The Right (Size) Stuff

Tools. Measure tape on white background

One hundred and fifty years ago this fall, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address on the site of the battle that turned the tide of the American Civil War.  It was 270 words and took two minutes to deliver.

Not as memorable was the 13,600-word oratory by American statesman Edward Everett that lasted for two hours prior to Lincoln’s epic speech. In fact, the program for that November 19, 1863 event consisted of eight elements…four songs, two prayers, Everett’s speech and a few words from the President.

History elevated those two minutes by the President to some of the greatest words ever spoken. The rest of the program is all but forgotten.

Recently I was in an airport terminal waiting to board a flight and the well-intentioned airline employee picked up the really bad microphone and began explaining the boarding procedure for my flight in tremendous detail.

Fifteen minutes later (I am not kidding, I timed it) the announcement was finished. The good news is that I now understand the history of boarding procedures in American airports, the reason behind each element of the process, the consequences of not complying with each specific detail of the process and how the boarding procedure should be the most important aspect of my life. In the end, I just stood up and rushed the gate when everyone else did.

Sometimes in an attempt to be thorough, you lose your audience.

Many best-selling books have been short in length. Specifically in the Christian market, The Prayer of Jabez was less than 100 pages and 18,000 words and sold around 10 million copies.  The Greatest Thing in the World by Henry Drummond, written in the mid-1870’s, sold over 12 million copies and is still selling well today in the public domain.  It is just a bit over 8,000 words and would take someone less than an hour to read.  Brother Lawrence’s classic The Practice of the Presence of God is just over 11,000 words.

Not always, but sometimes brevity is the key to making something understandable.

In school, we were told to write a report of a certain length, primarily because our teachers wanted to make sure we understood the topic and that we didn’t summarize the history of the Boer Wars in a couple sentences.  (Which I would have done, just to be honest)

A significant element of the current digital publishing environment is that books can be the right length.  You can write to communicate, not write to fill a page count.  In fact, publishers now like the idea of some books being shorter when not long ago it was considered less-than-desirable.

Something still true today is a book proposal rejected by a publisher because the topic covered or point made would best be an article or a blog post. Experienced acquisitions editors can spot content that if expanded to fill en entire book, would push it to simply re-stating the same thing over and over.

I know of a lot writers who work in broadcast and advertising.  They make a point with as few words as possible. Writing something important in a few words is not easy.

By the way, short is not always the answer. The Bible (Old and New Testaments) contains just shy of 800,000 words.  Tolstoy’s War and Peace is 580,000 words.  Since it takes about an hour to thoroughly read about 8-10,000 words, if you sat down to read the Bible, it would take you about 80-100 hours.

I just wrote 350 more words than the Gettysburg Address on this post.  I don’t know how Abe did it.

Do you have any experiences to share related to the length of your writing?

12 Responses to The Right (Size) Stuff

  1. Gay N. Lewis December 3, 2013 at 5:39 am #

    Thanks. Good article.

    • Carol Johnson December 3, 2013 at 7:38 am #

      I knew you could talk, Dan, but you can also write!

      Seriously, I appreciate the thoughtful, pointed (and succinct!) postings from your mind and heart that I’ve read since you joined up with Steve. Appreciate them–and you–very much.

      • Dan Balow December 3, 2013 at 7:49 am #

        I didn’t know you were reading these Carol. I’ll be sure to make reference to lefse and lutefisk in future posts. Blessings to you!

  2. Judith Robl December 3, 2013 at 6:56 am #

    From the logistics of printing, the page count must be evenly divisible by four. Large publishing companies print several pages on a broadsheet, so the page numbers need to be evenly divisible by four times the number of pages on the broadsheet. Once that is set up, your page counts are essentially set in stone for economy’s sake.

    E-publishing takes out that physical requirement, making word/page count a non-issue.

    Thank you for “brevity is the key to making something understandable.” I’ve always thought the white space as important as the text.

    • Dan Balow December 3, 2013 at 7:36 am #

      Good comments Judith. Digital also allows an author to write extra material not included in the print book, but included in the digital version. So it works both ways.

  3. Jeanne Takenaka December 3, 2013 at 8:41 am #

    Great post, Dan. I tend toward thoroughness, but I had to laugh when you shared about your impromptu airline boarding procedures history class. Point taken. Thorough can be too much information. :)

    I haven’t published anything, so I can’t answer your question directly. What I can say is that when I’ve entered writing contests with maximum word counts, I find it a good challenge to make my entry fit what the parameters are. It’s amazing what can be cut out of a story. Even more amazing is how much better the story, article, or writing piece can be because of brevity.

  4. Meghan Carver December 3, 2013 at 8:51 am #

    Dan, when I saw the title of your blog post pop up in my email, my first thought was of the difficulty of finding the right clothing size for Christmas gifts. Then I saw your picture – a measuring tape. Hmm, the difference between a female and male brain. :)

    I think the Bible still makes points in brief snippets. For example, how long is the book of John? And that’s the book we point new believers to first. I like to view the Bible as a collection of articles or novellas. Brevity still wins.

    • Dan Balow December 3, 2013 at 9:15 am #

      Good point about the Bible. Very interesting to me that commentaries on the Scriptures are five times longer than the Bible text. Jesus told a parable and explained it in a way we are still talking about it 2000 years later. He is the perfect example of using powerful words, like answering a very complicated and potentially incendiary question by saying, “Well then, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give God what belongs to God.”

    • J.D. Maloy December 3, 2013 at 1:54 pm #

      Meghan, you nailed it! The bible is our best example of saying “The Right Stuff” in our writing and in our daily living. I’m happy you shared!

      Dan, yesterday I was just talking to a writing friend after our critique group about this very thing! I’m practicing to let my words be few, but pack a punch. It’s challenging, but oh the patience and growth! The length of my writing pieces are shorter, but they’re more dense and richer which is leading to a faster paced story. Great fun, great post :)

  5. Ron jones December 3, 2013 at 10:02 am #

    Thanks Dan! I can really appreciate this, as it relates to the latest book(s) I’ve written. I used to feel like Tom Clancy would start downloading his background research in the middle of an otherwise great novel and I’d begin looking for the next page with some quotation marks in it so I could skip the noise. I don’t think its just digital books but also the rise of twitter that contributes to an acceptable brevity in written communications.

  6. Pat Lee December 3, 2013 at 11:36 am #

    I regularly write articles for magazines and word length is vital to the success of the piece. In my journalism classes we were taught to tighten, reducing prepositional phrases to adjectives, etc. Not as lyrical, true, but this gets the job done.

  7. Peter DeHaan December 3, 2013 at 4:14 pm #

    Less is more.

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