Brevity and Balsa


“I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” (attributed to various authors)

Of the thousand-plus articles I’ve written for various outdoor magazines and websites, “Dyed in the Wood” in the most recent issue of Outdoor Life, may be my favorite. I got so caught up in the process of research and writing it that for two days I did little else. I normally hate talking on the telephone, and try to minimize my interviews whenever possible, but once I started dialing I hit up a dozen or so people before I started writing. It was a never-ending rabbit hole of information. I could’ve kept going and going and going.

Since much of my writing is for the internet, it’s rare that I’m working under a strict word count. If I want to write 300 words, I can do it, and if I want to stretch it out to 5,000 it’s rare that anyone stops me. Outdoor Life magazine is a different animal — they deal with ink and paper and budgets and ad space. That means that every word matters and it forced me to make some really tough choices.

I easily could’ve written 10,000 words based on my interviews. I think that my first draft was close to 4,000. I knew that I was unlikely to be allotted more than 2,500.

Some sources got cut out altogether. Others got just a single mention or quotation. Key anecdotes that I wanted to include were 86ed. Seriously, each one of those decisions hurt, like amputating a finger. I’m sure that some of those reading will ask, “Why didn’t you include …” and the answer is that I probably planned to do so, but had other info that was more relevant and more critical to the theme.

I now have much more appreciation for longform magazine writers than I did just six months ago. Coming up with an idea isn’t necessarily hard, nor is doing the legwork, but whittling something down to its essential elements is as much an art as it is a science.

I hope you’ll buy the magazine and read the piece. As I wrote above, I am thrilled to have had the chance to explore the balsa subculture and to share my interest with the world. This was a labor of love and I hope that shines through.