Friday, February 20, 2015

Disciplining Detail

My prior posts have been about using a book’s macro- and micro-level structure to solve writing problems and advance your argument. This post is about strategies to avoid unnecessary detail.

I err in the direction of too much detail when I write. Partly, this is because it’s so tempting to share all the great stuff I find in the archives. Partly, it’s because I often need to write through my material in order to figure out what was really going on and what I want to say about it. Whatever the reason, and however valid excess detail is as a stop on the road toward a finished chapter, article, or book, it should not be your destination.

Most importantly, excess detail is unfair to your reader. I still remember my amazing dissertation advisor, Glenda Gilmore, giving some advice that I have often repeated. Unlike papers you write as a student, no one has to read what you write as a historian. Instead, you have to win your readers by drawing them in and keeping them there. It is a huge imposition on your busy readers’ time to ask them to read a chapter or article, let alone a whole book. Unnecessary detail can drive your reader away rather than draw her in because it inevitably muddles your points and confuses (not to mention bores) your reader. Loading your book with unnecessary detail also fails to respect your reader’s time, making her do the editorial work you didn’t.

Trimming excess detail may also be necessary to meet the sometimes stringent word limits set by publishers. Publishing books is expensive and page real estate is at a premium. While there is often some wiggle room in the word-limit given in an advanced contract, you’re more likely to be allowed to use that wiggle room if you’ve run over for good substantive reason and not because you’ve been unable to part with your own words. And even then, there are limits. Publishers may give an author back a manuscript and demand major cuts, as much as a third of the manuscript or more.

Luckily, cutting excess detail is good for the book, not only its reader and publisher. Trimming detail helps you clarify and sharpen your argument; after all, how else do you know what detail is necessary versus dispensable? But how to do it?

My strategy was to set optimistic page limits for each chapter. As I described in an earlier post, my book had four chronologically progressive parts, each with 3-4 chapters (you can see the TOC here). You do the math and you’ll see that’s a LOT of chapters. I worked back from where I needed to end based on my contract: 125,000 words or about 375 manuscript pages (already long for a book). I figured that gave me about 28 pages per chapter at most, with a short introduction and epilogue.

Then I forced myself to meet my goal. This was not easy—most chapters I drafted came in at about 35 pages and had to lose at least one-fifth of their length. But whittling the chapters down forced me to clarify each chapter’s arguments and then prioritize the material that advanced them. In other words, it made the book tighter, not only shorter.

My strategy may seem absurdly, even counter-productively, arbitrary. This is where being a good boss to yourself comes in. Because you will need to renegotiate the terms of the agreement as you go. But in doing so, you need to make reasonable accommodations without being a pushover. If you look at my book, you will see that my chapters are not a uniform length. Some ended up a bit over my 28-page mark, others came in a bit below. If I was going to go over my limit, however, I made sure I could make a good case to myself why that was justified. If a chapter came in under the mark, I still tried to reduce it by about 20% on the assumption that if there was that much that could go in the longer chapters, there was probably that much chaff in the shorter ones too.

You’ll have to decide for yourself if the book gives the reader the right amount of detail. But I assure you it has a lot less detail than it would have had without my detail diet. And just remember, if something is extremely painful to cut, maybe you can spin it off into a separate article…

What strategies have you used to discipline detail—or wordiness, which my strategy also helped with?