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About not confusing length with depth

Height_demonstration_diagram

A brief meditation on: length in writing, which is to say word count.

As a writer I am intensely aware of word count, throughout the entire process, even while I am still conceptualizing my story idea. What would be the natural length of this idea? What new idea would I have to add, or how would I have to expand the idea, to justify more word count? Could I deliver the same idea in fewer words?

At The Economist we have a very inflexible page layout. For example:

  • A lead note, in our jargon, is the first piece in a section, and should just turn a page, but within a prescribed line count. = 1,100 words
  • A note, which is a regular piece in a section, = 600 or 700 words.
  • A column–such as Lexington (US), Charlemagne (Europe), Banyan (Asia), Bagehot (Britain), Face Value (Business), Economics Focus (Finance), or Obituary–is a few words short of 1,000.
  • A box, ie a short and quirky sidebar, = 300 or 500. And so on.

I have learned to like writing for prescribed word counts. It is great discipline.

For example: When I write Face Values, I write 990 words, then cut six words to leave my piece one line short. Why? Because that way an editor can’t take anything out without putting it back in! ;) It’s also my way of winking at my editor, and they, tending to be cavaliers, usually get it and wink back.

Even when I write something much, much longer, such as my book, I instinctively count the words. (As you were able to see in the screen grab of my email when I sent off my manuscript to my publisher: 108,000 words.)

Even in these sloppy blog posts, I always look at the word count, out of interest.

Did you know that the average blog post, and possibly also the ideal blog post, is about 250 words? That’s just about what our boxes are at The Economist. My average is above that, but that is beside the point. The point is that….

Length matters

As you regular readers know, I love the New Yorker. And he who loves is allowed to offer helpful criticism. (See my critique of America, for example.) The problem with many (though not all!) pieces in the New Yorker is, as Bill Emmott (my former boss, the previous editor-in-chief of The Economist) once put it, that they:

confuse length with depth.

I heard Bill say this when he was leaving The Economist and giving farewell interviews, in which he was explaining what was special about The Economist. Brevity, for one. You know: Not driveling on and on.

Of course I know where that reaching for length on the part of writers comes from. All my students (when I taught at a Journalism School) always wanted to write long pieces. There is more kudos in it. You don’t get awards for 300-word pieces.

Well, that is a scandal. You should get awards for 300-word pieces, and even for shorter pieces. Haikus! Limericks! Sonnets!

(Editor: ‘Nice piece, William, but, you know, could you make it longer? William: ‘Er, OK. How ’bout: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, in the sweltering and sultry heat, just after a really, really big downpour….’)

Why do people never listen to what the great writers say? That same William in the sonnet joke, for instance, said, via Polonius (in Hamlet, II, 2), that

brevity is the soul of wit.

Or take Mark Twain, his American equivalent:

I’m sorry I didn’t have time to write you a shorter letter.

Or take Ed Carr, one of my editors, who once, 10 years ago, told me to

crucify your darlings,

by which he meant that I should write and then find the phrases in my writing that I was most proud of (!) and just … cut them! For the heck of it. To prove to myself that I can. To stay humble and nimble. That phrase was my screen saver for three years.

Seeing negative shape

250px-Michelangelos_David

Well cut

The skill in all the arts is to take away stuff, not to add stuff. When they asked Michelangelo once how he made such beautiful figures out of stupid blocks of marble, he said something like:

Easy. I visualize the figure inside, then I cut away the rest.

A lot of art goes wrong because the artist does not dare to do that. This is when a great and riveting Hollywood movie suddenly becomes unbearable–because instead of ending when it should, it goes on for another twenty minutes of moral summary and closure (in a courtroom, probably) just in case you didn’t get it.

Cutting into flesh

Michelangelo only cut marble fat, not marble flesh, of course. Over-cutting is just as bad as over-writing. This has also  happened to me.

Sometimes, I write something that demands space and expansion, but then news happens and our layout changes at the last minute and an editor has to cut my piece to fit. This can go wrong. Perhaps the piece was subtly humorous or ironic, and now the tiny signals and implied winks are missing and it falls flat. Or a logical connector gets cut and the piece seems like a non sequitur. Or something went from being simplified to oversimplified and is just plain wrong.

Or a writer might simply have a great subject that, by nature, wants to go on and be told as a story but instead dies a premature death.

But I’ve observed that writers overwhelmingly err to one side: they overwrite; they rarely overcut. And they suffer more when an editor cuts than when an editor asks for more. Even though, to improve, they should always consider both options, simultaneously.

All of this is simply to say: Every story, every thought, every joke, every movie, every poem has a natural (=optimal) length. A lot of good writing is simply intuiting that length and then writing to it, and not one word more or less. Unless you want to wink at your editor and leave it one line short.

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28 Comments Post a comment
  1. “…….There is more kudos in it………?

    You were using irony in saying “is”, not “are”, no?

    I think American journalists overwrite more than do their English counterparts. How say you?

    Given that paragraphs today are much shorter than in the days of yore, what think you of today’s short paragraphs? What thinks the Economist?

    May 9, 2009
    • No irony, actually. Kudos, I believe, is the Greek (singular) for glory. So there is more glory in it.

      I do think that Americans overwrite more than the Brits, but it’s an individual thing. I know plenty of great American authors who get it just right.

      Shorter paragraphs: I think it’s part of the general shortening in the online culture. Everything needs to become more digestible, thus shorter. Not an altogether bad trend, in the right hands…

      May 9, 2009
  2. I have egg on my face. I had in my mind, “kudu”, a species of antelope.

    May 9, 2009
  3. Great points.
    Needful brevity not just online.
    All suffering “time poverty”.
    Writers ignore at peril.

    P.S. – 8 hours to listen to weekly Economist audio.
    Despite brevity.

    P.P.S. – original meaning of sarcasm = flesh cutting.

    May 9, 2009
    • Flesh-cutting etymology: V telling. Must commit to memory and re-use!

      8-hour Economist podcast: scandalously long. Surprised you made it.

      May 9, 2009
  4. One of my many dorky pet peeves is the way that the financial incentives of the U.S. television industry (specifically the money made from syndication and DVD release) lead to networks running shows far longer than their underlying premise justifies. Shows like Lost — which would surely be hailed as one of the all-time TV masterpieces if it had been kept to a 2-3 year run with a beginning, middle and end — are instead reduced to rambling, interminable messes.

    Another pet peeve of mine: business books, which could almost always be reduced to a three-page magazine article without sacrificing any useful information. But you can’t charge $19.99 for a magazine article, so these books are padded with another 247 pages of repetitive filler. I usually read 30-50 pages and then put them back on the shelf.

    I’m also reminded of a blog post by Chris Anderson (http://longtail.typepad.com/the_long_tail/2005/05/natural_portion.html) arguing that 30-minute TV shows are an anachronism doomed to vanish in the age of digital distribution. Single track sales on iTunes are another example of this phenomenon, as is the inevitable debundling of newspapers.

    All this to say that I heartily agree with your thesis that most content nowadays is too long, usually for reasons that no longer make any sense. I’m confident, however, that digital distribution will blow apart our preconceptions about how long content should be. In particular, the artificial correlation of length and price will die a well-deserved death. Time is money, more than ever in the age of information overload, and I’d personally pay more to get shorter content, provided it is of high quality.

    May 11, 2009
    • Amen!

      Your comment about business books dovetails with what I’ve said before:
      “….But non-fiction books do tend to contain a fifty-page idea that the author must stretch out to 300 pages just to please the publisher, leaving lots of books with 250 unread pages on most people’s shelves, as Seth Godin, an author and blogger, told me in my article on the subject. Good fiction does not face that problem, because it tells stories, and human beings love good stories….”

      I agree that digital distribution will lead to a surprising kind of honesty in the length of media content.

      May 11, 2009
  5. Dare I say it? Practicing on Twitter with its 140-character limit has made me a better writer.

    May 11, 2009
    • Really? If you convince me, I’ll finally try Twitter.

      “Hard to be both” is a good meme, with potential, btw….

      May 11, 2009
    • Thanks! I am a true Twitter believer. I love its immediacy and the limit of 140 characters is constantly challenge to be succinct even with complex thoughts. Plus you can dip in and out as it suits you. The opportunity to spew creativity and share information with a community whenever is really appealing to me. Let m know if you join up. I’m a fan of your writing here.

      May 12, 2009
    • My concern is the centrifugal force of joining yet another thing (which then demands updating and engagement). I think Twitter might tip me over the edge. But you’ve convinced me to keep an open mind….

      May 12, 2009
  6. Late addition. Tweeting a story. Also relevant to mechanics of magazine writing.
    Tweet-compilation of how Dan Baum was hired at New Yorker.
    http://www.metafilter.com/81577/Twitter-the-antiNew-Yorker#2560572

    Includes – following quote.
    I was paid $7,750 for “Jake Leg,” which ran 5,000 words. Dollars-per-word isn’t a very good measure of pay. Because writing short can take more work than writing long, but either way, this was good pay but not terrific. At the time, I was writing just about full time for Rolling Stone, which was paying me $3.40 a word.

    May 14, 2009
    • My god, Jag, you have runined my working day. I am engrossed in Dan Baum’s ordeal at The New Yorker.

      I must say: They treat us better at The Economist.

      I must contemplate this entire notion of tweeting a narrative….
      (I suddenly feel old, very old)

      May 14, 2009
  7. Convince me that being hired or published by or in the New Yorker isn’t about status.

    May 14, 2009
    • Cherie – wouldn’t even try. I favour the view that much human culture has evolved as a means to compete for and demonstrate status. Darwin seems to have partially agreed, he made a distinction between ‘natural selection’ and ‘sexual selection’ – which is not about simply being the fittest. Some who ascribe to this theory – are of the “deliciously seductive view that the human brain is a sexually selected ornament”.

      Good, though not brief summary of most prominent recent reincarnation – Millers Mating Mind Theory is at
      http://www.cogsci.ecs.soton.ac.uk/cgi/psyc/newpsy?12.008

      PS – clearly the Economist is one of the other peaks of the journalistic status heirarchy. And we are blessed to be able to interact with one if its successful conquerors.

      May 14, 2009
    • Actually, Jag, you should know that Cheri knows all about sexual selection.

      May 14, 2009
  8. Ha!

    I mean ahem.

    Sexual selection, yes…Gobble..Gobble..

    May 14, 2009
  9. I agree about brevity, but have never be able to abide by it. I have 17 self-published books in print and hope to produce at least one a year for the remainder of my life. At 73, even one a year shall probably not increase the number much beyond 17. The main point, though, is this: Each of my books is a prime example of how to violate horribly the principle of brevity. God bless.

    EDWARD N. HAAS D.O.B. 04/13/1936
    39193 HAAS ROAD – HAASWOOD
    PEARL RIVER, LA 70452

    May 27, 2009
    • Well, your comment above is certainly brief and punchy enough.

      And, of course, my point was simply that each idea has a natural length. If your books are indeed the result of “thirteen years of heroically intense inner concen­tration”, your output may be just be terse, relatively speaking. ;)

      May 27, 2009
  10. How refreshing

    August 25, 2009
  11. Wonderful.

    March 2, 2012
  12. Angel #

    Thank you for sharing this. I learned somethin’ new today! :)

    March 8, 2012
  13. I’m guilty of the above. hahaha Live and learn! I’ve still got time to improve my writing. Thank you for sharing!

    March 12, 2012
  14. Actually, I do have the “other” problem, over-cutting or maybe under-writing? Most of my stories do tend to be very short, the vast majority under 1000 words. I’ve always seen this as a disadvantage though, something I’m trying to work through rather than just accept as-is.

    Then again, I’ve gotten 16 stories published, so it can’t be all bad…

    March 12, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. About not confusing length with depth (via The Hannibal Blog) « Presuming Literacy
  2. Slowing down to save time | Hannibal and Me
  3. Slowing Down To Save Time « semicartermatics
  4. fewer words, more meaning / less activity, more action | chloé : chasing liberty

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