5 ways to fix a book that is too long

Most nonfiction authors write too much. Let’s talk about what’s probably wrong and how to fix it.

How long should your book be? While there is no single correct answer to that question for every book, business books these days tend to come in at around 50,000 to 60,000 words, which generates a book of about 250 pages (assuming you are using the typical 6-inch by 9-inch page size). A book of 65,000 or 70,000 words may be manageable, but longer than that is a problematic. While there are exceptions to this rule, such as comprehensive reference works, long books face challenges.

Why?

  • Your reader will give up and not read the whole thing.
  • It will be bulky and hard to carry around on, say, an airplane.
  • The book will cost more to print. (People still buy more printed books than ebooks, so this actually matters.) More pages mean more cost, and will necessitate a higher retail price if the publisher is to maintain a profit. (If you are using a hybrid publisher, you’ll have to pay for that printing yourself; if you are self-publishing, it will cut into your royalty margin.)
  • Every word needs to be written, kept consistent, footnoted, copy edited, laid out in pages, proofread, and indexed. That is more work for you as you write, more work for the publishing professionals working on the book, and more work for you again as you check their work.

You can fix all of this by making the manuscript shorter. But how? Here are the five main reasons that books are too long, and how to fix them. (Any given manuscript may have several of these problems; they’re not mutually exclusive.)

1 You used the first draft as a way to get all your ideas out

There are a lot of ways to research and compile a book. One is to just write everything a chapter at a time and see what comes out. That tends to generate an overwritten book that is too long to publish.

I just spoke with an author who had written 100,000 words on a book — and wasn’t nearly done. He’s got a big job ahead of him to cut the book back.

While you can take a scalpel to such a behemoth, I recommend a different method.

Having written the draft, put it aside. Now, starting from scratch, write a detailed table of contents for what the book should include. Don’t duplicate what you created; start instead with a blank sheet and include only your best ideas and content.

Within each chapter, your new outline should list all the ideas, frameworks, case studies, data, and arguments that belong in that chapter.

Now start a new document and paste into it, in order, the pieces of the original draft that match the outline.

The resulting draft should be much shorter. You will also be left with a bunch of leftover stuff in the first draft that you no longer need.

At Forrester Research we had a term for those leftovers that were of some value, but not enough to go into a report draft. “Save it for the speech,” the editor would say, when you had to give up a cherished bit for space considerations. In the case of a book, you can save it for the speech, for blog posts, for bylined articles, or for the next book. The material left behind is still useful, just not in a manageable-sized draft.

2 Your material is poorly organized

Often, first drafts include material that covers the same ground in multiple places. This redundancy creates a bloated draft.

If you’ve ever read a book like this that needed a good edit, you probably found yourself thinking, “Geeze, he’s talking about that concept again?” Such poor organization makes readers impatient.

The solution here is to gather the like material together in the one place it belongs, and then delete the parts that are repetitive. I did this recently when editing a book on a technical topic where the author had a tendency to repeat himself; the result was a much shorter book that was a lot easier to read.

This reorganization effort could easily take days to find the repeated information and then more time to rewrite it. It’s worth it. Your reader will thank you, not only when reading, but when carting around your big lump of prose in book form.

3 You have extraneous material

Do you have three case studies that make the same point?

Do you go off on a long tangent on a topic only of interest to a few readers in your audience?

Is there a whole chapter that you don’t really need?

Here’s your two-step process for solving that problem.

  1. Put the extra material in a sidebar or appendix.
  2. Delete the sidebar or appendix.

You can of course put that sidebar and appendix material aside and re-use it in other contexts (“leave it for the speech” again). But it’s weighing down the book, and it’s not worth the space it takes up. So, like Marie Kondo, thank it for its service and remove it from the manuscript.

4 You’re wordy

I’m editing a manuscript right now that is too long, and most of the problem is at the sentence level. The author just writes in a long and often redundant way. The ideas are great, but they struggle under the weight of the sentences.

This is a harder problem to solve, because if you write this way, you need to train yourself out of it.

I recommend getting a good developmental editor. If you need to economize — editors are expensive — then have the editor edit the first few chapters. Look at the suggestions of rewritten sentences and deletions, and then see if you can duplicate those habits by self-editing or rewriting the remaining chapters.

5 You should be using graphics in place of text

Would a picture or table make things clearer?

If you can replace 1000 words with a picture here and there, your manuscript will be a lot shorter.

Learn to write short

As you can see, writing too long is a solvable problem, but one that takes a lot of effort to solve.

Next time, consider writing a fat outline first to make it clear exactly what belongs in the book, rather than just writing everything in a draft. This will also help you avoid organizational issues, since you’ll know what goes where.

Get regular editing to train yourself to write shorter and less bloated sentences. Sentences are not minivans.

Work on iconic graphics that do the work your prose is trying to do.

This is a little more work up front. But it will mean a lot less work for everyone — you, your publisher, and your readers — and that’s why it’s worth doing.

One response to “5 ways to fix a book that is too long

  1. Items 1 – 4: GUILTY.

    The writing was for me an obsession and a joy. I pigged out. But I ended up with a 144,000 word behemoth. The cutting was horrible. I felt grief. I thought my publisher just didn’t understand. She said she’d give me 70,000 words – “But make them good words.”

    She did understand. Now that the bloodletting is over and I have a svelte book in my hands, I understand now, too.

    People, Josh is right on all counts. Use me as a cautionary tale.

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