make them appear learned.[4] In other cases, misplaced pride prevents the author from seeing which words are superfluous. Perhaps the author may be too hurried (or lazy) to write clearly and concisely; recall Pascal's famous quote, "I made this so long because I did not have time to make it shorter." While a genius like Pascal may have been justified in that balancing of priorities (just as neurosurgeons may not spend time doing the hospital landscaping), the rest of us must do our share of the work. In a related vein, administrator candidates may be judged merely by how much they have written, versus the much more subjective value of their contributions. Sometimes, the writer is an academic, whose occupation requires obscure, genre-specific jargon to impress his peers and justify additional funding. They don't necessarily know how to turn it off on Wikipedia, or even that they should.

Due to these factors, many articles, instructions and especially comments on Wikipedia are longer than necessary. Some of Wikipedia's core policies are considered by some to be too long (e.g. Creative Commons license). This may be considered to put too much burden on the readers to understand. Such problems can be seen elsewhere.[5]

Writers often begin a project by writing long-winded drafts. As they go through the iterative process of revising their work, they (should) come to a better understanding of what they're trying to communicate and be able to reduce the length of the work. If this process is stopped prematurely, the result is needlessly long (as shown by Pascal's quote). Writers may err towards wordiness out of concern that short prose which is not carefully edited (at high time cost) would oversimplify, to the point of distorting or omitting, or carry a higher risk of being misunderstood.

Albert Einstein described the work of theorists as making theory as simple as possible, without failing to explain all empirical cases. His remark is often paraphrased as "everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." Much argument between individuals results from one trying to point out the ways in which another's model of reality is incomplete. Thus the concept that Einstein mentioned may spur lengthy exposition, often to account for the corner cases.

A venerable aphorism is that "brevity is the soul of wit."[6] A similar sentiment advises would-be skilled writers to "omit needless words."[7] Editors are encouraged to write concisely, and avoid undue technical jargon. If it becomes necessary to write lengthy text in an article, editors may wish to include a short summary. Additionally, it may be appropriate to use simple vocabulary to aid readers in comprehension. Many readers may not use English as a primary language or may have other "unarticulated needs".[8]

Needless length may be interpreted as a mark of arrogance. The message to the reader seems to be: "My time is more valuable than yours. I can't be bothered to express myself clearly and concisely, so I'm shifting the burden to you to sift my words." Some people are constitutionally more loquacious than others, and thus may not be arrogant so much as miscalibrated. Still, the loquacious must force themselves to see things through the eyes of readers, and push beyond their own comfort level — what they themselves think is already clear — to arrive at greater clarity. Taking the time to distill your thoughts not only helps you communicate more effectively, but also builds rapport with your readers.

The phrase WP:Walls of text is frequently used to describe overlong, unformatted contributions.

Reducing wordiness[edit]

If you encounter excessively long text in a Wikipedia article, consider trimming it down (if it is truly redundant) or splitting it into another article to fit our summary style (which helps provide drill-down ability for the readers). (More info at WP:SPINOFF.) Tag excessively long plot summaries with the {{plot}} template if you can't trim it down yourself.

Make some effort to understand whatever valid ideas the previous author may have been trying (but failing) to communicate, so that you don't just hastily and inadvertently delete valid rough draft material instead of refining it to a better draft. Remember that your own credibility is at stake as well as that of the loquacious writer, because if you're hasty and harsh enough, you could end up earning a reputation for yourself as someone with incompetent reading comprehension. You may know that this is an unfair reputation, but your actions may speciously make it seem true to others.

One of the reasons that some linguists (most famously Geoffrey K. Pullum) have a dim view of Strunk & White's advice "omit needless words" is that in the hands of amateur editors (as opposed to writers—that is, content critics as opposed to content creators), it mistakes all loquaciousness for nonsense and valueless redundancy in one overly hasty, facile stroke of the pen; and it fails to recognize that not all redundancy is cognitively or communicatively valueless. The upshot is: be circumspect when judging lengthy content. Note Strunk and White qualified their advice by stating that "this requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell." Deleting is not always equivalent to improving, and intelligently differentiating the cases is seldom a facile affair (or as Strunk and White would recommend, "...is often not easy").

Maintain civility[edit]

Sometimes a person might feel that a reader's decision to pointedly mention this essay during a discussion is dismissive and rude. Therefore, courteous editors might, as an alternative to citing WP:TLDR, create a section on the longwinded editor's talk page and politely ask them to write more concisely.

A common mis-citation of this essay is to ignore the reasoned and actually quite clear arguments and requests for response presented by an unnecessarily wordy editor with a flippant "TL;DR" in an attempt to discredit and refuse to address their strongly-presented ideas and/or their criticism of one's own position. This is a four-fold fallacy: ad hominem, appeal to ridicule, thought-terminating cliché, and simple failure to actually engage in the debate because one is supposedly too pressed for time to bother, the inverted version of proof by verbosity.

Lastly, sheer laziness or being excessively concise may miss an important set of details necessary to include a well branched entry despite lacking the requisite patience.[9]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Lettres Provinciales (1656-1657), no. 16.
  2. ^ "Too long didn't read". Urban Dictionary. Retrieved 2008-05-13. 
  3. ^ Soonmme (071408). "UrbanDictionary, definition #7". UrbanDictionary.com. Retrieved 081814.  Check date values in: |date=, |accessdate= (help)
  4. ^ "Study: Simple Writing Makes You Look Smart". Livescience.com. 2005-10-31. Retrieved 2012-04-13. 
  5. ^ McCullagh, Declan. "FTC says current privacy laws aren't working," CNET News. June 22, 2010.
  6. ^ Shakespeare, William (1992). Hamlet. New York: Washington Square Press. p. 89.  Act 2, Scene 2, line 90: "Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit..."
  7. ^ Strunk, William (1918). "Elementary Principles of Composition". The Elements of Style. Bartleby.com. Retrieved 2008-05-13. 
  8. ^ Chen, Brian X. "How Microsoft crowdsourced Office 2010," Wired. June 30, 2010; excerpt, "when users struggle to finish a task, ... researchers can examine why they are becoming confused or taking too long and work to resolve the problem. This is what usability researchers call "unarticulated needs" ... [and] any unaddressed shortcomings are "part of [an] engineering road map."
  9. ^ "Is 'Y' a Generation of entitled little shits". Pedestrian TV. 10 July 2013. Retrieved 15 July 2013. 

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