Notes on conciseness


If I reason about trivial things, it is
because those things are not trivial to me


I have the terrible habit of being unnervingly concise. As the son of old-school print journalists, that comes with the territory. I learned how to write at school, but my parents taught me how to write well. The newsroom trained them on the importance of writing correctly and succinctly. Their whole lives were dictated by how many characters they could fit in whatever shape the editor reserved for them.

I embraced their religion. No amount of effort seems sufficient to make me a long-winded writer. For most of my life, that was more useful than harmful. A lot of what I wrote had a defined length, I even worked for a newspaper for a while. And tiny stories were more likely to be read by whoever I wanted to impress.

That works well for fiction. A short story stipulates the very context according to which its sentences are evaluated — the inner rules of a possible world. The reader shifts their assumptions from reality to what is true in the context of the story. Ultra concise fiction works because, in fiction, what is not allowed does not exist. A forced analysis can surmise whatever the interpreter wants, but the operation is more transparent and fragile. Of course, fiction and reality are intrinsically connected, and it is valid to interpret fiction through the lens of reality. But that is a more laborious operation, which is neither as quick nor as compulsory as it is for non-fiction.

That way of writing served me well for many years but is woefully inadequate for the vivid dynamic of online discussions. Even considering that everyone is susceptible to communication mishaps, I can no longer ignore that I am a particularly prolific offender. Whenever I’m “let loose”, I seem to anger people. That wouldn’t be surprising if I held positions that are, by their very nature, hateful. But the reality is that, when those events occur, in the majority of cases I agree with those I offended. When people breathe for a second, they usually realize that I can’t possibly be so awful. In reality, I cannot expect anyone online to take a breather. Strictly stating just what I wish to express is not an option, and failing to understand that essential feature of online debate is both irresponsible and unintelligent. In practice, that which is both negative and unstated will be interpreted as an implicit endorsement. The opposite also occurs when readers make positive interpretations of unstated favorable implications. But that is a discussion of communication defects, so I won’t spend much time describing felicitous interactions. In any case, adversarial interpretations tend to draw more support, especially when charged with emotion.

A practical example. If a man named George says “I enjoy strawberry ice cream the most”, a reasonable person would take it as a harmless preference. In online discussions, however, the same phrase might lead to an implication that butter pecan ice cream is inherently immoral. That would cause a negative appraisal of George’s moral virtue. On more sensitive subjects, that dynamic can be highly distressing. In the last two years, I became more rigorous about the subjects I must avoid. However, it can be difficult to recognize the implicit themes of a discussion. In the impetus to respond to a request, I put myself in the center of a whirlwind of resentment.

It’s frustrating that I can’t comment on things I feel strongly about.

Going back to conciseness. When someone fails to acknowledge the implicit contexts of an interaction, they may feel that addressing what is on the surface is enough. That is false. Unlike fiction, in online discussions that which you do not say very much exists. Readers scrutinize each other’s words for reasons to either love or hate. Indications that you belong to a group they either support or oppose. Failing to provide an abundance of allegiance marks may trigger undue transference and psychological projection. In those circumstances, readers feel justified in their gratuitous hostility, which they view as the appropriate response to a terrible evil.

The propensity for mistakes in communication never ceases to amaze me. I make them too. Of course, I do, and probably more than most. These mishaps have haunted me since an early age.

I – Social mishaps

Like the day I almost killed someone because I didn’t understand sarcasm.

My aunt’s gated community had a deep, big swimming pool. It was a summer weekend. My father invited a friend to enjoy the sun. His friend came with a kid my age. We were 12 or 13, maybe something entirely different. I don’t know for certain. Someone asked my father’s friend if his son could swim. His response was sarcastic. That was obvious to everyone. But not me. “Bobby? Oh yeah, he’s practically a dolphin, a real Olympic swimmer!”, he answered. Young me took his words at face value. Hours later, I thought it would be funny to throw Bobby in the pool. A harmless prank, right? The kid was a great swimmer!

I was puzzled by what ensued. Bobby’s hands desperately caressed the water’s surface from the inside. As if it were made of glass. He never tried to poke his hand up into the air. The whole thing was silent and unreal. There was an odd beauty to it. I kept looking at him down there, trying to understand what was going on. His facial expressions were large, bizarre, and strangely peaceful. Like a scream in slow motion. Not at what I expected from someone in pain. It never occurred to me that he was drowning, not for one second. They don’t drown like that in the movies. Luckily, two adults sunbathed on the opposite side. One of them noticed something wrong, went into the pool, and rescued Bobby. It’s been about 30 years, and that kid hates me to this day. I don’t blame him. 

I swear I’m not a psychopath.

Or the time as a teenager I went to a party I wasn’t invited to. At the dinner table, my classmates were bemused. “Whatta fuck are you doing here?”, said one. The baked pasta was completely dry. I scooped from the bottom with the ladle as to fish my dignity from a puddle of tomato sauce. That night was an omen of future social inadequacies.

Or when I drank a few beers and forgot to fit a negative in a phrase that ended up expressing the opposite of what I wanted. That cost me a lot. 

Or the many times someone asked me to say the truth, and, to their despair, I did

And all the jokes people took seriously due to my straight face and unaltered tone of voice.

I wonder if neurotypicals have any idea of how wrong things can get when someone like me deals with delicate subjects. You may think that acknowledging my deficiency would allow me to avoid bad situations. But I often fail to distinguish between what is delicate and what is not.

At this point, you may be tempted to ask “Were you tested for autism?”. The answer is yes. It was negative. My doctor says I’m schizoid. My psychotherapist disagrees. So take that as you will. I am ADHD and bipolar for sure. That much is clear.

Writing this, in the back of my mind, I can’t help but wonder how you’re trying to place me. “Okay, I get it, but what do you really believe in?”, “What side are you on, buddy?”. That’s fair.  Sometimes people think I’m a covert right-wing, or worse, a “rationalism absolutist”. I probably sound a little too Cartesian to convey the progressive left-wing that I am. 

I bought my first book of informal logic 25 years ago. Back then, I had tremendous difficulty understanding what people meant when they vehemently defended their points of view. Sometimes I had a feeling for a point, but I had no idea why some arguments felt more persuasive than others. Social situations were hard enough. Logic helped me navigate some of the argumentative aspects of social interaction. I didn’t learn logic to oppress anyone, nor did I consider emotion shameful or irrelevant. To me, reading basic informal logic was no different from reading Freud or Jung. It was a tool to acknowledge some aspects of reality. Part of my life education. That was long before alt-right assholes weaponized logic-sounding buzzwords to dismiss their adversaries. I was disheartened by the assimilation of logic’s vocabulary by “rational” absolutists. In their hands, the discipline that once helped me became an instrument for bigotry. I couldn’t use it anymore. At one point, I was part of an academic circle where an interest in logic was viewed as an indicator of political affiliations I despised. I was a constant of gratuitous contempt. Of course, I still use logic all the time. Everyone does. But I make an effort to conceal its most obvious signs. I can no longer wear in public the glasses that allowed me to see.

The desire to express myself in logical terms is linked to my appreciation of brevity. From a logical point of view, length, and repetition provide no benefits. Once I make sure to express that, to my best knowledge, the premises are true and the form is valid, there are no logically compelling reasons to extend my contribution. However, as it will become clear in subsequent topics, the amount of non-logical requisites for felicitous communication is vast and diverse, demanding great thoughtfulness, empathy, and diplomacy. An excessive preoccupation with making discourse mirror the logical structure of our arguments may lead to writing that is needlessly mechanical and cold.

Back to our central problem, there are many benefits to writing at length. First, the greater word count prevents the reader from associating my vocabulary with a specific group they dislike. Second, it allows me to redirect the reader’s biases to the positions I actually hold. This is done through reiteration. Third, touching on more aspects of a theme gives the reader a better understanding of my allegiances and worldviews. This allows me to address potential sources of miscommunication. Fourth, lengthy writing allows personal anecdotes, reminding the reader that I’m a person too.

A few months ago I had an experience that made me reconsider the value of conciseness. I wrote a review on /r/destructivereaders, a subreddit for sharing fiction and exchanging reviews. I thought the length was decent, providing enough notes for the writer. I didn’t understand why the mods removed it, so I asked. It was too short. That puzzled me, my critique was longer than others they approved. No problem. I did it again, and this time I wrote everything that came to mind. It felt really stupid putting my raw thoughts online. Because I’m an obsessive freak, of course, I edited it. A lot. In the end, it was quite a decent review. The writer thanked me profusely. They clearly found a use for my unfiltered thoughts. Writing this way felt wrong. It was like my mother was by my side, shaking her head and fixing my commas. Verbosity is a crime to me. But it works.

II – Nuance

Nuance is “a subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound” (Google). Under that definition, it is difficult to understand why nuance can be so negative and controversial. The ability to appreciate issues in a nuanced way shows intellectual honesty. Isn’t that a good thing? I used to think so. Now, I have doubts.

In online discourse, nuance is valuable for uncontroversial subjects that are wholesome and benign. Like debating on our favorite ice cream flavors. Delicate themes are problematic. It’s impossible to control the ramifications of our statements in public online spaces. They’re inherently chaotic. Real-life gatherings present the same problems. In those cases, however, social and personal connections, as well as implicit cultural parameters, allow nuance to arise without causing as much havoc. Those environments are easier to manage.

I would be wary of adding nuance to certain events of WWII on internet forums. It’s impossible to determine if there are Nazis in the audience, as well as the ramifications of my discourse. The natural conclusion would be that some issues should never be nuanced in online debates.

I propose a less drastic alternative. The binary disequilibrium at the core of certain subjects must be fully acknowledged and dealt with. That is the case of situations with a clear victim and a clear perpetrator. No amount of nuance should ever equate their positions, nor should we allow repulsive false balances1 to occur. Accordingly, we defend that nuance is only permissible if the writer acknowledges imbalances between the parties. They must employ as much length and effort as necessary to acknowledge, uphold, highlight, and communicate those disparities. Ideally, discourse on these topics should address the psychological implications of their views to reach amenable emotional conclusions.

Length itself indicates effort. It communicates that I made an effort to respect their emotions and subjectivity. Most people associate the brevity of speech with rudeness. Even the most loquacious types become terse when pissed off, making them easy to read. However, some are laconic by nature. Their natural speech patterns are often misinterpreted as being constantly upset.

In that case, the terse or introverted have two options. First, they can use more words than usual, masking as extroverts. Second, they may completely disengage from sensitive topics. Option 2 is less wearying but is dependent on the introvert’s ability to identify sensitive topics. Option 1 would require always writing at length, regardless of how mundane and uncontroversial the topic seems. It would be utterly laborious.

There are no perfect solutions for that conundrum, nor should we expect one. Human exchanges are inherently contentious. It would be naive to hope for the complete elimination of these accidents. That said, caution is advised. Some topics are seldom worthy of debate. They require, instead, an attitude of sentimental openness, welcoming, and support.

The amount of mistakes in identifying sensitive topics suggests that categorizing sensitive topics is much harder than it seems. It is not enough to keep a mental list of thorny themes to avoid. Even a harmless subject may hold seeds of intense trauma and discord. As of now, I don’t have a solution for this problem other than tiresome, indiscriminate caution. I may write more about this in the future.

III – Compassion

I previously stipulated the concept of compassionate interpretation (CIP). I intended to produce an emotional complement of the principle of charitable interpretation.

Interpretative charity recommends interpreting arguments to maximize their truth and rationality. CIP goes further by giving precedence to interpretations that maximize the moral virtue of the author. In my previous example, a compassionate interpreter would refrain from concluding that George’s statement, “I enjoy strawberry ice cream the most”, is an implication that the author believes that “butter pecan ice cream is inherently immoral”. Other interpretations are available which preserve the author’s moral virtue. I might, instead, assume that George is a fan of tart flavors due to his high tolerance of acidic tastes.

My first take on CIP was lacking in many ways. Chiefly, I didn’t elaborate on the cases where it’s inadvisable. That will be the subject of another post. For now, I should say that there are many situations where CIP should not be applied or should be applied with many caveats. But the core message remains. While the principle of charitable interpretation is conducive to propositional resolution, compassionate interpretation is essential to achieve amenable emotional resolutions.

Back to the subject of conciseness,one can hardly achieve compassionate interpretation by employing only the precise amount of words necessary for composing an argument. That is to say, it is not sufficient to state the premises, the connection between them, and how they lead to a conclusion. It is the author’s task to facilitate the compassionate interpretation of their own contribution. They must also interpret the responses to their content compassionately. This means populating their writing with phatic expressions. These expressions provide an excess of emotional reassurance, improving, establishing, and maintaining social relationships.

IV – Discursive recursion

This is a meta article. I am talking about features of online discussions while contributing to online discussions. This piece will be inevitably judged by the same standards it defends. In its weaker form, that reaction may evoke an appeal to hypocrisy. When valid, it highlights a relevant contradiction. To avoid a self-defeating argument, I must clarify that my recommendations are not universal. These are personal observations. You should not interpret them as all-embracing prescriptions to improve every situation.

In light of the advantages of longer texts, it is crucial to highlight that writing defensibly is neither practical nor enjoyable. Furthermore, an excess of elaboration could alienate potential readers. One must be vigilant to avoid turning the metric into a goal, taking the forest for the trees. Principles are tools to guide and improve our behavior. 

The fallacy man is a comical character depicting someone who is addicted to blurting out fallacy names at his adversaries without ever constructing a cogent argument. He mistakes the tool for the goal. The overzealous adoption of off-the-shelf discursive guidelines can have obnoxious results. That applies to this very attempt at social commentary. These principles are useful ways to think about our behavior, but the fulfillment of their criteria is not sufficient for felicitous exchanges. We shouldn’t employ them in isolation. 

Nevertheless, meta-discourse often invites sound commentaries of a recursive nature. As they say, “It’s turtles all the way down”. I shall call this phenomenon “recursive problematization”. Recursive debates are extenuating, and “winning” these arguments is more about tenacity than reasoning. At some point, we have no choice but to make a leap of faith. We must seriously consider others’ experiences, knowledge, memories, trauma, and reasoning. 

We should do that because we are compassionate human beings, but also as a practical necessity. The stage when problematization ceases to be useful is personal and subjective. Even so, it is important to highlight that, without an endpoint, discursive recursion leads to miserable outcomes. If not for compassion, we should halt the accusations just to get on with our lives.


As we approach the end, I must clarify that when I talk about conciseness, this does not exclude other social mishaps caused by myself and others.

From now on, I will be more comprehensive and loquacious on sensitive subjects. But you won’t find these meditations as comments or text posts on internet forums, as doing so might give the impression that I’m responding to someone, explicitly or otherwise. That is inherently contentious. The amount of context required for felicitous exchanges would be overwhelming. Even more so because English speakers appear to have a second brain to scrutinize language for microscopic signs of alignment. I find that brilliant and impressive, but also scary.

This blog should serve as a convenient repository of ideas to which I can link those who would be otherwise perplexed by my unorthodox views.

Writing a blog invites similar scrutiny as any social media platform. At the very least, I’m not inadvertently contributing to a particular dispute. If anything I write sounds like a concealed personal answer, I must preemptively inform the reader that this will never be the case. Some things I read trigger an intellectual motion, an interest in understanding and discussing a subject. I may be writing out of an interesting intellectual proposition. Maybe I’m elaborating on a recent discussion. So I may respond to content, but never to a person. Nor do I wish to disqualify or make covert put-downs to anyone, on any of the platforms I contribute to.

The choice to completely disengage from sensitive social media posts serves to further disallow the perception that anything I write has a hidden agenda or concealed intent. I shall abstain from a dynamic where my views are diluted, distorted, constrained, and forcefully molded to fit hurtful interpretations. It’s heartbreaking. I lack the energy for that exhausting interplay. Instead, I will concoct broader, lengthier posts on themes of my interest. 

And I will link you to this realm — my little fictional world where it’s okay to relax, take a breather, and empathize with a human being who, regrettably, hasn’t fully mastered the art of not sounding like a robot.

You may discuss this article on Beehaw or Hacker News.

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