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A life in four minutes
On Mikhail Gorbachev's obituary, buying ink by the barrel, and the chronic problem of digital writers who go on much too long
The Economist publishes an obituary in each weekly edition, and it has recently featured two exceptionally prominent departures: Mikhail Gorbachev and Queen Elizabeth II. Gorbachev was commemorated with 1,044 words, and the monarch with 1,039. These obituaries, like most of The Economist's writing, assume an educated and curious readership seeking to be informed by writers mindful of their time and rival interests.
■ In a sense, a thousand words is an arbitrary limitation. It's roughly what fits into one of The Economist's pages, with its spartan layout across two compact columns. The length isn't an Economist exclusive, either; consider Stephen Marche's "A Thousand Words About Our Culture" in Esquire, or the industry-standard 750-word op-ed column published in (and still solicited by) many newspapers.
■ Within that range of 750 to 1,000 words, a good writer can lasso the reader's attention, construct a defensible case on a matter, and exit without exhausting the audience's attention. Calvin Coolidge, as a post-Presidency newspaper columnist, got by in even fewer. Certainly, physical limitations -- like the number of words that fit on a magazine page or within a literal column of a broadsheet newspaper -- have helped to shape the nature and expectations of the written form. But there's something more to it.
■ Considering how long the format has endured, it's not unreasonable to conclude that it has an organic appeal. Assuming a well-educated reader can generally trawl through 250 to 500 words per minute of non-technical material, a thousand-word column begs only about two to four minutes of time.
■ But stripped of the limitations imposed by the printed page, many of the writers on digital platforms like Substack have abandoned those word counts for much greater heights. It isn't hard to find "columns" in the digital world that exceed not just 1,000 or 1,500 words, but that tilt the scales at 2,000 words or more. While it can seem luxurious to the writer to have no upper bound on what they are capable of publishing, there's only so much that readers should be asked to endure.
■ The answer isn't necessarily reducing down to the "smart brevity" model touted by an outlet like Axios. Bullet points and bold fonts aren't a substitute for writing clearly and distinctly.
■ But there is most certainly something to be said for asking writers to exhibit a little bit of self-imposed discipline. "Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel" used to be the old axiom. Writers today may not have to buy pixels by the barrel, but they ought to act like it. Reading from a screen can be fatigue-inducing in its own right, but it's even more exhausting when writers fail to hold back, concentrate on a discrete point, and move along to writing something new for the next deadline.
■ If an entire life can be summed up in about a thousand words (or its achievements rebutted in about 750), then most arguments can be made with more economy of language than is often the case in digital publishing. Just because we can drone on indefinitely doesn't mean we should.