TL;DR: But Why?

by April Myers

Ever since I could read, I have devoured every reading I could. At first, I read anything with words; from cereal boxes to billboards, I took what I could get. I wanted a book, and once I got one, I read it through a hundred times. That moment of finishing a story, article, or the back of the cereal box is a happy moment. I love to get to the end—to find out the point, to get goose bumps from an open ending, or else just get that feeling of accomplishment: One reading down, infinity to go!

So, when I stumbled upon “Too Long; Didn’t Read” (TL;DR), a growing trend on the Internet, I was perplexed and immediately began trying to understand it. I found that people see what they consider a lengthy read and never look back. Writers for the web and print media alike are beginning to pay heed to this trend, like the TLDR subreddit that says it is for people too busy to read the day’s news.

Is our society so bent on convenience and efficiency? Is this simply status quo while I have been blissfully unaware? The answer is: no one really knows. Skimmers and scanners of text have long been abundant, and more research has been done on why people read and what media they use. A Pew report was released in 2012 discussing the rise of e-reading. The report suggests that the widespread availability of the Internet has created a new market for the written word.

Chart 1: Internet users versus non-users. 83% of users and 66% of non-users read for pleasure. 81% of users and 60% of non-users read for current events. 82% of users and 41% of non-users read for topics of personal interest. 63% of users and 23% of non-users read for work or school. Chart 2: Cell owners versus non-owners. 81% of owners and 74% of non-owners read for pleasure. 79% of owners and 66% of non-owners read for current events. 78% of owners and 51% of non-owners read for topics of personal interest. 61% of owners and 23% of non-owners read for work or school. Chart 3: Tablet owners versus non-owners. 85% of owners and 79% of non-owners read for pleasure. 88% of owners and 76% of non-owners read for current events. 88% of owners and 73% of non-owners read for topics of personal interest. 70% of owners and 54% of non-owners read for work or school. Chart 4: E-book reader owners versus non-owners. 92% of owners and 78% of non-owners read for pleasure. 88% of owners and 76% of non-owners read for current events. 90% of owners and 73% of non-owners read for topics of personal interest. 70% of owners and 54% of non-owners read for work or school. Source: Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Reading Habits Survey, November 16 to December 21, 2011. N= 2,986 respondents age 16 and older. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish and on landline and cells. The margin of error for the sample is +/- 2 percentage points. N for internet users= 2,249. N for cell owners=2,598. N for tablet owners= 638. N for e-book reader owners= 676.

Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project. “The rise of e-reading, Part 2: The general reading habits of Americans” released April 2012

People who might have, in the past, claimed reading was for academia, or else claimed to “hate reading” are encouraged to read anyway by the constant presence of the Internet in their pocket, purse, workspace, even in their bathrooms. (See this article on “Smartmirrors” for more on bathroom internet!)

The Chicago Tribune reported in March that most Americans prefer texting—also known as writing—their messages instead of making a phone call or leaving a voicemail. This suggests a shift to reading becoming our primary method of receiving information. When compared with Argentines and Brazilians, Americans spend double the time on their smartphones.

Having researched trends in reading in general, I now better understand the phenomena of TL;DR. Those who would before have spent little to no time on reading are more encouraged to read, but their motivation is low. However, are they busy people with little time for extraneous words?

Bob Bailey wrote about the mechanics of reading in 2002, particularly focusing on optimal line lengths. The study he describes found that:

  • Users prefer to read shorter lines, usually 3-4-inch line lengths.
  • Users prefer a 3-column format.

Patrick Lynch and Sarah Hortons’ Web Style Guide, 3rd edition also mentions in its seventh chapter that optimal line length exists because longer lines make the eye muscles have to strain more. Shorter lines require less energy and time. Furthermore, columns on a page provide some white (or blank) space amid the text, which gives the reader some proverbial breathing room. Or, as Lynch and Horton put it: “Filling all the white space on a page is like removing all the oxygen from a room—an efficient use of space perhaps, but decidedly difficult to inhabit.”

This seems to illustrate some reasoning behind TL;DR. The time it takes to read is clearly not the only consideration here. Why do readers need white space to “inhabit” at all? Psychology gives us the answer we seek.

This article from the Association for Psychological Science discusses a study conducted in which people who read task instructions in an easy-to-read font assume the task will be easy. Conversely, people reading instructions in a difficult-to-read font assumed the task would be difficult. Most importantly, people who assumed the task would be difficult were less willing to do it. If it is hard to read, we assume it is hard to do. All it takes is for us to perceive the task as hard.

Thus, my perplexity is solved. It’s not that people hate to read. It isn’t really even that they don’t have the time. Simply put, people prefer to do things that are easier. We prefer shorter lines because they are easier to deal with.  We like three-column layout because it seems we can handle the information better. It has little to do with speed, and everything to do with comfort.

We writers cannot afford to scorn readers too busy for our precious words. Though they are precious to us, it is up to us to make them accessible to our readers. To combat the trend of TL;DR, we must remember to work to make the user comfortable.


8 thoughts on “TL;DR: But Why?

  1. This was a very interesting read, especially in regards to the notion that current shifts in reading formats are primarily based on our levels of attentiveness and willingness to perform tasks; it definitely makes sense, given that reading (ideally) requires one to focus. However, I’m also “guilty” of scanning and skimming written content myself, and I don’t really text (and/or use other social media outlets) that much, and typically prefer face-to-face contact if and when it’s an available option.

    In any case, it’s fascinating to see just how prominent the internet has really become over a relatively short amount of time: I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, so I remember a time when the internet was more of an oddity than an actual utility like it is now. Likewise, it’s fascinating to see that people are technically more inclined to communicate through text than visual/aural contact, but paradoxically avoid text that is too “lengthy” to read…it’s almost a step forward AND backward in communication!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The phenomenon of “TL;DR” really is fascinating. I appreciate the perspective you offer here, and I agree—writers do need to consider their audience, and comfort is important. Still, I wonder about the connection to ethos. For example, I’ve seen people participate in online conversations (much like we’re doing right now!), and preface their response to an article with “TL;DR.” This, from my perspective, is like saying: “I didn’t read your argument, nor do I have any intention of reading your argument; nonetheless, here’s my argument, and you should totally read the whole thing.” Arrogance, no? Where’s the credibility? The dialogic back and forth? Oh my.

    Clooney says tl;dr

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m fascinated by TLDR. I even find myself saying it as I read news sites or message boards. However, I’ve noticed that I usually say it when I see a wall of text so I think your argument about white space is really important. As writers for the web, we need to keep the design of our writing in mind–and leave plenty of empty real estate so that our readers can take a breath if needed.

    I found this chrome extension called TLDR that will automatically summarize a webpage if you’re not inclined to read the whole thing. I’m a little scared to give it a try.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The length of an article can either make or break it’s intended purpose. Aside from how our generations have been trained that a longer article is less efficient and more time consuming, it is also true from a marketing standpoint, simplicity of an article is more retained than a much too elongated piece of writing. No one seems to have time to feel, experience and enjoy more extravagant ways of thinking and reading. I suppose this isn’t an individual’s fault. Our entire country a long with others thrives on a fast pace system

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I wonder does this phenomenon has anything to do with short attention spans due to increased internet use? I admit t hat I don’t like to read long text sometimes unless I am wanting to learn new concepts. Mostly, I skim articles. Unfortunately, this can lead to some not reading for context and they lack nuance and perspective. This can lead to misinformation. On the other hand, skim reading is taught in schools:

    With technology, everyone wants instant gratification so I am not surprised by tldr at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The growing trend of TL;DR is an unfortunate, hurtful, and disrespectful phrase, especially for those of us who tend to speak and write in paragraphs rather than sound bytes.

    I put it along the equivalent of business cards that I have seen handed out to people that say “Please stop talking”, which I find to be the epitome of rudeness. Unfortunately, short snippets is the way society absorbs information nowadays and, in some ways, TL;DR is not a surprising fad because of society’s love of easiness. Even more than easiness, though, is the fact that society is being conditioned to rely on TL;DR and to expect all reading material to be short and sweet. TL;DR offers a convenient solution in times of busyness and tiredness so I am not totally bashing it, but I also hold a deep appreciation for wordier material. Regardless of others, I intend to always make room in my life for both.


  7. Man, WIlliam Hazlitt and Jeremy Bentham would have done well to remember this, hehehe. Great article! We definitely have to shift our style to our audience, even if it pains us. I’ve heard about some researchers taking various news articles on one particular subject and looking at the lexile levels, length, etc. I’ll have to find it because I’m interested in which ones were more complicated. Taking audience into account is key, as I stated previously, but I also think it depends on the medium one uses and the subject, too.

    I may put TL;DR on some of my students’ essays and see what happens. hehehe.

    Liked by 1 person

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