Less is more

Bernadette Jiwa writes brilliant books. Books like Difference, Marketing: A Love Story, and Hunch. And one of the first things you notice about them is that they’re very short. Beautifully, enticingly, ‘it-would-so-easy-to-read-this short. I asked her about it when I interviewed her recently on The Extraordinary Business Book Club.

‘You know what I noticed, I go into bookshops all of the time, and I watch people buying books, or actually more browsing books and putting them back, and I would encourage you, if you’re a writer, to go and do this. You can see people weighing a book in their hands nowadays… They flick through the first few pages, they look at the cover, and then they think, “I haven’t got time for this.”… I said, “Okay, how can I write books that people will read all the way to the end, they can open at any page and find something interesting or useful or inspiring or actionable, and they’ll come back to it again?” That’s my intention for the books, because you know, the people I write for are busy people.’

We’re all busy. I’m busy, you’re busy. And guess what: your readers? They’re busy too.

I swear by the Einstein principle: things in general, and books in particular, should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.

What’s the right length? Well, there’s no hard and fast rule, but I’m aiming for 35,000 words for This Book Means Business (it’s currently WAY over that, and I’m in the miserable stage of trying to cut it down). If you’re writing over 50,000 words for a business book, it might be time for the blue pencil. Less is more.

Keeping it short involves exercising discipline at three distinct stages: planning, writing and editing. Of those three, the first is the easiest by far. Decide how long you want your book to be, and map that against your working table of contents. How many words per chapter does that give you? And what does that mean for each subsection or key point in that chapter? 

If it’s too long, consider major surgery. Are there actually two, or even three, books here? If so, which should you write first? (Believe it or not, I’ve already reduced the scope of my book to the planning and writing stages – the publishing and marketing sections will have to wait.)

Keeping it short while you’re writing is much harder, but at least you’ll know when you’re overlength if you’ve done the planning. If you decide you need more words, fine, but can you borrow them from somewhere else rather than just letting that extent creep inexorably up? The final tool at your disposal is editing: it hurts so bad to cut the words you’ve sweated over, trust me on this, but if you don’t cut away the good, the brilliant won’t get a chance to shine.