It’s a fine spring morning in 1862 on the rural estate of Yasnaya Polyana, 200 kilometres south of Moscow. In the study, Leo Tolstoy is sharpening his pencils, ready to put down some ideas for a new book.
‘Genre? A sweeping historical saga of the Napoleonic wars. Plenty of colour and action. Plus family intrigues and affairs of the heart. And somewhere a wise old serf.’
‘Title? Something short and snappy. How about “War and Peace”?’
‘Length? Mmm – not sure yet. Let’s see how we go.’
He ended up with 600,000 words – six times more than a typical modern novel. Posterity has forgiven him.
As a novelist you can take liberties. Your readers are with you for entertainment, so the odds are they’ll be willing to keep reading as long as you keep entertaining.
In business or government writing, it’s very different. Whether it’s a householder reading a flyer about a planned electricity outage, or a senior executive reading a draft policy paper, no-one sitting at a desk is reading for fun. They’re reading to get useful information from the page into their head as quickly and easily as possible. As the writer, you need to not overstay your welcome.
So for any piece of not-for-fun writing, the first question is simply: how long should it be?
The simple answer is easy: as long as necessary and as short as possible. But to unpack that you need to think more about two things. How long will I have my readers’ attention? And what do I really need to say?
The answers to those questions interact. Maybe the answer to ‘how long will I have my readers’ attention?’ is ‘not very long at all’. In that case you’ll need to be more ruthless about cutting out the nice-to-have points that are not absolutely essential.
The answers also depend on your reader’s needs. Are you giving information to someone who you know wants it? Or are you trying to push information out to people who don’t need it and may not be that interested? In the second case you’ll need to be much smarter about getting their attention and putting your main point quickly before they turn away.
As well, you need to be sensitive to people’s expectations about the relationship. Your writing expresses that. Suppose your document is a brief to senior management; maybe the rule is ‘no more than 2 pages’; but everyone understands that if a simple matter can be handled in one page, so much the better.
On the other hand, if it’s a letter responding to a customer complaint, you don’t want to be too short, because that might seem dismissive or disrespectful. The letter really has two purposes: to answer the substance of the complaint, and to maintain the relationship. The length and tone need to serve both of them.
So before you start any piece of writing, whether it’s a response to a customer complaint or a 50-page policy paper, simply think: ‘How long should this be?’ That’s a good discipline because it will focus your mind on the important questions about why you’re writing, who it’s for, how much they need to be told and what you want them to get out of it.