Abridged Editions

Not long ago, while on a Simon Winchester marathon, I accidentally purchased the abridged audiobook edition of Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire. I didn’t realize it was an abridged edition until I listened to Winchester’s introduction, in which he made it quite plain that this was an abridged edition. I was annoyed but I listened to the audiobook anyway, because I enjoy Winchester’s narration as much as his writing, and I will take what I can get.

I don’t understand why books require abridged editions. I am particularly surprised that authors allow such abridgments in the first place. As a writer, I am careful about the words I use, but I am also careful about the manner in which I tell a story, be it fiction, or nonfiction. I try with mixed success to adhere to Strunk and White’s mantra, “Omit needless word.” Why, then, after carefully crafting a piece of writing, would anyone allow it to be abridged? What purpose does it serve?

With print books and e-books, it can be difficult to tell how much a particular book is abridged. It is a bit easier with an audiobook. I browsed some books on Audible to get a look at the differences between unabridged, and abridged editions.

  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven R. Covy clocks in at 13 hours. That’s about 1 hour and 51 minutes per habit. The abridged edition is just 2 hours and 26 minutes. Did they decide to eliminate six of the effective habits in the abridged version?
  • Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow is 36 hours long. The abridged edition is one-third the length at 12 hours. Maybe they left out all of the musical numbers.
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is a hefty 61 hours long. The abridged edition is a much less hefty 5 hours and 9 minutes.

As a writer, I cannot understand why another writer would allow an abridgement of their work. In essence, you are admitting that the same information can be conveyed much more tersely. As a reader, you have to recognize that you are not getting the full story. I suppose that money is one reason why a writer might allow an abridgement of their work. To me, it seems like the ultimate sell out: agreeing to butcher your work for cash.

Years ago, I was asked to cut my self-appraisal for my annual performance review from three pages to a single page. Three pages was the maximum length one could submit. My boss was challenging me to be more concise. The writer in me balked at this abridgement of my self-appraisal. I consolidated it down to a single page, but not without some Puckish humor. I wrote, for instance: “I played a significant role in managing a number of high priority technical projects, none of which I can list due to space constraints.” Sentences like this appeared throughout the abridged version of my self-appraisal. I turned it into my boss, along with the original unabridged version, and said, “Here you go, just as you asked. I’ll leave it to you to decide which one you want to submit.”

If this were the unabridged version of this blog post, I’d tell you which version my boss ended up submitting. Alas, that information had to be cut so that this post would fit within its tighter word constraints.