Tuesday, July 10, 2012


I've just finished reading through a chapter of a friend's Phd thesis; some 40 pages on the subject of thrift in wartime needlework. It doesn't sound the most interesting subject, I know, but it was actually a fascinating read. This isn't going to be a commentary on the content of the thesis -- I'm not even remotely qualified to write something like that -- but a piece about its form.

I should start by explaining that I've not written anything in an academic setting in about 5 years now, not since I put down my pen in the last exam of my degree in the summer of 2007. Pretty much everything I've written since that time has been related to my work as an editor. At work I write or edit travel guides, coffee table books, and illustrated reference sets, as well as more magazine-like publications. Everything I write is done with a very careful eye on the word count, and, more often than not, the physical space into which I have to fit the text. If you've never had to do this, it's hard to explain how deeply this affects your writing. You have to discard perfectly good prose and rewrite it, again and again, breaking down your ideas into haiku-like phrases so you can fit, for example, the complete history of the development of the steam engine into a little sidebar. Furthermore, you often have to change sentences, not because they're too long, but simply because they're the wrong shape; an awkward grouping of long words can wreak havoc with you line-breaks, especially in unjustified text.

To an extent, my writing has always erred on the side of concise. I've always strongly disliked the act of writing things out by hand -- it's slow and awkward for me -- so as a child I tended towards brevity, simply because it was less unpleasant. Even when I'm using a keyboard, when it comes to writing outside of work -- like this -- I'm generally restricted by the number of words I can write in one sitting without completely losing my train of thought (generally around 1000).

As a result, I was taken aback by my sudden return to the voluminous wordiness of academic English. The chapter I read was not bloated or overlong, but simply comprehensive. It mentioned everything there was to be mentioned and examined the key issues from every angle. Admittedly, like all academic writing, it repeated itself a lot -- introductions, conclusions, statements of intent -- but no more than is expected for such a work.

Nonetheless -- and I think it may have been the theme of thrift that kept bringing this to the forefront of my mind -- it seemed to me that there was something decadent, even wasteful, about using so many words. To compare it with my normal writing, it was like sinking into an enormous squashy sofa after spending a day perched on a wooden stool. The scholarly part of my mind appreciated the subtle nuances produced by repeatedly interrogating the same sources, but my editor brain simply spat out the red biro it had clamped between its teeth and growled.

I was restrained and sensible, but the presence of so many words did make me feel like an eager lumberjack, dropped in the middle of a forest of sturdy trees.