In Praise of Long-form Content

Yesterday I wrapped up work on my new book on Structured Writing and delivered it to the publisher. There will be more work to do, of course, after the pre-publication review process is complete, but in a broad sense, the book is done. That is, the arc of the book is complete.

Good books have an arc. Finding that arc is one of the great joys of long-form writing. Of course, this blog is about short form writing — about Every Page is Page One topics that serve a single discrete purpose for the reader. But in a sense even a book should fit that mold — should serve a single discrete purpose for the reader. The whole should be more than the sum of the parts. There should be an arc, something the book says that is more than an accumulation of details, and that allows the reader to see the details in a new light — and to act differently and, hopefully, more successfully, in that new light.

I’ve been working on this book for two years at least. In a sense, I have been working on it for 25 years, ever since I got into structured writing. In all that time, I have found talking about structured writing to be frustrating. Structured writing tends to present itself as a bunch of individual techniques that solve individual problems. Adopt structured writing so you can do single sourcing. Adopt structured writing so you can do reuse. Etc. Structured writing tends become associated in people’s minds with one particular problem, one particular capability. They don’t see it whole.

What I wanted to do with this new book was to help people see structured writing whole, to see all that it can do, so that they can think about adopting it as a complete package, rather than using it to address one particular problem, and buying into a system that address that one particular problem but may make a hash of the rest of their process and their content.

The book set out to be a catalogue of things you can do with structured writing — the structured writing algorithms. And I thought I had worked out a unifying arc for it as well — the idea that structured writing can be divided into four domains, the media, document, subject, and management domains, and that each of the structured writing algorithms is done a different way in each of these domains.

But when I thought I was finished, about six months ago now, I read the book through an thought that while it was pretty comprehensive, it really did not do what I was hoping it would do. The four domains idea is very useful analytically, but it does not express the wholeness of structured writing. The book did not have an arc, a central organizing idea that would help the reader see the whole subject in a new light.

My writing life then became a quest for that unifying idea. That is why there have been no new posts on this blog for the last six months. I started a couple, but never finished them. My mind was too occupied with the search for the unifying idea. And once I found it, I was too occupied with weaving it throughout the descriptions of algorithms and structures that make up the bulk of the book. That is, in a sense, even more all-absorbing than coming up with the idea in the first place, because until you do successfully weave it through the whole thing, you are not quite sure that it is the grand unifying theory that you think it is. It dominates your mind to an extent that forbids much serious writing on other subjects.

I’ll save the reveal of that grand unified theory of structured writing for another post. Here I want to talk about the value of the act of long form writing itself. The unifying idea did not come out of nothingness. It came out of the itch, the sense of incompleteness, that I have felt in every discussion of structured writing, its methods, its tools, and its purpose, over the last 25 years of my professional life. But sensing that incompleteness, sensing that sub-optimal design decisions were being made because people were not getting something fundamental, is not the same thing as grasping what it is and knowing how to articulate it.

In many cases, my line of argument has simply been to suggest alternatives. Don’t do linking that way, do it this way. But divorced from the whole, from the implementation of languages and tools, it is hard for people to act on such suggestions. And without a broader approach that incorporates these individual approaches into a unified whole, such alternatives are hard to adopt. The SPFE project, which I have talked about a lot over the years, is an attempt to express a different approach in concrete terms, but it needs an overarching intellectual justification as well, and that has been hard to express. It represents a different way of thinking about the problem as a whole and that requires more than a list of different ways to attack a list of particular issues. It requires something to unify them.

The Every Page is Page One book is really an attempt to do half of that job — to justify the information design approaches that SPFE is designed to support. But clearly those information designs can be executed with other tools. A number of organizations are doing so today, using a number of different tools, structured and unstructured.

Justifying the design approach does not in itself justify the method. That requires a framework for discussing and assessing the merits of different methods, and the structured writing industry has never had such a framework. That is what the new book needed to tackle. And it needed a unifying idea to pull it all together and make it more than a contest of individual ideas and ad hoc packages of ideas. As such, the new book is not a book about SPFE. In fact, it barely mentions SPFE. It is a book about how to have the conversation about whether SPFE or some other system is the right fit for a particular project or organization. It is about plotting all the various available and potential alternatives into a single conceptual framework.

I’ve been looking for that idea for 25 years. It took writing a book to find it. More than that, it took writing a book, reading it, and finding it wanting, to crystalize the need for the idea, and also to see the common patterns across all of the individual techniques I was describing, to finally pull that idea out. It did not come to me one day out of the blue while strolling along a river bank. It came out of the blood, toil, tears, and sweat of long-form writing, of trying to pull together more ideas than will really fit in a human head at once and make a coherent narrative of them.

That part about more ideas that will really fit in a human head is important. Any sufficiently complex process or technology won’t really all fit in our heads, in the active working part of our brains, at the same time. We need the overarching idea to connect all the individual techniques together so that we can move back and forth over the territory fast enough and lucidly enough to grasp the implications, the connectedness of the pieces that individually we can’t fit into our heads all at the same time.

Writing a book forces you to confront this need. You could write articles about the parts till the cows come home and you would not be forced to face the hard work of figuring out and articulating that connecting idea that makes it possible to achieve something bigger than what will fit in your head. There may be other ways of getting there too. But writing a book is a good one.

This is not a recantation of Every Page is Page One. We don’t need grand unifying ideas every day. Indeed, it takes a lot of time and work and study to work out and implement the implications of even one such idea. We don’t need to read books for most everyday tasks, and we don’t need to write books to support most everyday tasks. Furthermore, writing a book is much more expensive than writing the same volume of content in EPPO topics. The unifying idea takes a lot of time to find, to express, and to weave through the details of a work. It’s exhausting. It shuts down most of your other cognitive functions (like blogging, for instance).

But the relief at getting the worm out of your head on onto paper after struggling with it for 25 years is priceless. That alone is worth the effort. If it turns out to have social utility as well, that will be a bonus.

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6 Responses to In Praise of Long-form Content

  1. Don Day 2017/03/01 at 13:56 #

    Thanks for this heart-felt and personal reflection behind the scenes, Mark. I look forward to meeting your worm and the story it has told.

  2. Phillip Stewart 2017/03/01 at 23:16 #

    Congratulations, Mark. I’ve enjoyed reading your series over on TechWhirl and playing around with SAM and the SPFE model. We’re making use of those ideas in the latest overhaul of our docs process at work. Can’t wait to read the book!

  3. Tom Johnson 2017/03/02 at 15:40 #

    Mark, I’m glad to see you resurface. I thought you might be immersed in your structured authoring book. When will it be published, and where?

    I like your thoughts on the value of long-form writing, especially your passage here:

    It did not come to me one day out of the blue while strolling along a river bank. It came out of the blood, toil, tears, and sweat of long-form writing, of trying to pull together more ideas than will really fit in a human head at once and make a coherent narrative of them.

    Your point here champions writing as an act of discovery, as a tool for figuring things out. It connects with the Montaignesque sense of the “essay” [attempt/trial], which reinforces the value of writing.

    Hey, on a totally different note, your font would be much easier to read if you bumped up the weight from 300 to 400 in your style.css file:

    .entry, .entry.p {
    font: 400 15px/1.5em Helvetica Neue, Helvetica, sans-serif

    Thin fonts are hard to read, especially when the posts are long.

  4. Jorge Pérez Campo 2017/03/03 at 07:57 #

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on something as complex as writing.

    I’m looking forward to reading the book.

  5. Barry Grenon 2017/03/09 at 13:05 #

    Congratulations, Mark. Looking forward to it.

  6. Mark Baker 2017/03/09 at 14:37 #

    Thanks everyone.

    The book will be out sometime this year, from XML Press. I don’t have a date yet.

    Tom, yes, writing is definitely an act of discovery. I am often bemused to find that an idea that thought was perfectly solid when it was floating around in my head turns out to be weak or contradictory when put down in words. We do tend to think of writing as simply the recording of ideas, but it is a very least a process of winnowing and refining ideas, and sometimes a process of coming up with new ideas altogether.

    Interesting observation about the fonts. I hadn’t noticed myself, but I will look into it.

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