Being brief has benefits, but brings its own challenges
How long should a how-to (prescriptive nonfiction) book be? 100 pages? 200 pages? A quick read? A deep dive?
There’s no single correct answer.
If you’re publishing traditionally, your publisher might have ideas about length, as it affects their pricing.
Some subjects demand a lengthy treatment-there’s a lot to cover.
Then there’s the question of what the reader wants. That may be the most important consideration of all.
Readers appreciate quick reads
You might impress people with the heft of your 300-page tome, but will they read it?
If you want to write a book that makes a difference in people’s lives, they will need to read the thing. And that is more likely to happen if the book isn’t too long.
As much as I love losing myself for days in a story, I also cherish books that give me something valuable in a quick read-perhaps one sitting.
I’m not a wordy writer. Most of my books top out around 40,000 words, by choice. In the nonfiction genre, you can only throw so much research and stories at people before they tucker out.
Readers report that they appreciate the fact the books aren’t too long.
Then Melissa G. Wilson told me about her vision for the 33 Ways Not to Screw Up series. She challenged me to write a book that came in under 20,000 words. That experience offered its own lessons.
The challenges of writing short
Ask any writer. It’s harder to be concise than to ramble.
Even trying to be as concise as I could, my first draft came in at 22,000 words. Careful revision eventually brought it down to just over 19,000 words.
The tight word count forced certain decisions about the book.
What to include and what to leave out. The series title (33 Ways Not to Screw Up…) dictates the number of chapters and topics. 33 sounds like a lot. Of course, once you dive in, you come up with other ideas. People suggest things or add questions. Pretty soon, you’re leaving chapters on the cutting room floor.
Research. I like to refer to research, which then appears in footnotes or endnotes. But when every word counts, I had to dial back on that tendency.
- I cited fewer studies and in less detail.
- Instead of end notes, I created a file of suggested reading and research and put it on my website for interested readers to peruse.
Stories. If you want people to adopt a new behavior or habit, lead with a story. So I wanted to include stories of email failures in this book. The challenge was curating just exactly the right stories and keeping them brief. Again, many did not make the final draft.
The blessings of being brief
Just as readers appreciate a short book, authors benefit from them as well.
Speed. You’ll spend less time writing the first draft, although perhaps more time revising and polishing. Once the revised draft is ready, everything else is faster as well: editing, layout, proofreading. An index seemed unnecessary in such a short book, and eliminating that saves time as well.
I first spoke with Melissa about this book in April. The title defined the general structure of the book, so I didn’t devote months to tinkering with those decisions. I spent May and June reading and researching, then drafted it up pretty quickly. And on September 15, the ebook was out in the world.
Tone and style: The series title and book cover helped set the tone for the book: upbeat and informal. I had fun coming up with chapter titles and loosening up my writing style. I honestly enjoyed researching and writing it, and hope that shows up when people read it.
Are you tempted? Is there a brief, tightly focused book in you? If you have something valuable you want to share with the world, this might be a great way to do it.
Anne Janzer is author of 33 Ways Not to Screw Up Your Business Emails. Find more of her blog posts at AnneJanzer.com.