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Likely Stories

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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Friday, April 7, 2006 3:47 pm
Writing Short
Posted by: Keir Graff

Well, yesterday I filed my reviews for Gary J. Cook’s Blood Trail, C. J. Box’s In Plain Sight, and Ken Bruen’s Calibre. When I first started at Booklist, the idea of writing three reviews in one day would have made my stomach feel like that of a food poisoning victim on the tilt-a-whirl. I had already done quite a bit of freelance writing before I got here, but I’d always been able to give myself the luxury of a few rewrites, and a few days to look my drafts over.

And for a while, that’s still how I worked. I would have a first draft done a week before deadline, then let it sit a few days before looking it over with a fresh eye. After a revision, I’d let it sit again until the day before deadline, when I’d give the review a final polish and, with great regret because I was sure it still needed more work, turn it in.

Bear in mind that I was an editorial assistant back then and things weren’t quite as hectic as they are now.

Now I write more quickly-much more quickly. There’s yesterday, and then there’s the day when I wrote a starred review in twenty minutes. How can it be that I think my reviews have gotten better?

Well, practice has a lot to do with it. Writing is a craft, and like any craft you need calluses on your fingers before you’re going to be able to do the detail work. Because we review so many books, our reviews have to be short-175 words if they’re not starred or Upfront.

The quote “I would have written a shorter letter but I didn’t have the time” seems to have been attributed to Jefferson, Twain, Cicero, and Pascal (naturally I don’t have time to research it properly)-and I think there’s a clever Dorothy Parker version, too. But that’s exactly right. To do good, tight writing (in other words, the opposite of what you read in this blog), you need to labor over your prose until you’ve removed everything that doesn’t belong there.

On the other hand, if week after week you summarize and judge a book in 175 words, simultaneously discussing any trends it might fit into and tipping your hat to the author’s previous work-well, you might learn to leave out some of the stuff that doesn’t belong there. Leaving out things that don’t belong saves you the time of taking them out later, and I think I’m getting better at that.

On the other hand, someone may well look at a couple of my older reviews and tell me that in fact my work has been going downhill. And then I’m going to have to rewrite this blog entry.

2 Responses to “Writing Short”
  1. e Says:

    if you’re reviewing 3 day, how many are you reading a day?

  2. Keir Says:

    Writing three reviews in one day is a rare occurrence. Generally I like to write a review as soon as I’m done reading the book so it’s fresh in my mind. Sometimes, however, it’s necessary to get all the books read before I start writing. (Don’t worry, I take notes.) How much I read varies. I have a light reviewing load compared to the Booklist editors, averaging about three reviews per issue. I don’t think I’ve ever read more than one book in one day, however.


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