If I had more time I’d write you a shorter letter. Variously attributed
Is shorter writing more vigorous writing? All things being equal, is a 300 word essay on penicillin more vigorous than a 3000 word essay? It could certainly not be as detailed, but do we need those 3000 words? Or are we writing those 3000 just to satisfy an editor’s demands?
The only writer we surveyed in my Creative Nonfiction Workshop (internal link) who wrote briefly was Seneca. His meaning might be debated but we did not have to read him at length to begin arguing.
I’ve written three articles this year for a magazine that requires pieces to be between 2,500 and 3,000 words. That’s just an editorial insistence, they are a long form publication and articles of that length fit with what they want their magazine to be. But could I get my points across in half that space?
It seems axiomatic that it is easier to tell a story in 3000 words than in 300. But where does the ideal word count fall?
“Once More to the Lake” by E.B. White is richly detailed. He pulls off a complex tale in 2800 words. Could he have made a better essay, though, with more words? He obviously arrived at the right length because it is a brilliant work. How, though, did he arrive at that length?
Put it another way. At one point do we lose the essential elements of an essay? At 2400 or 1800 or 1000 words? And on the other side of the argument, at what point does taking away from detail subtract from our story?
My rough draft for our final assignment started out at 2,900 words. I’ve now cut it down to the minimum 2500. I’ve removed sentences and phrases I very much liked, just to keep the story moving. But I’ve lost details that other people might like to see.
My newspaper article and web writing are all pieces in the 500 to 750 word range. Nuance and detail and mystery are all completely forbidden. As it should be. We need to get the essential details to the reader and then be on our way. A caution: what do we lose with this sort of writing?
Deadlines are another matter. We could endlessly edit our work without any deadline. But should we? At some point the article or essay must get out the door. How much more work should we do on a piece to make it just a little bit better? I often send off an article early so I can get going on other things. Putting 90% more time and effort into something may yield only a tiny return.
Clarity and brevity in our assignments have not been stressed yet, nor have deadlines. Perhaps these topics are for another class at another time. Perhaps we adjust our writing style for these things once we have found our voice.