Are books overwritten?

…having said that, spending a lot of time on the internet, as I have
since 2002, has rubbed my nose in something that hadn’t really bothered
me before then: namely just how overwritten so many books and magazine
articles are. Seymour Hersh? He’s great. You could also cut every one
of his pieces by at least 50% and lose exactly nothing. And I’m not
picking on Hersh. At a guess, I’d say that two-thirds of the magazine
pieces I read could be sliced by nearly a third or more without losing
much. That’s true of a lot of books too.

Here is the full piece, by Kevin Drum.  My view is that many readers want overwritten books to tranquillize themselves, just as they enjoy dull, soothing voices on the radio.

Readers, do you agree that most books are overwritten?  Please write your opinion of Kevin Drum’s point in the comments and feel free to refer to specific books.  My favorite rock star, the extraordinary Hillel, would like to again create a song from your opinions.  I will link to the song once it is ready.  Hillel assures me that the quality of his song will reflect the quality of your input.  Be poetic!  Think music!  Overwrite, if you wish!



Look at what John Maeda did with his book on Simplicity. He forced himself to keep the book simple; less than 100 pages. The result was a clear and focused book that was very readable.

Great editors know what and when to cut, which is why writers need editors.

"Retribution" by Max Hastings is definitely overwritten. An enthusiastic post here at MR made buy the book and I don't regret it, but it could've been 200 pages shorter and no substance would've been lost.

I didn't find Retribution over written -- in fact I often wished that there was more detail, it covers so much ground. It certainly could have described the course of the last years of the war, and explained why Japan lost, in many fewer pages, but I enjoyed the atmosphere as much as the facts.

I have been re-reading some 1970s science fiction recently. Then it was acceptable to tell a story in less than 200 pages, compared with 400 today.

Do people have more time to read today than they did 30 years ago?

Michael Blowhard has made this point a number of times:

"The whole book-length thing is one of the stranger cultural fetishes people have, it seems to me. Let's get over it. What's so special about 250-400 pages, the length of most books? Absolutely nothing -- except that it's the length of a typical book. And why is it the length of a typical book? For reasons having to do not with expressive need or even readers' pleasure or convenience, but with binding, shipping, and tradition. Many pieces of book-writing, in other words, aren't the length they are because they need to be. They're the length they are because, well, they wouldn't have been published as books if they weren't."

His controversial recommendation:

"A four-tape abridgement is the equivalent of about 150 pages -- which is the length I think most biographies should be.

I think most novels, especially literary novels, should be about 50 pages long. Or even shorter."

Alas... we'd lose Norbert and Tom Bombadil if we cut substance for the Hollywood version.

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

Totally agree on the overwriting angle.

Popular on this blog (and I actually liked The Fountainhead) is Ayn Rand, whose screeds are about 75% too long.

Even Vonnegut, whose books are fairly short can stand to be shorter.

put your money where your mouth is.

give me the five or so tyler alex books in the side bark, all cut down to 100 pages, in one 500 page compendium volume...thats value add...

Longer books give people the illusion that there is more content in the book, thus increasing the value. It's fairly simple logic.

Unfortunately, Strunk and White will never sink in.

I agree, many things are overwritten. The economics of book publishing seems to be factor. But, I see inflation in non-published works as well. In business, unfortunately, volume signals hard work. Effective leaders, however, demand the more noble hard work of short and effective communication.

Weight loss books are notoriously overwritten. It shouldn't take very many pages to say, "Burn more colories than you eat" It only took me 21 pages.

Oh, I agree as well. There are definitely exceptions, but most new novels I read require a good deal of skimming to keep me in the mood and feel of the book. Nick E brought up Bollywood movies, but I think Hollywood movies are starting to suffer from this too. I was dragged to Sex and the City movie and couldn't believe how long it was. I loved the Lord of the Rings movies, but will not ever again sit through the 10 goodbye scenes at the end. I wonder at what point people will start balking at going to see longer movies in theaters and wait until DVD when even movies that are supposed to be fun and simple are over 2 hours. Value added meets my bored behind.

On the other hand, I keep thinking of my favorite Sci-fi writer, C. J. Cherryh. Her books often feel overlong when I come to the end and realize just how little actually happened in them. At the same time, I don't know what I'd cut because I enjoy every sentence of it. (She does have a collection of various length short stories and they are unapologetically amazing).

i don't know whether i would call it overwritten, but sometimes i feel that way about biographies. for instance, i just (almost) finished titan, by ron chernow. i got to the end and i was reading about how john d. rockefeller's daughter was having some psychological issues and meeting with carl jung in switzerland. i wasn't interested in that so i skipped it, and ended skipping most of the rest of the book. i never would have done that except that i just listened to tyler's podcast with russ roberts where he mentioned that he rarely finishes books.

"True glory consists in doing what deserves to be written; in writing what deserves to be read."
- Pliny the Elder

"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some to be chewed and digested."
- Sir Francis Bacon

"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
- Antoine de Saint-Exupry

I always say that this goes back to our high school/college teachers/professors requiring papers of "x" length. Wouldn't it be better to grade on how efficient you are at getting your point across? In that regard "floccina at Jul 29, 2008 9:43:33 AM" gets an A+!

I think you have to earn length with great writing, which is rare. The fact that Infinite Jest and Independent People are long just adds to the enjoyment. Stephensen's very close to being good enough to write huge books, but not quite there in my opinion. Atlas Shrugged is ridiculously long; I'd say cut it by 80%. Ten years of solitude would've been plenty.

The only books that I've read recently which weren't padded are my mathematics textbooks. Usually the complaint that I have and that my fellow students share is that, if anything, the books are underwritten and we want more examples, more explanations, and I want more exercises (I've never heard this complaint from anybody else).
I do agree that overwriting is generally a problem, but I think that it is easy to fix: switch into media where there is very little overwriting: i.e. blogs (usually) and certain kinds of technical writing. I switched my studies from philosophy to mathematics precisely for this reason. I still run into worthless writing that is a waste of my time, but I never feel as if it is padded.

Yes, they are very overwritten.

A few thoughts:

- Sometimes length is a signalling mechanism, to show that you've put thought into your argument.
- The incentives are indeed too skewed towards conforming your argument to a "typical" book length.
- There is some backlash to this, in the form of the "in 90 minutes" or "in a nutshell" books.
- I don't think we should worry about it from the producer side. Instead I would like to see the Kindle empower consumers to skip the unnecessary parts of books, through collective, aggregated highlighting. Think of it as a rating system on individual chapters, paragraphs, passages, sentences (even words). Users can highlight something they thought was cool, something they thought was boring, or the Kindle can just tell us what parts people are skipping through.
Once new reading technology empowers consumers to extract the value from a book without reading the whole thing, a groundswell should begin soon after for more compact reading experiences.
Then we can begin to deconstruct the author-reader relationship. Authors could write and electronically release a 50 page manuscript, and if enough people buy it, they could release additional installments on the most popular subtopics or those most in need of elaboration.
Reader-added content can extend to creating wiki-able outlines of a book's argument, or noting the key topic sentences. In changing how we read, this may discourage or encourage good writing. I suspect it'll be a mixed bag.

Yes. Most non-fiction, the last third is worthless. It's usually an abstract idea that may or may not have been true when written, but by the time it's published is wrong.

Most not-fiction could be boiled down to 10-20 pages, although books that dense would feel a lot like "A Brief History of Time". It definitely wouldn't be light reading for the daily commute.

I'd be happy to pay the same amount for streamlined books, but that would probably mean stripping out supporting evidence and examples. I'm the first to gripe when authors make claims that are completely unsupported by research, so I clearly want it both ways.

I don't read much fiction, but virtually every nonfiction book I read is guilty of this. Readers have been conditioned to think that something needs to have a certain page count to be a "real" book rather than just a pamphlet, and so look suspiciously at the short ones. It doesn't help that there is so little variation in pricing from book to book, so they do end up evaluating on size like they're buying a steer at auction.

The above poster is right that this seems to be particularly acute in pop science/pop econ books. They are all feature articles or masters theses loaded with filler. Seconding Black Swan, some other big offenders:

Everything Bad Is Good For You (which isn't even long!)
Stumbling Onto Happiness
Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

These books, and many others, each have maybe 80 pages worth of actual content in them.

Two authors that I have to praise for avoiding this temptation are Michael Lewis and Atul Gawande. Their books always feel just the right length. I wish there were more like them.

Of course. It seems half my life is filtering out the key points from books. The other half is figuring out how to store the blasted things. The problem is a good writer will refine himself out of a product.

I'd like them all to come with a quick start guide that I can keep for the main ideas and chuck the book.

While i agree with most of the comments, I find it funny that people keep adding comments belaboring the same point that books are too long.

I think appropriate length really depends on the subject matter.

Fiction, I prefer a longer book if the length is taking me to a world I don't know or understand -- fantasy, sci-fi, history. But for fiction set in a contemporary, near future, or recent past world, I like something slimmer, 100-150 tops.

As a rule, I skim through any fiction over 500 pages, or take Tyler's advice and read select chapters out of order.

Non-fiction, it's all over the map. On the one hand, there's stuff like Charles Woolsey's "Colbert and a Century of French Mercantilism," a two-volume beast so dense that you could strap it to your chest as body armor in prison. Even so, it's an impressive read for anybody interested in 17th century French mercantilism.

But then you've got shorter work like David Ball's "Backwards & Forwards," which taught me more about playwriting than 4 years of college.

So I agree -- book length shouldn't be arbitrarily dictated by editors concerned about the way the finished product prices out at the register. It should be determined by a skilled, precise writer and an editor with a pen full of red ink.

re: Dainius and Noah, I agree -- Malcolm Gladwell books are puffier than soft Cheetos.

"Just get me to the airport put me on a plane
Hurry hurry hurry before I go insane
I can't control my fingers I can't control my brain"

RIP Johnny

Most people here must be teennages since they attention span is so low.
240-300 is more or less what you read in 4 hours.The maximum time you can keep concentration.
I guees nobody here have read War and Peace , Don Quixote and the Wealth of Nation , Human Action, Law and freedom or priciples of political economy

The amen choir, always insistent at MR, seems too loud on this topic. When someone says, "Books are too long," my instinct is to say, "Which ones?" I can think of plenty short masterworks--"Legends of the Fall," almost anything by Raymond Carver, "A River Runs Through It," Orwell's essays, Joe Mitchell's essays and stories, Joan Didion's "White Album" and "Slouching Toward Bethlehem," Jane Kramer's "The Last Cowboy."

And likewise, I recall many fat books in which I savored every page, or certainly the majority, and wished for more, including Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes" and Wallace Stegner's "Angle of Repose."

With novels, especially, the point is the journey, not just the destination. I never mind spending time with any writer whose prose and point of view I enjoy.

Maybe Tyler meant that most recently published books are too long. Given the number of economists that lurk here, has anyone checked whether the trend's to longer or shorter?

A few unrelated comments.

1. The FT gave away condensed business books some time ago. They had all the main points 300-page books have, written in 15 small pages with large typeface. Perhaps the best empirical evidence that books are overwritten is the large number of condensed books that are available. Audiobooks are one example.

2. I agree with Tyler that reading books is perhaps an activity in itself that does not depend on the _density_ of the content. Sometimes drinking Schorle is better than drinking white wine. Dilution is often a blessing. So there is perhaps an ideal level of dilution that turns the book into something tolerable and digestible. So think as the overwriting as the medium where the plot exists.

3. In a different art form the same point can be made. Do look at the very related and highly entertaining article published today in Guardian Unlimited. The author claims that some trailers summarize the film so perfectly, that the plot of the movie is contained completely in them. If you can summarize 90 minutes in 2.5 minutes, what is the rest made of? But then, people go to the movies for the explosions and the car chases. In this case, the plot is a merely skeleton that justifies explosions. My point: it is not always about the plot.

I think that fiction is less likely to be overwritten because it is a story with an end and a beginning. At any length, fiction will, for the most part, always be heading somewhere. But the content of a non-fiction book can be less coherent. It is also amazing that many non-fiction books are all around 200-250 pages. How can everyone have exactly the same quantity of things to say?

I apologize for the length of this letter, but I didn't have time to make it shorter. (Mark Twain)

I think I'm going to have to come out against the idea that books in general are too long. Maybe if I read more general quasi-pop nonfiction of the sort that Tyler tends to reccommend here I'd have a different opinion (though I did read the book on shipping containers and thought it could have used more data, not less), but as it stands I can't agree with prevailing sentiment. I read primarily in three fields:

1. Fiction (Harry Potter, Clancy, etc): here I tend to read authors whose prose itself I really enjoy; it's not as if I'm reading to find out the plot or to grade a character development exercise. Why wouldn't I want to read 1000 pages for these authors? They're fast reading, so this still only takes a couple of hours. Given that most of my reward from this type of book comes while actually reading it, I should indeed be willing to pay more for a longer book. And at least with the top-shelf authors, the length doesn't seem to result in dragging plot the way it does with the lower-tier authors.

2. Computer Science: here I agree that most books are longer than what I would personally read, but I think that the various examples on a theme tend to speak to different people and skimming is pretty easy, so I worry that if they cut down the books they'd cut down the little details that are important to what I'm doing that others don't necessarily read.

3. Philosophy (mainly epistemology): in this case the really good people tend to develop additional subtleties in every single paragraph, meaning that a couple of hundred pages is well worth it, and many junior people either write only in journals or do produce very slim monographs that aren't bloated at all. The only major class of "too long" books here seem to be by second-rate tenured professors attempting to summarize their careers in bound form, but these always struck me as very easy to see and avoid, and probably wouldn't be a lot better if they were shorter--indeed, the primary market of that person's limited following would probably be saddened if they were.

So is this just a matter of field? Or do I just have a higher threshold of what books to read in the first place? Or more tolerance of skimming? Because I really don't share this sensibility.

You'll find a book long
If you long for a song,
For a song or a poem or a story.

But you'll find a book terse
If you don't thirst for verse,
But for something Steve Kingish and gory.

"1. The FT gave away condensed business books some time ago."

Is there a link for this somewhere? I'd love to see it if there is.

Of course books and magazine articles are "overwritten".

As a writer/editor who is published and edits others every week I can tell you the economic reason why:

Publishers of them want to make money.

To do so they must fill a set amount of space ("I need 2,200 words") at a reasonable cost.

Reasonable cost means they do *not* want polished gems of art. They want "good enough".

To fill space with 2,200 words without wasting a one requires re-write/ edit/ supplemental research/ re-write/ edit/ repeat ... more $$$.

Was it Johnson who wrote: "Sorry for the long letter, I didn't have time to write a short one?" And Woodrow Wilson, IIRC, when at Princeton offered some group: "I'll cover the subject in a full-day presentation for $1,000, an afternoon presentation for $2,000, a two-hour presentation for $5,000...."

Right here, I could've made the same point in half the words, better, without any uncertainty about who said what, if I took the time to fact check and re-write.

But nobody is paying me for a blog comment, so overwritten as it is, it is good enough.

There is a transatlantic contrast here, in magazines if not in books. Magazines of British origin - the Spectator, New Scientist, even The Economist - feature articles a few pages in length - never more. The New Yorker, by contrast, has painfully long pieces; only occasionallydo these justify their length.

Interestingly, Brits can't (or at least don't want to) win Pulitzer Prizes. These seem to be awarded for longer stuff, right?

Too many notes, my dear Mozart.

This discussion reminds me of "Is Google Making Us Stupid" in the Atlantic, and the different ways we read on screens and on paper.

Setting aside Google-induced stupidity, I'm sure the people who leave comments on blogs generally have an innate or learned preference for the kind of text found on the internet. It's not very surprising that they (we) prefer pithy books.

People buy big books for the same reason they buy overfeatured electronics and appliances. Eyes are bigger than the stomach.

The tranquilizing aspect and the 250-400 pages = four-ish hours of focus interact. When do many people buy big, chunky, overwritten books? In airports. Most "airplane reading" or "beach books" are puffed-up crap, but we buy them because we want to zone out and distract ourselves for a set period, be it the span of a transcontinental flight or an afternoon with the kids at the shore. Many a time I have picked up a book that seemed interesting at the airport bookstore and then put it back because I would finish it before the flight ended, leaving me to stare at Skymall and become hyperaware of my seatmate's gastrointestinal issues. A slightly worse book that will keep me pleasantly removed from my environs for the duration is a better value for the money.

"The World is Flat" is a 200 page book spread over 380 pages.

Do the publishing companies still employ editors? Or just copyreaders?

"The World is Flat" is a 200 page book spread over 380 pages.

Do the publishing companies still employ editors? Or just copyreaders?

Three Points:

1) I really like the collective marking/highlighting idea. I think that would make things a lot easier for avid readers, and even open up markets for people who find certain editors to be spot-on, allowing them to subscribe to their edits of whatever texts.

2) I have the exact same experience as BP. When editing, the person who created what you're editing is protective of their effort, and doesn't want to change anything (even if it should be changed). Furthermore, they want to show their expertise, even if the reader won't appreciate it. The purpose sof the writer and the editor are much more different than that of the editor and the reader.

3) I hope that in the future, academics (I guess you can include economists) will post their books as a brief introduction, their main point, and then an outline with a list of sources that they used to prove it (with quotes/summaries, preferably, and links to those sources). That way you can read a short version, and have access to the actual sources if you want to check up on them.

3.1) And I can't wait until we can search a database of literature for a phrase that we remembered reading. I'm sick of spending an hour and a half sifting through book after book trying to find the phrase I'm thinking of.

I liked the "Tipping Point" but thought it was grossly overwritten. Gladwell was very redundant summarizing his points over and over again. But, it is hard to be critical when I'm guilty of the same fault.

To In Check. The FT included these small leaflet-like digests of good business books. I doubt there was an online version.

I was reading a couple of New Yorker articles last night. They were excellent and full of exciting things (one of them was "The Itch", by Atul Gawande). I thought: this article can easily become a book. One just needs to extend every paragraph into a section with more historical notes, anecdotes, a few technical explanations, and there it goes. A nice 200 page book that retails for 19.99 Hardcover.

Hmm, redundancy is in the eye of the beholder. I can easily believe that every single "average reader" could identify 50% of a Seymour Hersh essay that he would like to excise. But would it be the same 50% in every case? When things are written as tightly as possible, they are very hard to understand because tons of reminders, thematic cues, heuristics, corollaries, and signposts have been edited out (this is why most people dislike pure mathematics, and Heidegger).

Well, you could always read (and publish) the "Readers Digest" edition or the Cliff Notes of these works if you seek brevity and the shortest rendition/ transmission of content. Personally, I will read the unabridged versions and will probably enjoy them, for all their faults.

Freakonomics could make for a fascinating slide in PowerPoint.

OK loyal MR readers. Thanks for your comments.

I'm off to the composing cave to make a song.

Wish me luck. I will need it. ;)

I have never been compelled to post here before, but I have been thinking the same thing fairly often over the past year. I enjoy a good long book(s)- the Lord of The rings was amazing, and I reread it annually, but most books I have read over 500 pages seem like a writer trying to justify their paycheck. My last few trips to the bookstore, I have been deliberately seeking out shorter books, and had secret feelings of guilt that I was being lazy or losing my attention span.

A few examples that I have read over the past year (some were mentioned earlier, but this is a much needed rant):
Atlas Shrugged- Overall it was an enjoyable read, but I ended up thinking to myself "ok, I get the point, can we just move the story forward?!" Easily 1/2 of this book could have been cut out with no loss whatsoever.

The World is Flat, Second(bloated) edition:
Nice book, some interesting ideas in there, but he repeated himself so much I felt like I was back in grade school again. When I saw that I had unknowingly bought the "expanded" edition, I really wished I had the original.

The Power Broker:
After getting a workout carrying this 1500+ page brick around with me for months, I came to the conclusion that they really should have came out with two versions of this book- a concise version for typical readers who are interested in knowing the impact Moses had, and another for historians, urban planners, and aspiring politicians who are interested in what the state and city budget looked like each year Moses was in power, what kinds of cars to drive, and how to deal with your mostly estranged brother (tip- screw him out of his inheritance).

Bill Clinton's Autobiography:
Never has so little been said in so many words. This was one of those books that upon finishing it I was just relieved it was over. Self serving at times, tedious at most other times, they really should have assigned an editor to this who had the balls to stand up to a former president.

Second Prize Winner- Gotham:
This was an interesting book, but far too much time was spent on people who have left no lasting mark on New York.

I'll try not to repeat what so many have already said, but yes, I have finished many books and said to myself "that would have made a great magazine article". There are huge books that justify their length (more often in fiction than non-fiction), but many only aim to justify their price.

A few points that I didn't see much discussion of:
1) I may read a 500-page book and think there was 200 pages of fluff that could have been excised without any loss, and you might do the same, but will we agree which 200 pages should be cut? We need some "extra" length to make sure that each person gets out of a book what he/she thinks is important.
2) Many people, I'm afraid, buy books but don't read them. They do not demand succinct writing because the value of a book to them is in making an impression that they are intellectual. Small books do not make that impression easily. How many people actually read their copies of "Godel, Escher, Bach", for instance?
3) Many books seem to be aimed at several audiences at once. Where a casual reader might be quite happy with less detail or fewer examples, a more expert reader might demand a more thorough analysis covering all of the permutations and exceptions that the aforementioned casual reader wouldn't even think of asking about. I've found in my writing that the more expert your audience is, the fewer genaralizations you can get away with. I like Kevstev's idea of two versions of a book - one for general readers and one for experts.

Regarding the many comments made by others: half of them are on point, but the other half could be deleted without losing anything of value.

Which was better:"Wealth of Nations + Moral Sentiments", "Communist Manifesto", or "Road to Serfdom", or Friedman's "Monetary History"?

The Manifesto is by far the shortest.

If you are convinced by a short non-fiction work, you probably were predisposed to the premise and didn't need to read it at all.

Sorry about the thread necromancy. Just had to comment on John Dewey's comment on another commenters comment that Atlas Shrugged was a wee bit overwritten:
and I think we should be careful about criticizing what many see as an important book

Luckily we don't need to be careful about criticizing books in this country. Something Ms. Rand would surely appreciate in a general sense (although like most authors probably not in the specific sense of her book).

it is interesting

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