About not confusing length with depth


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 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

Take the New Yorker. My former boss, Bill Emmott, once said that its writers tend to:

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 thing.

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


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.

Slowness and the young author

Orville Schell

Orville Schell

I recently caught up with Orville Schell, a great Sinologist, former dean of Berkeley’s Journalism School (where he asked me to teach) and author of, wait for it, fourteen books! (To me, of course, Orville is above all one of my three mentors.)

Since then, I’ve been pondering what Orville told me about book editors and book editing, and indeed the entire fascinating change inside an author’s mind that occurs between the initial delivery of the manuscript and the printing of the final product.

The reason, of course, is that I am currently in exactly this phase. It has been almost two months since I sent my manuscript to Riverhead, the publisher. The book industry runs in a parallel time dimension, so I knew this would take a while. So I’m absolutely (and in a very positive way) fascinated by how my own mind is filtering the long (110,000-word) text that I just sent off. And of course I’m eager to hear how my editor will react.

Some editors, Orville said, don’t edit at all. That’s a good thing only if they are terrible editors. The best editors, says Orville, see the manuscript as a long and detailed outline, a sketch of what is to come, the genotype of the phenotype that will result. That’s because so often–at least in Orville’s experience–the real book emerges during this waiting period, as the author’s mind, with help from his editor, digests its own product, tests it, does violence to it, stirs it up, cleans it up and finally emits … a thing of beauty.

This, therefore, is one of the big differences between blogging, magazine-writing and book-writing: Time.

The blogger disdains time. The magazine-writer by turns battles, fears and overcomes time. Only the book writer learns to love, savor and appreciate time. (I happen to be all three, of course.)

Time can do good things to a text, especially if the author’s immodest hope is that it become timeless.

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Editing as “desophistication”

Every writer has stories about editors–the great ones and the other ones. But I wanted to share what Johnny Grimmond, our doyen of style at The Economist and author of our Style Guide, has to say on the matter. I have already quoted Johnny on the vital issue of like versus as (never to be confused!). Here now is what he says about editing (British spelling, of course):

It is quite easy to rewrite an article without realising that one has done much to it at all: the cursor leaves no trace of crossing-out, handwritten insertions, rearranged sentences or reordered paragraphs. The temptation is to continue to make changes until something emerges that the editor himself might have written. …

The moral for editors is that they should respect good writing. … A writer’s style, after all, should reflect his mind and personality. … Editors should exercise suitable self-restraint. … Bear in mind this comment from John Gross:

Most writers I know have tales to tell of being mangled by editors and mauled by fact-checkers, and naturally it is the flagrant instances they choose to single out–absurdities, outright distortions of meaning, glaring errors. But most of the damage done is a good deal less spectacular. It consists of small changes (usually too boring to describe to anyone else) that flatten a writer’s style, slow down his argument, neutralise his irony; that ruin the rhythm of a sentence or the balance of paragraph; that deaden the tone that makes the music. I sometimes think of the process as one of “desophistication”.

Editors are human

This is an old-ish piece, from 2001, but it gives a rare peek into the book world from the … editor‘s point of view. In it, Geoff Shandler at Little, Brown, keeps a diary for one week. He gets outbid, he has health problems, he sees the promise and problems in books, he sits through meetings and gets outbid again. He is, in short, refreshingly human. Authors forget that.

A few gems:

Public mention is, for a book editor, like sunlight to a vampire. We don’t want our names on the jackets. We don’t want to go on television. If we’ve been noticed, we’ve failed….

… my least favorite task: beg other writers for blurbs.

(This is becoming an anti-blurb theme.)

Autobiographies are popular, many of them proving that while life is amazing, most life stories are not….

A lot of people go into book publishing because they think they’ll get to read all day. What they don’t realize is that so much of what you read is junk….

A bad review hurts, but a sloppy review infuriates…

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