Surefire Weight-Loss Cure for Fat Manuscripts. It’s Called Paper
One of our agency’s specialties is fantasy and science fiction, and though these genres lend themselves to epic lengths, sometime in the 1990s I began to notice something odd: manuscripts – both by unpublished writers and professional authors – were getting longer and longer. Books that once averaged 75-100,000 words were swelling to 150-200,000 or even longer. In some cases the length was appropriate to the structure and content of the books. But in too many others I became concerned and even alarmed by a tendency to prolixity.
From both a practical and artistic viewpoint this was far from a good thing. The longer a book the higher its printing costs, and unless the author was a star who could deliver an audience guaranteed to read his or her book at any length, more and more books were being rejected on grounds of length alone. The economics just didn’t support a midlist book of bloated girth. But in esthetic terms as well the books were becoming unsightly, unmanageable and unreadable. What was going on?
It took a while before I figured it out. As authors shifted from mechanical typing to electronic word processing, they were no longer editing their work as they used to. The introduction of automatic spell checking only aggravated the problem. Authors were losing the vital skill of self criticism. Many, perhaps most, forewent printing their work out and reviewing it in hard copy, and they were losing the “feel” of print. If they’d troubled to scrutinize their manuscripts on paper they might easily have seen overblown descriptions, overwrought dialogues and unnecessary repetitions. But the computer was making life too easy for them.
The advent of e-books made things even worse. If there was no need to publish a book on paper there was certainly no exigency to edit it on paper, either.
These thoughts were provoked by an article in the Sunday New York Times business section entitled In Defense of the Power of Paper by Phyllis Korkki, which begins “Paper still matters.” “For long texts,” Korkki notes, paper printouts “allow a reader to better understand relationships between sections of writing.” To which we add that they also enable authors to exercise the same comprehension as readers.
If it were up to me, I would require authors to follow this procedure: 1) Print out your manuscript. 2) Put it away for at least two weeks in order to distance yourself from your work. When you return to it you will be able to read it coolly and objectively. 3) Start cutting, marking the text up on paper with a pen or pencil. How much? I have seldom seen a freshly completed manuscript that could not benefit from a 25% trim. But rather than succumb to the tendency to indulge in narcissistic self-admiration, set the dial at 50%. The tougher your self-editor is, the gentler your real-world editor will be. Let economy be your byword.
Incidentally, Korkki makes another significant point on which we have been harping for years. Print is not just better for authors, it’s better for readers, too. Citing a 1997 study demonstrating that “people’s comprehension is superior when they read texts on paper as opposed to online,” she quoted a publishing executive who asserts that while “digital technology is better for socializing and sharing…, paper is best for quiet contemplation.” See The Medium is the Screen. The Message is Distraction.