Friday, January 13, 2012


Blaise Bascal, the French polymath, is supposed to have once written, "I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter."

This counterintuitive statement illustrates what most of us know from experience (and what Strunk and White teach in The Elements of Style): It's much harder to write fewer words than more.

Put another way, writing is really rewriting and editing (cutting). I certainly violate the "less is more" principle in this blog (and conversation) but cannot afford that luxury in my work—as I have learned the hard way: A book contract once called for 80,000 words and I turned in 104,000—and was asked to cut 24,000 words. (In my defense, it was a marketing issue: The manuscript I turned in would have been more expensive to print and would have raised the cost of the book, hurting sales. Welcome to book publishing!)

For several years, I have written a series of pieces for a client that have to be exactly 130 words in length. Sometimes I turn in 129, sometimes 131—but 130 is the target. By the end of today I will have written 1,164 of these pieces, or a total of (approximately) 151,320 words. (That's enough words for a nice two-volume set on the history of something. It also demonstrates that the impressive two-volume history of something you've longed to write can be done—130 words at a time.)

Writing to an exact word count has been a great teacher. With word-count functions available in word processing software today, writing for an exact word-count target is a greatly under-utilized teaching tool. If teachers would assign their students the daily task of writing "your number one goal for today in exactly 17/23/29/31 words"—or some similar, short exercise—they would go a long way toward teaching students how to write well; how to choose, substitute, eliminate, and prioritize their words.

Just a thought.

(Delete that last line.)

1 comment:

  1. I like the topic of the post and appreciate your years of experience. More please,