The Long and Short of It

by John J. Miller on February 24, 2010

in Blog Posts

  • Sumo

The deadline for my next book (it’s nonfiction) is about six weeks away. So I’m crashing on it. I have about two and a half chapters to go, plus a round of revisions. I expect to finish on time, but also to work on the manuscript just about every day between now and then.

The chapter I’m currently drafting is in may ways the most important. It’s a big one, and there’s a lot of material to cram in. This must be done in a way that does not burden readers. You may have heard the old Strunk & White rule about concision: “Omit needless words.” For book authors, there’s a corollary: “Omit needless data.” Many writers face the temptation to impress readers with heaps of information–the more they write, they think, the smarter or more authoritative they’ll look. I’ve certainly felt the tug. It deserves resistance. One of the biggest favors authors can do for readers is to determine what they don’t need to know and leave it out. This is why short books can be harder to write than long ones, and also why they’re so often better.

Abraham Lincoln, according to a story I once heard, wrote a letter in which he apologized at the outset. He wrote (something like): “I’m sorry this letter is so long, but I didn’t have time to make it short.”


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