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Sisyphus’ Lament

Should opinion columns be shorter?

INVERNESS, United Kingdom—Inquirer opinion columns are now 30 percent shorter after the grand redesign. But in the age of smartphones, one has long been compelled to write shorter and punchier.

Fellow columnists immediately sent frantic messages about the length limit as though asking about Armageddon. But in an age of blogs, I appreciate the discipline imposed by print.

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The first few times I contributed columns, my first drafts would be more than double the allotted length. I would wonder in despair how intellectual content can be crammed into such a tiny space.

I would reread my drafts endlessly. I would start deleting paragraphs with each pass, then a sentence or two each time, then just a couple of phrases, until the draft was painstakingly brought within the word limit.

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After much practice and heartache, my first drafts began to hit closer to the word limit. Surprisingly, I realized that few central thoughts were lost in all this pruning. I found much internet commentary far too long and rambling. The thought of asking the Inquirer’s ferocious Opinion editor, Chato Garcellano, for an impossible exemption from print’s physical constraints forced me to focus.

US President Woodrow Wilson quipped: “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to, it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

William Strunk Jr. wrote: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. 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.”

The key, I realized, is to think of one and only one idea to present. Add two supporting sub-ideas and tie them together with vivid, concrete details and one will hit a natural length.

I now spend countless idle moments fleshing out my one idea. Hopefully, it comes to me before the pressures of a deadline make me sit down and force it out of my mind more roughly.

I would curse the length limit the most when trying to summarize high-profile Supreme Court hearings. Capturing the justices’ artful debate with an intelligent petitioner—or the embarrassing but underreported failure of a nuisance claimant—requires length. Eventually, I decided to highlight one argument among the many made to give the reader an effective snapshot instead of a transcript.

Sacrificing discarded sentences on the editing block is even harder than writing, but crucial. My first Opinion editor in Ateneo’s The Guidon said to close one’s eyes and delete the paragraph one’s finger lands on when all else fails. Ironically, I appreciated this when I was made layout editor.

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This discipline is paramount in an age of blogs and smartphones. Instead of reading a broadsheet over a leisurely breakfast, imagine one’s reader now glancing through a smartphone while commuting. On a phone, anything too long becomes tedious to read to the end.

Worse, a column now appears as one of a hundred random items on someone’s Facebook feed. One must front-load one’s point in the headline and very first sentence to compete for attention.

The ideal Facebook post is at most 80 characters or a photo. Much debate now revolves around zingers on Twitter, or one liners in an Instagram meme. TED talks are 18 minutes long.

One has no choice but to embrace the clarity and urgency that come with this brevity. And so fear of the Opinion editor has driven me to omit hesitant introduction and mental fluff. Omit conversational digressions. Omit the technical overkill that, however fascinating, bogs down the actual argument.

The new limit of about 700 words is par for many international newspapers. Opinion writing will be more challenging but more fun post-redesign. And one challenges the divine, the laws of nature and the Opinion editor at his peril.

React: [email protected], Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.

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