The thwarted red pen

Last night, I fell asleep listening to the epilogue of Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, somewhere between the explanation of New York’s 311 service and a description of contemporary Soho, London. I’ve been slowly working my way through the audiobook for two week now. (I will post a review tomorrow.) Yes, I realize that listening to a book about a massive cholera outbreak in mid-Nineteenth century London is not most people’s first choice as a bedtime story, but I make no bones (sorry, not sorry) about my interest in medical history.

I’ve written before about my nearly uncontrollable urge to edit the books I read. Listening to Johnson reiterate his points, over and over and over, had my hand reaching for my red pen once more. His over-writing got me to thinking about a tendency I’ve noticed in a lot of non-fiction. Many non-fiction writers—at least the historians that I’ve been reading—seem to have no idea how to end their overgrown essays.

The students in the class I’m helping to teach have reached the point where they need to start thinking about their final papers. The syllabus does not give them a page limit. When the students have asked the instructor and I how long the paper should be, we gave the only answer we could: it should be as long as it needs to be. I’ve been thinking a lot about this answer, too, as I read The Ghost Map. The longer I listened, the more it felt like Johnson was striving for a page count that seemed “right” for a book. Anything less than 300 pages must have felt skimpy to him.

The original hardcover edition of The Ghost Map is 320 pages. There’s so much repetition and reiteration in the text that 320 feels like a stretch. My imaginary red pen was deleting sentence after sentence. Each time the book seemed to approach a natural ending, Johnson would sprint away with another version of his protagonists’ struggles against proponents of the miasmatic theory of disease or dive into another topic that seems only tangentially related (New York’s 311). How on earth did Steven Johnson slide all that unnecessary text past his editor?

Conclusions are beastly to write. I feel like I’ve already said what I wanted to say. How do I say it one more time to wrap it up? Johnson and, to a lesser extent, Monuments Men author Robert Edsel seem to put off that moment of conclusion as much as possible.

When it comes to non-fiction, there is no middle ground between an essay and a book. With fiction, we have flash fiction, short stories, novellas, and novels. For non-fiction writers, there is a dearth of guidance for how to structure for length. But there’s a reason we teach students to ignore length. A piece of writing will be as long as it need to be—no shorter, no longer.