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 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

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.

Reading by deleting

In the old days, I would have researched my book by going to a library and pulling journals and books from dusty stacks, then reading them and writing down, on index cards, the passages that I might want to quote, or perhaps photocopying the pages.

These days, I’m finding a lot of journal articles and book passages–especially the classics–online. And in the past year, I’ve increasingly found myself doing something very different (without even consciously deciding to do so):

I download the PDF of some 100-page journal article, copy and paste it into a word document, and then read the article while simultaneously deleting everything I know I won’t need.

I know this sounds bizarre, but I really like it:

  • it makes me read much more actively, since I’m deciding for every paragraph and sentence how it does or does not fit into my themes. So I actually absorb the passages that I’m deleting, as well as those that I’m keeping.
  • it gives me this wonderful sense of progress. I watch the document’s word count go down, and down, and down, and I know I must be doing well.
  • and finally, I end up with exactly the same passages that, in the past, I would have typed in for citation at a later point. So I’ve reversed the process.

It reminds me of what I read somewhere about Michelangelo (I think): Somebody asked him how he sculpts these beautiful statues. Easy, he said: I look at the block of marble, see the statue inside, and then just chip away all the rest.


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