Friday, April 4, 2014

Baby steps

Lately readers have begun to complain about my short chapters, although in my opinion there is no particular reason why a chapter should be long.
Larry McMurtry, Hollywood

The above sentences takes up three lines in the 26th chapter of Larry McMurtry's memoir about his many years writing screenplays for Hollywood and writing novels that Hollywood turned into movies. The entire 26th chapter runs to just six lines.

The book itself takes just 146 pages but has 60 chapters. You can do the math. I made Hollywood my lunchtime book for a brief while. Sometimes I could read an entire chapter between bites. I loved it. Like McMurtry, I favor books with short chapters.

The author explains his short chapters like this, to quote the third sentence of his three-sentence 26th chapter: "In fact I am old and there are very many subjects about which I have something to say -- just not much." Perhaps advancing age explains my own preference for short chapters, but I don't think so. I favored them even in my youth.

The other night I watched yet again the old Bill Murray comedy What About Bob? He plays a man who has great difficulty just leaving his own apartment, let alone coming into contact with other people. His new doctor (Richard Dreyfuss) gives him a copy of his new book, Baby Steps, which urges people like Bob to think in terms of baby steps. Think only as far as the next step. After that step, focus on the next. You can go far just taking one small step after another.

I feel that way about reading books, especially long books. Short chapters break the text down into baby steps. Instead of thinking about the 500-page biography or novel that lies before me, I think just about the next chapter. The shorter that chapter is, the easier it seems to start reading and keep reading. I found this true again recently when reading Donna Tartt's massive novel The Goldfinch, which is 771 pages long. It has only 12 chapters, but each chapter is broken down into numerous subchapters, some of them not much longer than McMurtry's chapter 26. I think the novel would have been much harder to read if it had only those 12 chapters, each more than 50 pages long.

It's not just short chapters that make reading easier. Short paragraphs and short sentences also help. In  the newspaper business, where I devoted my career, keeping paragraphs brief, rarely more than two or three sentences, is considered mandatory to improve readability. Copy editors also often divide long sentences into two shorter ones for the same reason.

A college professor once reviewed a book manuscript of mine (never published). One of her main complaints was that my paragraphs were too short. In academia, of course, long paragraphs are the rule, but I came out of journalism, where the focus lies on brevity. Larry McMurtry probably would have agreed with me. His six-line chapter 26 has three paragraphs, one for each sentence.

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