by Dan Balow
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?