Should it stay, or should it go?

Letter from H.R. Holand to O.C. Elliott, from Holand’s papers. The sheer volume of documentary evidence in the Beardmore hoax case was a defining issue in the length of my latest book.

No matter what you write, if you’ve done your research thoroughly, your first draft is probably going to be too long. If you’ve never written a book, the thought of having at least 80,000 words to fill might seem daunting rather than a restriction. For people who have asked me to help them write a book, this is often true, as I ask them to imagine for starters about 12 chapters of six thousand words each: do they have that much to say? (They may think they don’t, but once they get rolling in the case of a memoir, they quickly find out they do.) More often than not, when writing non-fiction, the 80,000-word-count comes at you fast. The question becomes what to do when that nominal mileage post shrinks in the rear-view mirror as you whiz along at the keyboard.

To begin, there is no standard length for a book, despite the 80,000-word rule-of-thumb. Many books are fine that length. Some need to be a little shorter. Many need to be longer, sometimes much longer. And some that are much longer could have been a little shorter, had the writer been given more time.

Academia has a particular affection for the 200-page book. I have heard from academics struggling heroically with this limitation, imposed by their editor, as they strive to get a manuscript down to length. Beyond publishing economics, I’m not sure where this size limit comes from. I do however blanch when I hear writers have been told that this length will make the book more reader-friendly. Actually, it won’t, if it means gutting the manuscript of content that makes the book better. There are books among us that would have been more readable, more memorable, more influential, if the author had been allowed to fill 230 pages rather than 200.

In authoring or coauthoring about twenty books (and ghosting a few more) I have produced final manuscripts that have ranged from around 25,000 words to 155,000. I haven’t made a formal study, but I would guess that most of my books have come in around 100,000. Except for The Place of Stone, which arose from my doctoral dissertation, every book I have written has started with a basic concept and an outline that gave me the confidence I had “enough for a book,” which is to say about 80,000 words. (And I wrote many books for trade publishers that were commissions. In other words, the publisher came to me with the idea, which was barely more than a general subject they wanted covered. It was up to me to make a fully-formed book out of it, usually on a very strict, short timeline.) But as the research process at that point was usually far from complete, it didn’t take much effort for the final word count to grow by 25 percent.

Whether or not a book is “too long” in trade publishing comes down to an amalgam of issues, foremost price point and whether the anticipated reader will stick with it to the end. (I also suspect that there is a direct relationship between the length of a book and the likelihood that a reviewer actually read the entire thing.) In scholarly publishing, the issue of length is complicated by strictures of documentation. Endnotes and the bibliography can chew up a lot of pages, and as a scholarly writer you hardly have the option of not citing your sources, although you can eliminate discursive endnotes. With my latest academic-press book, Beardmore, about twenty percent of its total page count is consumed by endnotes, bibliography, and a fairly thorough index.

I have written books where, perhaps one-quarter of the way into the first draft, I can see that the end-product is going to be way too long if I continue at that pace of detail, and have started over, before I even submitted a draft to my editor. With other books, the draft only began to balloon in the late stages. When I wrote Half Moon, my first effort to summarize what happened after (and as a result of) Henry Hudson’s 1609 voyage climbed to about 30,000 words. It was easy to agree with my editor, Peter Ginna, that this chunk of the manuscript could be seriously reduced, by about half, as I recall. I can also recall muttering in the course of writing one of my two books that dealt with Henry Hudson, Half Moon and God’s Mercies, that Hudson would be much simpler to write about if he had only made three documented voyages instead of four. But historians aren’t novelists: we can’t eliminate events altogether to tighten up the plot. We can only find ways of playing the hand we’re dealt by what our research uncovers.

Until I wrote Beardmore, The Bubble and the Bear, my book about the Nortel stock debacle, was by far the longest book I had ever written. It probably clocks in around 150,000 words. The length was a byproduct of the book’s creation. Doubleday Canada came to me in 2001 with a request for a book about Nortel, soon after the stock imploded, and they wanted it on the market for fall 2002. There wasn’t any real concept beyond a book about the Nortel investor experience. For about six frenzied months, I researched and wrote a draft about the stock fiasco that also served as a proxy study of dot.com irrational exuberance. The book won the National Business Book award, but in hindsight, if my editor and I had been given more time, we could have delivered a manuscript about 20,000 words shorter. With trade books, however, and especially with commissioned books, you rarely have the option of asking for more time, if it means postponing the book to another fall season. The book is in the lineup and the publisher is counting on it. If you’ve done a good enough job, it’s going to be published as planned. The only time I ever asked for an extension (again, on a commissioned book), I was told no. The book draft as submitted was fine the way it was. Publishers often fear with a hot topic of being second to market. It doesn’t matter how much better the second book is: the first book is the one that sates the market’s curiosity on the subject.

Beardmore, my latest book, is also my longest. The word count (before all the end material) is around 155,000 words, and I only got there after cutting around 12,000 words in the final revision. At one point, the manuscript was almost 180,000 words. I did not set out to write a book that long, but as I conducted the research over the course of several years, more documentary sources kept turning up, and the main sources, in the archives of the Royal Ontario Museum, were already voluminous. The latter years of the hoax story, after the Second World War, also turned out to be more complex than I had anticipated, and what I thought could be addressed in one summarizing chapter (or even as the conclusion) ended up needing three. That said, someone still could probably produce a detailed study of how the museum dealt with the relics in the 1960s and 1970s, as I chose to focus on the period from their purported discovery by Eddy Dodd in the early 1930s until the hoax’s collapse in the mid-1950s and their removal from display.

Beardmore is a special case in the debate over length because I wrote it for an excellent academic press, McGill-Queen’s. Although we anticipated a crossover general audience, with an academic work, you don’t have the option of setting aside evidence in the name of brevity that you do in writing for the trade. I don’t meant that in trade writing you can willfully ignore evidence—rather, that you have a bit more liberty in choosing to tell a particular story, as opposed to producing a hopefully definitive, scholarly work on a specific subject. If you decide to write a book of scholarly quality about a complex hoax like the Beardmore relics, as I did, then you have to engage all the available evidence, even if at times it feels like you must move through a large stack of documents at breakneck speed. At one point in my struggles with the hoax’s Everest-like mountain of evidence, I remarked to my editor, Jonathan Crago, that if I had pitched the book to a trade publisher, I would have dealt with the length issue by proposing a much different, more focused story. I would have structured the book around museum director Charles Trick Currelly: his decision to purchase the relics and defend the acquisition, with his ultimate comeuppance. It would have been a tale of hubris and arrogance, of professional and personal anxiety and calamity. The book would have been much shorter, but it also would not have adequately engaged the essential questions of how the hoax happened, how it was investigated by dedicated amateur sleuths, and how Currelly and his allies crushed dissent, all of which makes for compelling reading. (And I think I managed to tell the Currelly story in the book I have published.) I still found it painful to eliminate some minor, complicated subplots in order to avoid ending up with a multivolume study.

Another academic press might have said: just give us ten analytical chapters about the hoax and what it means to museum studies and archaeology. But I felt strongly that the only way to understand the hoax was to engage it through narrative. As I explain in the introduction: “It is impossible to summarize the Beardmore case as a set of facts for and facts against; this is because the facts kept changing and, in many instances, never crystallized into an indisputable form. A fact as elemental as when Eddy Dodd came upon the relics is open to debate. The only way to understand and learn from the Beardmore case is to approach it as narrative, as a detective story – to watch it unfold and to appreciate how the discovery story was shaped and reshaped, how individuals on both sides of the authenticity argument responded to evidence and to each other.” Narrative requires space: it requires people to be described, and events to be set in motion. The documentary record was so detailed that quotes from letters and memos came close to serving as dialogue. Even at (or perhaps especially because of) the length it finally demanded, I wanted Beardmore to be readable, and to be read. Beyond adopting a narrative approach that is rich in characters and events and not a little drama (a key witness is run over by his own train; another important figure stages his own disappearance; still another commits suicide), I dispensed with the convention in much academic writing of providing chapters with summarizing introductions and conclusions (an aid to “book breaking” I discuss here). The big-picture overview of events and issues I saved for the introduction and conclusion.

Books need to be as big or as small as they need to be. There is no single size that fits all. As an author, you need to argue for the length you do end up delivering. You also need a good editor, who sympathizes, but can also push back when you are saying too much, or too little. And everything that turns out well deserves time, and reflection, as beneficial as I do find the discipline of hard deadlines.

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