One of the unspoken truths about nonfiction writing is that the only thing worse than having too little information to write about is having too much information. If your material is a little thin, you can always do more research, broaden your scope or—let’s be honest here—pad. But when you suffer from information overload—a surplus of facts, juicy quotes and important points, way too much good stuff for your allotted word count—the only cure is to whittle, select, condense and—more honesty—work really hard.
Of course, you can always cope by simply blowing your assigned word count. The editor wants 3,000 words, but you’ve got at least 5,000 words (and that’s after some serious pruning!). So, what the heck, just write it long. Your editor will make room for your extra verbiage somehow, right?
Wrong. Passing along your problem to your editor doesn’t solve it, and only makes the editor vow never again to assign an article to a lazy writer who makes her do the hard work. Or you might just get your manuscript shot back at you with a curt note wondering if you flunked arithmetic.
Instead, writing short when your material is long requires (ugh) discipline and an organizational rigor that makes the D-Day invasion look like it was planned by fraternity prank-sters. You’ve got to be the master of your material, not let it master you.
Fortunately, there are some tricks that can make information overload easier to overcome. And the rewards of cramming a ton of material into a 5-pound bag, besides escaping your editor’s evil eye, can be deeply satisfying for both you and your readers.
Ufdah! Too many notes!
Let’s look at a real-life example. I recently wrote a story for Family Tree Magazine on “getting started finding your Scandinavian roots”: roughly 2,500 words to cover five different, but overlapping, ethnic heritages (don’t forget tiny Iceland!) and 1,000 years of history.
My initial research had resulted in a pile of notes and printouts literally a foot high. I had e-mail tips from experts, pages printed off the Web, histories of five countries and runestones of Viking lore. I could probably have written a book-length manuscript with only sporadic additional research.
One “solution” would have been to go ahead and write 40,000 words, then boil it down to 2,500 words. Get it all out of my system, then work the delete key until it started to smoke.
But I’ve learned the hard way that it’s easier to write words than to cut them. Once you’ve processed information into sentences, you get attached to them—gosh, wasn’t that cleverly phrased?—and pruning becomes like slaying your own children. Besides, it’s a huge waste of time to churn out words predestined for the chopping block.
So I knew I’d have to be selective with my foot-high stack of facts. I had to start with the raw material, whipping it into shape before typing a word.
Exactly how you organize your research depends in part on its physical form. If I have notebooks full of scribblings, I’ll number the notebook pages and highlight sections I’m pretty sure I’ll want to use. If you like to use notecards, you’ve got a natural way to organize your data—in stacks and piles. Some writers put all their raw data into the computer, where they use word processing and even database tools to bend it to their will.
In this case, I had mostly piles of paper. Each time I’d find something useful on a Web site or get an e-mail, I’d print it. Unsorted and unlabeled, though, my wealth of material might as well have all been written in Icelandic.
Good, old-fashioned Manila file folders came to my rescue. I labeled one for each country, one for general material about the area and one for history (which I’d already decided to deal with mostly in a separate timeline) rather than genealogy. As I sorted my printouts into the folders, I coded each; the pages I thought I’d refer to most often got unique abbreviations I could plug into my rough outline (“N-ANC” for a sheaf in the Norway folder, for example, from a Web site called “Ancestors from Norway”).
From piles to points
Physically organizing your research materials also refreshes your memory about what you’ve got to work with. So, it’s a perfect prelude to the next step in beating information glut: organizing your writing.
You can create a formal “I-A-1-a” outline or just scrawl topics on a pad. The point isn’t neatness, but planning. You need to know where your story is going so you can decide what from your mountain of re-search goes where (and, just as important, what gets left out).
Decide what points your story absolutely has to make. Start with the broadest strokes and add only the most crucial subtopics, then fill in the bare minimum supporting detail for each. For my article, I knew I had to cover the trickiness of Scandinavian last names. Under that major topic, the most important subtopic was the “patronymic” system (taking your surname from your father’s first name, such as Ericsson for Eric’s son). Then, I could have covered many other aspects of naming, but chose to tackle only two: changing your name in America and the Norwegian practice of taking an extra surname from the name of a farm. For the latter, I noted a good example from that printout labeled “N-ANC.”
Time to condense
The “pre-work” of organizing your materials and your topics pays off in the “real work” at the keyboard. Here the critical task is synthesis: taking bits and pieces from multiple sources and not merely parroting them, but combining them into a coherent whole. This is the heart of nonfiction writing, but never more important than when grappling with more information than it seems your story can hold.
When actually writing my Scandinavian story, I’d often look at three or four pieces of paper for each sentence I’d type: How can I combine these two facts? Which is the most potent example? If I cover that point, can I skip this related point?
As you write your own information-overloaded stories, consider these further tricks for doing more with less:
- Paraphrase. Use only the best, most colorful direct quotations, then say the rest more concisely in your own words.
- Shun redundancy. Resist the temptation to restate a quotation (Smith is angry. “I’m hopping mad,” he says.) or to say the same thing multiple times merely to introduce varying sources.
- Eliminate examples. Three is the perfect number of examples for anything; if you’re pressed for space, it should also be the maximum. See if you can get away with just two examples—or one—for any point. In my Scandinavia article, it was tempting to toss in five examples for every topic—one per country—but I usually just picked the best two, trying for overall geographic balance.
- Use lists. See how much ground I just covered in four bullet points? Lists let you dispense with a lot of the overhead of transitions and paragraph construction. My Scandinavian timeline—a special kind of list—helped me get from Leif Ericson to the discovery of North Sea oil, 968 years, in less than 300 words.
- Finally, know when to stop. Don’t burn up a high percentage of your word allotment in elaborate openings or in summary endings. Just get to the end and get out, secure in your triumph over information overload.