Advice on Article Sought

I’m working on an article about making nailed (boarded) furniture. The new format at the magazine has restricted columns like mine to 2 pages and I’m having trouble getting the job done in 2. It could be that I’m naturally wordy. I’ve been teased for this in the past and I’m self conscious about it. What I can say is that Americans are particularly succinct. And Americans like Chris Schwarz, educated and trained as a journalist, make revealing a lot of info in a few words look easy. I clearly lack those skills.

(I was recently sitting in an apartment in Rome reading the back of a box of corn flakes. First, the entire back was filled with print. No toy giveaways, no picture of a soccer player, just a lengthy description of how great you are going to feel after eating the contents. And the words were positively gargantuan! That would never pass muster in the US.)

I think there’s more to this than my personal wordiness. I read a lot of woodworking magazine articles. And many or most don’t go into half the depth and detail that I do. There’s an expression (that I never understood) about the devil being in the details (I certainly hope not).

Here’s the part I need your help with: When I I read an article involving a build, I don’t see much detail on how to push the wood through the planer. I guess there’s a technique to that, where you stand, how you avoid dismembering yourself, etc. Does everybody just know how to do that?

I guess my sense is that when I write about cutting a quick dado by hand, I’m not sure if everybody knows how to do that, that there’s a plane for that or how that plane works.

So the question I have for you is am I wasting your time explaining these sorts of processes? Tell me honestly what you think. My sense is that in print, I’m not wasting anyone’s time. You can always skim. I think I’d feel differently about the subject were it a class or a presentation. Of course, in those situations, I often look to provide even greater detail.

Adam

P.S.  I don’t find Chris personally succinct like say, a Texan.  He’s just a skilled writer.  Even his lengthy tomes have 10 times more info than I could put in as many pages.

55 thoughts on “Advice on Article Sought

  1. Chik Weid

    Details, Alex … lots of details

    Most Americans have forgotten the value of detail. For some it’s all about sitting back and watching a video – and that is the extent of the amount of effort they want to put into learning something. A few illustrative sketches when needed and challenge the reader to use his brain.

    Good Luck,

    Chik

  2. Ixzed13

    Please keep sharing as much detail as possible. I can never say that too much detail was put in your articles. Many technical magazines from the old days ran series instead of cutting down on explanations. I tend to like that approach. Maybe a magazine that features articles on old hand techniques would do well to use this old trick? Just a thought.

  3. cebuchan

    Well, now, I like details of process because I don’t know everything I need to know. But I understand 1) the need for brevity and 2) the assumptions you must make with regard to the skill level of your audience. Sometimes there might be a conflict between those two. I especially like the suggestion already made above that you use the web site for enriching details of skills and techniques that may be of use to some (like me) but not to everyone. The web version could have links to process details or even videos without the expense of printed real estate. The magazine and blogs already use short videos very effectively. I would like more of that.

  4. jwaldron

    Like so many others, I enjoy and benefit from the detail in your columns. Some are globally useful and my work benefits. Keep as much as will fit. When essential, you can limit some of the detail of ancillary operations, perhaps by cross-referencing (and providing a link) to other columns you’ve done, as you can leave some of the effort to us. We understand you have limits to respect and we can help by contributing a bit of effort ourselves.

  5. Sawtooth

    Adam, I enjoy reading your columns. The work you do is not a “common experience” for most of us. If you have too much material for the new rukes, even after proper editing, then complete the article in several parts, like a chair making column you did recently.

    As for the “devil being in the details,” of course, that’s where he is lurking to making the project go awry. For instance, a guy I know recently used biscuits for the first time in assembling a blanket chest. He heard that you have to apply glue to the biscuits to make them expand. So, that’s where the glue was. Not along the entire joint, just on the biscuits. Oops.

  6. tahoetwobears

    In your case, more is more, and I like it. Please include all of the details. We don’t all know just how to do it. My time is valuable and I don’t get to devote as much time as I would like to my craft. Folks like you that have the info and have been in the trenches have that info. It’s a lot more efficient to gather it from you than to spend what’s left of my lifetime searching for it. That’s why I read these magazines to begin with.

    Thanks for your efforts.

    Mike

  7. peter agostino

    I would love to see more detail about both the process, techniques and examples. Is it possible to do a 2 page cut down version for the magazine and then post to this blog a longer version in pdf format that we could down load? In that way, people like myself that are after more detail and clarification can obtain it.
    Your piece on sharpening in the magazine left me asking more questions. I read the 2 pages that you had and then flipped it over to get the details around the sharpening skills only to find that the article had ended. I then had to use the 3 small pictures at the top of the 2nd page to try to figure things out.
    I would dearly like to see more details and I hope that you can post these on-line and in that way still stay in the good standing with the editors.

  8. Jim McCoy

    Word smithing takes time and a LOT of energy. The same can be said for making videos, teaching classes, or writing a book. I think it comes down to return on investment for both the producers and the consumers. From my viewpoint the most successful purveyors of information take advantage of multiple presentation media, and tailor the level of detail based on the particular format. I think books, classes, and videos are where the details are, and should be expounded upon. Blogs are great for expanding on an idea or for correcting errors or misconceptions, or for “trying out” a new idea or subject before committing to a full blown (expensive) production. The immediate feedback has to be a real bonus. In my opinion the magazine articles are more inticement to the other media formats – when I read an interesting article I like to be able to pursue additional information and detail by visiting web sites and/or purchasing DVDs and books. This may sound blatantly commercial but I think most people are OK with it because it provides them with the freedom to choose what they want to pursue, and hopefully provides an income stream for the people producing the information so they can continue doing it. I agree with many of the other posts that in your articles you should concentrate on the point you are trying to illustrate and not worry whether we (the readers) know everything about the details you are glossing over. Rest assured that we are smart enough that, if our interest is piqued, we will find a source for that information. That is my very wordy two cents worth.

  9. Sgt42RHR

    Adam, In response to your questions, first, I appreciate the explanations of how to do operations, Even if it’s an operation I know how to do, I often learn of new or better ways to do something when I read. Second, I would rather have a two- or three-part column over time and get sufficient detail, that to have a single column that is not useful because of its brevity.

    P.S. Get and use a correct 18th century reproduction watch and lose the wristwatch. Modern watches and spectacles are jarring in the extreme, akin to seeing a phillips head screw in an 18th century piece of furniture.

    Keep up the good work Adam.
    Cheers,
    John

  10. MarkSchreiber

    Whoops, I fell out of the box. How about making PW four or eight pages longer? How much would this increase the newsstand cost? I would be willing to pay a little more for my subscription for a little more woodworking. Between you and the other regulars, maybe the flexibility for an additional page or two is needed.

  11. garyjs

    Adam, in your articles/blog entries you do not have the space to educate readers about a specific technique unless that specific technique is the reason for writing that article/entry. You have to assume(and we all know what THAT can lead to)that your readers have a basic understanding of the how-to, and if they do not they should at least know where to go to read up on those skills.

    It is possible to be succinct without being parsimonious.

    I am an author of mystery novels as well as a furniture builder/restorer, and during my days in the high-tech industry I wrote/edited technical manuals, test plans and procedural documents and progress reports. Writing is a skill, poorly taught (despite what the teachers claim), little understood and often derided by those who can neither write nor read.

    But you do write rather well; you educate as well as entertain, so you’ll get no complaints from me.

  12. chrisjk

    I don’t believe Americans are succinct – just the opposite. Perhaps lack of time is the problem – remembering Blaise Pascal:-

    Blaise Pascal, 1851: “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte”

    Roughly translated as, “The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter.”

    So, instead of taking time to polish a piece of writing, the authors rather let their readers take the time to read unpolished drafts.

  13. wbtanner

    I agree with the last entry that writing about skills is very hard, and needs space. But without the detail being told consider how much hand-knowledge has been lost. Somewhere in Joseph Moxon’s book on printing is a wonderful paragraph on how to wrap the page cord (even here we can note that the use of the term “page cord” for a type of twine would have been completely lost) around the standing type for storage. The nuance of tucking in the tail at the final corner can only found there. This was very useful for the letterpress printers of the mid 20th century, and hopefully will be again for any later practitioners, should there be another revival of handset type.

  14. Anderson

    The thing is that in print articles there is always a limit to space. If you put something in, you have to leave something else out. You have to concentrate on what it is you are writing about. In this case you are writing about nailed furniture, not how to cut a dado. I would rather see a photo of a historical example of this kind of furniture, than a photo of you using a dado plane, or read more detail about wood movement issues or types of nails for instance, than a description of how to cut a dado. There are hundreds of books out there about cutting the joints. There are not hundreds of books out there on different kinds of nails or, say, choosing stock to minimize the chances of failure when you nail long grain to cross grain, or why some furniture is nailed, and others joined.

    But the devil Is in the details. This is what you are struggling with. Cutting a dado is a detail that could be devilish to some people. But there are other sources to learn about that. Which way to orient a cut nail so you don’t split the board, is also a detail, but maybe one for which there are fewer outside sources of information, plus, it is much simpler to say, “turn the nail so that the wedge will act along the grain as opposed to across it,” than to describe cutting a stopped dado with hand tools.

    If you have a special way to cut a dado that you think is unique and really good, that might be worth including, but it would be better to write a blog post on the topic and put the link to it in a footnote than skimp on it in the article. The only limit on blog posts is the time you are willing to put into it.

  15. BruceWLove

    I started to write this yesterday, but ran out of time. I see there have been a lot of comments since then, but somehow, I can’t let this go by without a few thoughts.  

    First, in my mind, your column is different from most of the “how to” articles in the magazine; in fact, I don’t really think of it as a “how to” column.  You provide not a description of the “hows” of woodworking, but information, from a historical perspective, on the “whys” of woodworking. What I appreciate is that your articles provide a well reasoned discussion in which you state “based on my experience, this is how I believe they did it, and this is why”.  

    If getting too long, perhaps you need to adjust that column to just address a specific theme and defer some other points; but don’t feel the need to fill in all the details outside of the main theme. I think Roy Underhill does this pretty well on his show (he has a similar problem; he picks a particular item he is going to emphasize and glosses over the rest (“we’ve cut dovetails before so I am not going to talk about that this time”).  I guess my point is I don’t expect to learn to build a complete project from your articles (although you may provide information in the context of a project); but I look forward to learning about how some aspect of woodworking? Does that make sense?

  16. Tony

    Maybe you could break it up into two different articles. The first could be a very specific “skills” article – how to cut a quick dado by hand. The second could be more general – how to make a small cabinet. The second article could refer the reader to first article for specifics on how to cut the dado. Or, you could start an online “I CAN DO THAT that using only hand tools manual”, with basic hand tool recommendations & techniques.

  17. Gene

    I think the key is to focus on the things that make the boarded furniture different from every other project. In that context, planing a dado might be seen as a “commodity” skill. How you actually nail the thing together without splitting every board in sight – that’s something special. Focus on what makes your project unique. If necessary, include “more info” links at the end for ancillary skills.

  18. msweig

    I usually think of magazine articles as ways to give me ideas. They almost never have enough detail to show everyone how to completely build something start to finish. Some people can, but others cannot because they do not know all the techniques.

    Think of it this way. I recall you saying once that you thought sliding dovetails didn’t get nearly the press of through and half blind dovetails. So, if you wrote an article discussing how to build a dresser, would you find it OK to simply state “join the corners of the carcass with through dovetails”? Whereas with the sliding dovetail portion you might want to go into detail? This could give enough detail for most of the audience. If you want details for from start to finish that is what books and classes are for.

    So in short, I think common techniques can be glossed over, whereas less common probably need to be described. Unfortunately, how to use tapered nails isn’t something I would consider a common technique. Which means that the technique probably needs to be covered, or you need to reference the technique at another location (previous article published in the magazine, article on the website, etc.). Of publish in two parts. First talk about boarded furniture, different examples, things you need to consider in design, etc. Then for the second article show how to use the nails.

  19. whintor

    I note that instead of the usual one-liners, your commenters have waxed very lyrical!
    To teach a practical task is not easy – many quiz shows use this as a source of amusement in contestants. The teacher must be able to deconstruct the task, and if one has mastery of that task, this is very difficult – just where do you put your left hand, for instance?
    That i why videos are so good, as long as they really do show what is going on.
    Writing about skills is very hard, and needs space.

COMMENT