Atlas Shrugged Syndrome

One of the cardinal principles of writing is to delimit the subject. This can be very difficult at times, because everything is related. We can start with a narrow topic, and before we know it, we are trying to address every side issue. We wind up with a piece that is much longer than is necessary. I call this the Atlas Shrugged Syndrome.

I certainly suffered from this affliction when I first started writing. As an exaggerated example (though not as much as you might think), I’d try to show why regulating taxis was a result of the primacy of consciousness. While it was good practice, the result was unintelligible even to myself.

The recently passed Houston Equal Rights Ordinance is an example of a particular topic that has a multitude of possible issues to address:

  • Anti-discrimination laws foster discrimination.
  • Despite its name, the ordinance violates individual rights.
  • Opponents to the ordinance were unprincipled.
  • There is no such thing as gay rights (or women’s rights or black rights).
  • Irrational discrimination cannot be eliminated with government coercion.

It would be virtually impossible to adequately address all of these issues in a blog post of six hundred words or less. Assuming fifty words for an introduction and fifty words for the conclusion, only five hundred words would be available. That would be one hundred words per issue. That is simply not enough words to properly address each issue. Instead, it is much better to pick one issue and address it more fully. The other issues can be addressed in separate posts. (To concretize, this entire paragraph is ninety-one words.)

When we do not delimit the subject, we can easily fall victim to floating abstractions. We make broad, generalized statements but do not have the space to provide sufficient examples. Our argument does more than fall flat on its face; it comes across as completely arbitrary.

As an example, consider the following two paragraphs:

Anti-discrimination laws foster discrimination. Despite its name, the ordinance violates individual rights. Opponents to the ordinance were unprincipled. There is no such thing as gay rights (or women’s rights or black rights). Irrational discrimination cannot be eliminated with government coercion.

There are no gay rights. There are only individual rights, and they apply to all individuals, gay and straight. Each individual has a right to live as he chooses, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others.

The first paragraph is forty words long; the second paragraph is thirty-nine words long. Because the second paragraph is delimited, the point can be developed further. The reader will have a much clearer understanding. In contrast, the first paragraph is simply a series of assertions that will leave the reader confused.

In addition to making our writing clearer and more focused, delimiting also provides us with material for additional posts. What we cut from today’s post is fodder for tomorrow’s.

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