Structure of books

Can you make a point succinctly?

It’s not easy to be precise enough in one’s words to do this. Sometimes when I write something, the first draft sometimes ends up being too long, rambling, and not succinct enough. I’ll then make another pass through to edit out any redundant phrases or sentences to tighten it up. Sometimes after too much editing it will be difficult to think clearly about it, and I’ll set it aside and look at it again the next day. This particular post was sitting in the queue for quite some time.

Sometimes I read non-fiction books to get information, and I like the feeling that I’m learning something useful from the book.

Certain non-fiction books are specifically trying to present information to the reader, and if one of these books seems especially interesting or useful, I might go back over it again and take notes. This process helps to review the information but also lends some insight into the way the book was written and its structure. Sometimes I notice these things:

  1. Some books of this type have a clear hierarchical structure. They’re often divided into major parts, each with several chapters. Even without this hierarchy, they may have an introductory chapter to outline the topic and then a chapter for each item in the outline. I like this because when you’re reading it you have a sense of the structure that the information is fitting into. Also, it usually means the author had a good sense of the structure of the material and took the time to convey this.
  2. Some books of this type are more precise than others in making their points. Sometimes this isn’t evident on a first reading, but when I try to take concise notes I can see that the author was a bit wishy-washy about saying something definite. I wonder if this happened because the author didn’t know how to define things any better and hoped that some vague references would be enough for the reader to figure it out. Or maybe the author didn’t notice that the definitions were not clear. Or perhaps the author was in a hurry and couldn’t be bothered to make the effort to express the point precisely.

It’s great if a book does well on both the large-scale structure and the details. These qualities might be apparent even on the first reading; if so, the information was well suited to be presented in book form, as the structure and all the details are crucial to getting the point across.

If the top level structure is lacking, it’s difficult to grasp the scope of the material and hard to evaluate it; the reader feels lost and disoriented.

If the details are lacking, it feels like the book is largely padding and isn’t quite able to convey the information precsely; maybe the author had to stretch things out to fill the whole book, or could have edited it down to be more succinct and to the point.

I do have specific books in mind that have both qualities, and some that are lacking in each of the two. But those will be topics for another blog post.

Constraints and creativity

It is said that constraints are good for creativity. As soon as you make a decision about what direction to go, you are ruling out other options and constraining yourself in some way. Or, to look at it the other way, as soon as you impose constraints, you are making a decision about what direction to go.

Sometimes this decision/constraint process is done without even thinking about it. For example, a blogger might decide that each blog post

  • should be understandable without any special technical knowledge
  • should be under 750 words (all except for one)
  • should have a single main point

and may not have consciously thought about these things until trying to make a list of constraints in a blog post.

But to get to the single main point of this blog post, it is surprising how severe the constraints can be and still produce creative results.

A commonly-used definition of a haiku (at least the one I remember) is that it must have seventeen syllables split as 5/7/5. This would seem to be a serious constraint, yet much has been done with this form. One could even attempt to write a sort of parody of a haiku. Apparently nowadays the English-language haiku rules have been changed, but the haiku form is still quite constrained.

Fonts are complicated things. In the olden days I used to hand-letter things following the proper typographical rules of proportion and such. But who would have thought that being limited to the lines in this grid:

Grid for gridfonts

The grid for gridfonts

that one could make such a wide variety of fonts with distinct styles such as these?

Once upon a time, people recorded songs on records. Somewhat before my time, 78 RPM records could only hold one song. Before the days of multitrack recording studios, the musicians had to record music all at once in one take, and sometimes they would run out of time and have to speed up near the end in order to fit the entire song on the record. But that’s not much of a constraint on length compared to this well-known highly-constrained example!