I find that all my years of reading The New Yorker magazine makes all my writing sound like, well, The New Yorker, meaning I write in the long narrative style. It makes one long-winded. But 1,500 words or not, I still break this up into small pieces, due to writing on the internet and a life-long addiction to newspapers.
I write for different blogs and do freelance journalism. All of this internet writing has made me write short paragraphs with lots of white space and subheadings. Some people might think that this style of writing is governed by the size of the computer screen. But that convention predates the PC. It was forced upon us by what print journalists call “the column inch.”
When I was a kid I paid $5 to order the New York Times, which I picked up at the drug store on Sunday. At that time, paying for it in advance was the only to get that paper in South Carolina. I spent the whole Sunday reading it, all of it written in, guess what, the column inch. This meant that the page was laid out in columns of text, each an inch wide. Since it’s only an inch wide, you cannot fit but one or two sentences into a paragraph, as the paragraph would be too long.
So I mimicked what I saw and wrote like that.
There was no color in the newspaper in the 1970s. When The New York Times refitted its printing presses to print color photographs that was a technological breakthrough equivalent to, say, the invention of the web browser.
But gray and staid was what we preferred in my literary salon. My glittering salon had only two people: me and William, neither of whom were the glitterati. We were nerds before there was such a word. Back them people called people like us “bookworms.”
William and I were best friends. The walls of his room was lined with books, all of which I aspired to read. Mine were piled on the floor and significantly fewer in number. William taught me what I should read. Read Thomas Mann and Kafka he said.
It did not destroy our relationship when the journalism teacher named William Editor in Chief of The Eagle’s Cry, our high school newspaper. She created a new position for me to mollify my disappointment: Assistant Editor in Chief.
William and I wanted a conservative newspaper that read and looked like The Wall Street Journal. We filled the front page with ruled narrow columns and banished all photographs. The WSJ had no photos at the time: only drawings, like The New Yorker. Our teacher overruled us and made us print photos, black and white of course, as color would have been expensive.
Our editorial policy was that we were not going to publish frivolous stuff like that traditional issue where the students vote for “most likely to succeed,” “most popular,” blah, blah, blah. Bookworms did not date cheerleaders and had no respect for those jocks who did. Anyway, our teacher printed that issue without our participation. We sat and sulked.
So when I read Tolstoy or David Foster Wallace I ask myself how these writers can write such long paragraphs of text. Did they not read the newspaper and were influenced by its style? How does Thomas Mann go one for pages in “The Magic Mountain” describing life in the tuberculosis sanatorium without pressing the carriage return? Such long paragraphs might make it difficult for the reader to continue without a break. But for whatever reason you do not get weary when you read the great writers and their endless paragraphs. You get drawn into the novel and keep going without taking your eyes off the page. But this length does makes it difficult to stop reading and insert a bookmark when you want to quit, as you would not want to cut a thought off right in the middle.
Now we have Twitter, who forces us to express ourselves in 140 character quasi-sentences. Teenager don’t even use words at all. When I read “LOL” or “OMG.” I just cringe.
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