Search the Site

What Gets Left Out

I would imagine that writers the world over, especially non-fiction writers, look back at their published work and think about what got left out. In my experience, there are two categories of omissions, and they are generally particular to their medium.

The first category is in book writing. When writing a book, you aren’t all that limited by space. Even though some books are way too long, and even though some books do get cut a lot, anyone who says they couldn’t fit something into a book is, in my opinion, either not trying all that hard or is confused about what ground the book is meant to cover. So what does get left out of a book? Generally, it’s an idea you hadn’t thought of or objection you hadn’t considered — things that, by their nature, come to you after the book is done. (FWIW, the new expanded edition of Freakonomics isn’t very heavily revised; most of the edits were pretty minor except for the section on Stetson Kennedy. A lot of people have asked if, or supposed that, we revised the sections about the link between legalized abortion and crime and the bit about John Lott’s gun research, but we didn’t. The new edition does, however, include Levitt’s blog response on challenges to the abortion research.)

Then there is journalism, where things do legitimately get left out for space. That’s because a) an article is obviously much shorter than a book; and b) because an article has to fit a particular page layout, and depending on the art and the ads, it’s not uncommon for a 5,000-word article to be cut to 3,500 words at the last minute. There’s also the fact that there are a lot more cooks in the kitchen with journalism, so in responding to the queries of several editors, fact-checkers, copy editors, etc., you may end up with an article that’s missing quite a bit of what you intended to write.

(I won’t go into space limitations, or the lack thereof, when writing for the web, but if you’ve read this far, you can probably figure it out for yourself. Suffice it to say that I’m grateful the web exists to accommodate the very type of writing I’m committing right here.)

Which finally brings me to the true subject of this post: the Freakonomics column we write for the N.Y. Times Magazine. (These days, we generally write one every two months.) These columns are usually about 1,300 words long. Depending on the complexity of the topic, that isn’t much space. In one recent column, on the need to cut down bacterial infections in hospitals, we included a sort of coda that, in retrospect, I’m very happy about. It was a brief acknowledgment that even though getting medical personnel to regularly wash their hands is an important means to combat the problem, it would behoove everyone if a more global and long-term outlook were considered — e.g., using more anti-microbial surfaces in hospitals. (I also posted here recently about a new study on the effectiveness of hand hygiene.)
There is a similar coda I wish we had been able to include in an earlier column on organ donation, which discussed options to the current system that allocates organs for transplantation, a system that even its supporters admit is tortured. One of the people I interviewed for that column, a doctor who is among the most prolific transplant surgeons in the country, made the point that increasing organ donation, whether through altruistic or market channels, will never satisfy the demand. The best future, he said, lies in technology that will produce reliable artificial organs. I was reminded of this when I recently read of another future scenario, this one proposed by the evolutionary geneticist Bruce Lahn, who foresees the day when surplus human organs can be incubated in non-humans.

These possibilities are at least as important as the current debate over whether there should be an open market for transplantable organs. And, to my mind at least, they are more interesting. Looking back, I really wish we had made the space to explore such scenarios. But we had so much work to do in those 1,300 words that it just didn’t happen. I didn’t even quote that transplant surgeon at all, even though he spent a lot of time with me on the phone and was extraordinarily knowledgeable and helpful.

In 50 years, I hope people will look back at the current debates about organ transplantation and see them as a necessary means of wrestling with an ultimately crude solution to a problem that has since been solved by superior technology. Hopefully Levitt and I will get to revisit the subject someday, maybe in our next book, and if we do I promise we won’t run out of space.