Monday, January 21, 2008

Does size matter?

(Quick work update: I've just finished reading for the first section of the next chapter. Tomorrow: new words, I swear.)

I've been reading some of Interesting Development's dissertation chapters, in part to offer commentary, but also so I'll understand more about his work (all together now: auww!). One of them that I've seen is rather long – over 20,000 words, not including notes.

I know there's a lot of variation in how long or short a writing project of any kind is. But it got me thinking about how my own work measures up. Seems that most academics feel either that they write "too short" or "too long." I'm one of the former. My dissertation was about 250 pages long; I've never published an article that cracked the 20-page mark in print. And yes, I have feelings of inadequacy about this.

On the other hand, I've heard plenty about how publishers in the humanities want shorter book manuscripts – fewer than 100,000 words, they say. And you'll notice that my little word counter (stubbornly unmoving, lo these many weeks) is calibrated to an MS of 95,000 words. But sometimes I wonder if I'm really writing a book, or just a pamphlet.

Of course, at the 44,500 words I've got so far, I won't even have that. Crap. Time to get writing.

9 comments:

meli said...

hello! stumbled across your blog a couple of months back. i really like the way you write about writing.

how long are dissertations supposed to be in the US? in the UK, it's anything between 80,0000 and 100,000 words. most people end up pushing the upper word limit, but it doesn't matter if you don't. if you can be succinct, why not?

my longest chapter so far is 24,000 words, but that's too long and i'll have to cut it down to at least 19, as i have five chapters, and need to save space for an intro and conclusion. my average is 17.

ahem. i don't think 95,000 words is a pamphlet. i'm sure it doesn't feel like one. and shorter articles are more fun to read.

meli said...

(yep there's one too many zeros in that 80,000, but i think you know what i mean.)

Susan said...

Most of the time, shorter is better. (OK, I write short too.)

As for books, my recent book was about 117,000 words (including notes and bibliography), which made a nice 300 page book when an index was added. That's long enough; I like to think it would be possible to assign in a class.

There are very few 600 page books I've read where I don't say at some point, "this could have been cut". I'm sure I'm not alone.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I've always been bemused by dissertations in English departments, because they write (what are to me) these weird, behemothic 80-90 pp. chapters. Four of those, and your diss is done! Weird. Four chapters seems way too few. I'm wordy, but I aspire to writing short, and was always encouraged to do so - my diss chapters were 30-40 pp, on average, and including the bibliography I cracked 300 pp, which pleased me for some reason (it seemed properly serious), but I wouldn't have wanted to go longer. And more significant than its length are the problems it has as piece of writing anyway.

(oh, though I should add that I currently have a chapter "draft" for the book with is over 100 pp. A former colleague of mine mocks me mercilessly for that. It's VERY drafty and if I do manage ever to get back to this project, a lot of it is going to get cut. My inner antiquarian seems to like this topic, for whatever reason.)

medieval woman said...

Ooo! Ooo! Me too! I'm a short writer! My diss was 280 with all those froogly weird margins and the works-cited page and appendices. I just went a whopping 3. words. over. my. 7000-word. goal!

You're writing an awesome book, not a pamphlet - go you!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thanks for the input, folks. Seems like there's a lot of variation out there. I'm just sometimes worried that, if my work is short, potential publishers will think I don't have much to say. Or worse yet: it means that I really don't have much to say. Bleah.

Anonymous said...

In my experience with shopping manuscripts around, shorter is better. 95,000 is completely serious. Here in the UK, where people in the humanities are now under pressure to write a book every 4 years, people are increasingly writing books under 80,000!

Christina said...

My publisher had a strict 90,000 words limit, *including* notes. I had to cut about 40,000 words from my original project, which, yes, started as my dissertation.

Christina said...

Btw, I got to your post via Inside Higher Ed and just wanted to give you some helpful numbers! :)