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800 words

November 24th, 2003

Matt Yglesias doesn’t like the 800 word length that’s standard for Op-ed pieces at the NYT and elsewhere

I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that the Gray Lady’s 800 words, twice a week columnist format is not exactly healthy for the quality of the writing they publish. It’s not so much that 1,600 words a week is too much for a person to write — I do more than that — but that the 800 word format is very hard to pull off. It’s notably that on the web, where you don’t have the typographical issues that make the 800 worder appealing to layout people (it’s roughly a full broadsheet column or a single magazine page, so you see it a lot), virtually nothing is ever published at this length. Cutting the fat out of an argument so that you can say something substantive and original in such a small length is tough, especially because convention dictates that you must have a proper lede and so forth taking up some of the space (link via Calpundit).

At least for me, nothing could be further from the truth. I love the 800 word format (actually, at the Fin, I only get 750). I find that it usually takes between 500 and 1000 words to develop a single point nicely in a first draft. If it comes out at the upper end, I usually find I’ve put in a para or two I don’t really need (often as a result of the academic instinct to qualify everything you say, which is the antithesis of opinion writing). After that, it’s just a matter of cutting out redundant words, rhetorical flourishes and so on. If it comes out at 500, there’s an opportunity for an extra half-point. This is an idea you can flag as being not fully developed, but which may be brought out in a later column. You can read my collected columns here.

Of course, I only have a fortnightly column, but I’d really love a weekly slot (BTW, have I mentioned my admiration for Fred Hilmer lately? :-) .

I’m not so sure about the wisdom of the NYT policy of twice-weekly columns. That’s hard to do, and also limits the variety of the page.

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