3.16.2017

Pushing Yourself

Many writers likely remember a practice in college called bullshitting. An assignment called for a paper that was X pages long, and you only had enough material for a paper X/2 long. So you spun out verbiage, making the ending sentence of a paragraph basically restating the first sentence, etc.

This practice is carried over into the business world as well. An important memo from the corporate equivalent of an Olympian god really only wants to tell employees that the corporation has reduced its matching of 401K contributions to 3%. That requires merely a sentence or two, but instead an entire page is filled up with corp speak, designed to mask the fact that the lowly employee is being cheated.

Since prolixity tends to increase with age, it is not surprising that a nonfiction writer brings this bad habit to that book he’s always been meaning to write. By a certain age a writer with any talent can say the same thing a half dozen different ways. That’s fine if the document’s length is short and its message instantly forgettable. When rephrasing occurs often in a book, though, the overall result is sludge. The reader has to read so much for so little gain.

A book does allow a writer more space to expand her ideas, but its very length also imposes a cost. You need to have enough interesting material to fill it out. I can’t tell you how many business books I have read that contain only a few ideas, and then the author spends the rest of the book spinning out permutations of them. The result? I read the introduction and the first chapter or so—and skim the rest. Is that what you want for your life-long dream?

Think of a book as a great maw. It can ingest reams of data. If you want readers to stay interested, you need to be pushing on constantly to new points, with new examples. Not every point needs to be original, because there are traditions in different fields that cause books to overlap, but you should find recent research to back up that point. Use an example of someone today who illustrates the point. To put your stamp on the subject, you have to put in the work to make it stand out.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for redundancy. While you do need to emphasize certain points with repetition, don’t do it often. Instead, be ruthless with yourself. If taking out a sentence leaves a short paragraph, join it up with the next paragraph. Don’t clog up the book because you didn’t have enough material to fill out a point.

“The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition.”
—W. H. Auden

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine









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