Pedantic Nitpicking

By Shamus Posted Thursday Jun 7, 2007

Filed under: Rants 0 comments

Steven talks about some of the reasons he quit writing at his primary site a few years ago. As his site grew, he started getting mail that would “set his teeth on edge”. Steven recently said:

What I really hated was people who could only see details and were obsessed with them. I could predict what kinds of things would cause them to respond.

I know exactly what he’s talking about. I can predict when I type a sentence that somebody is going to come along and take issue with something minor and make a point of “setting me right”. Back in my post on kids in Prey, I knew when I typed “nobody wants to kill kids” that someone would take it as a personal challenge to find an example of a game where kids died, even though it was totally different from the situation I was talking about and had no effect on the point I was making. I could have said, “very few people enjoy the process of gunning down kids within the context of a computer game”, and then listed some examples and counter-examples and thus headed off the nitpicking. But that would have been another half a paragraph, and would have made the article longer and more cumbersome. In the past these sorts of statements never caused an uproar, but as the site has grown it has attracted some who seem to see every post as a game: What’s wrong with this entry? Can you find all the mistakes?

I made a lot of reasonable (to me) generalizations in that post, and many people made interesting counter-arguments. (Most compelling argument: “It didn’t bother me.” Can’t argue with that.) But most of the rancor came not from my main point, but from people who were taking issue with the various general assertions I made.

I can imagine if people acted this way in real life:

Me: Man, It’s freezing today.

Them: Actually, it’s well above freezing. It’s forty-two degrees.

Me: What I’m saying is that it’s cold. It’s been raining all day.

Them: No it hasn’t. If you were paying attention you would know it didn’t begin raining until mid-morning.

Me: Look, all I’m trying to convey is that it’s unexpectedly cold and rainy, and that I’m uncomfortable.

Them: It’s not unexpected at all. Aren’t you aware of stuff like weather reports? Duh. Besides, this weather fits well within the norms for this time of year.

Me: Okay, how about this: For the last week it has been unnaturally warm. I grew used to the warm weather. Then it suddenly stopped being so warm. This led to me feeling cold. Happy now?

Them: Actually it wasn’t “sudden”. It took several hours for the temperature to reach its current – Ack! Stop choking me!

Normal people understand my opening line to be an expression of discomfort, but a nitpicker sees it as some sort of personal challenge. Instead of saying “I’m not particularly cold”, the nitpicker decides to try and prove me wrong by misunderstanding everything I say, leading to an endless chain of corrections. It’s like having a conversation with Commander Data from Star Trek, only if he was a complete jerk. I used to be able to just set down my opinions and we could all (all dozen or so of my readers) have a nice little chat about it. Now I find myself trying to “harden” my writing against people coming along and making a sport out of finding fault and pointing out errors with what I’ve said. The endless cycle of clarifications and justifications needed to keep these people happy is simply not worth the time. I nuked a couple of these comments when it was becoming clear that they were turning into a pointless time-sink, and I even had a reader say that they had “lost respect for me” because I did this. This came as a shock, since by the way they interacted with me I didn’t think they had any respect for me to begin with.

I never understood what Steven meant when he said he found the process “exhausting” until now. I thought he was talking about answering his nitpicky email. Now I see that comments aside, its just a tremendous killjoy to sit down and try to write something that doesn’t provoke a nitpicker attack. You can’t use hyperbole. You can’t exaggerate. You can’t create a simplified hypothetical situation. Most declarative statements need all sorts of footnotes, since there are exceptions to everything. Halfway through typing a sentence I’ll see the various objections that a nitpicker will raise and I have to decide if I want the hassle of trying to head them off now or dealing with them in the comments later.

You can’t state simple things such as “people don’t like to eat insects” or somebody will take it upon themselves to “englighten” you about all the situations where people do indeed eat insects. So when you’re writing you have to say, “An overwhelming majority of people in modern western culture do not eat insects, except on rare occasions where it is done on a dare or as part of a bet.” And even then, some wiseguy will probably come along and mention things like when people inadvertently eat bugs, such as getting gnats in your mouth when riding a bike.

I can’t imagine what my writing would look like if it had all the proper footnotes, qualifiers, and if all exaggerations were laboriously labeled as such. It certainly wouldn’t be any fun to write. It would be even less fun to read. My time is very carefully balanced between work, family, writing, working on DMotR, and playing videogames. If I do more of one I have to do less of something else, and I’m not at all eager to spend my videogame time fencing with people in the comments over trivialities.

Sorry to anyone if I was needlessly rude in the past few days. Dealing with flames and nitpicks tends to be very irritating, so by the time I get to the bottom of a comment thread I’m pissed off and giving snippy answers to reasonable disagreement. To a certain degree this is just growing pains. I’ve never run a popular site with open comments before, and I’m learning that there are consequences for that sort of thing. I suppose if I continue being rude the problem will self-correct by driving readers away, although this seems to be a case of curing the disease by killing the patient. I notice on many large sites there are forums instead of comments, and the author usually stays distant and doesn’t interact with readers directly. I certainly don’t want that sort of setup, but now I see why people do it.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do about this. Maybe I’ll only allow comments on DMotR posts. (I couldn’t bear to turn comments off for those.) Maybe I’ll just throttle back on the posting. 2.5 posts a day – my current target – might be too ambitious now if I mean to give the comments proper attention. Maybe I’ll swipe Steven’s “No nitpicking” sign. Heh heh heh.

We’ll see.

Comments are closed. I can see the critics coming a mile away and I don’t even want to have to go through the effort of ignoring them. I know, I know, I’m being a big baby. Boo hoo.

LATER: A useful illustration of helpful vs. unhelpful corrections is here.


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