Many of us were too tired of the short, bloggy content that often tasted like a day old popcorn left outside on the porch. We all yearned for a deeply reported, insightful and contextual and nuanced bit of writing. And thus began the long form resurgence. It is enjoyable to read such pieces, but lately I am seeing a lot of stories that long form, because long form is new new thing to do.
There are too many that are popping up on a daily basis which begs the question is are we starting to overdo it? Is the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction — after all the amount of time we all can devote to the ever increasing number of stories is still the same? Isn’t it time to take a deep breath on it all?
Right Write Web
One of the pearls of wisdom I picked up at Forbes (when it really was Forbes) — if you wrote something in 2,000 words then you could do it in a 1,000. And if you could do that in a 1,000 words, then you could do it in 500 words. That approach (simple, clear, concise, contextual and with an attitude) has translated well to some of us online writers – you can call us bloggers, reporters or whatever — who barely get a couple of minutes to make your point and turn the casual visitors into regular readers. Take Peter Kafka, for example. He was one of my colleagues back in the day, though he worked for the print and I was working for dot.com. Dan Frommer came later but he too, is cut from the same cloth.
Of course, when Forbes did long form stories back in the day, they were just packed with the day. Anyone remember the string of stories by Gretchen Morgenson exposing the Wall Street firms’ dirty tricks. Or Matt Schifrin’s stuff about day traders and their pending impact on Wall Street. Those were long form and yet they packed as much punch per square inch as say Manny Pacquiao!
This approach was just the exact opposite of the really long stories that Forbes’ more successful rival Fortune would publish, often lionizing the industry captains in a manner that would make a Vanity Fair editors blush. Those endless pages were full of more flowery words and adjectives than a romance novel, and often distracted from the whole story itself. The routine, processed and time-sapping pieces soured me on the brand and it stopped being a must read and became maybe-I-will-read it. It wasn’t till Bethany McLean started reporting on Enron debacle and Stephanie Mehta took over as telecom writer did I go back to reading Fortune.
Long or short of it?
In my life as a magazine writer — first for Red Herring and then at Business 2.0, I learned that not every story is a feature story — long form is a euphemism for a feature story by the way. When I thought something was a big feature story, an editor would come in, talk to me and basically point out that a few paragraphs and a chart would have a huge impact (Hi Joanna!) Not a day goes by when i try and replace a few hundred words with a chart, a list and a video. Brevity is (and should be) every web writer’s BFF.
When pitching a story to the editors I would ask myself the following question:
- What is the narrative that will make the story come alive.
- Is there a protagonist to tell that story.
- Can the narrative and the protagonist make (or illustrate a broader) point.
- And what are the lessons of the story?
- How does reader benefit after rewarding me with her time?
Answer those questions and you quickly realize that writing 5,000 about Facebook’s new search isn’t the best use of long form. By the way, what is long form these days? I have heard anything longer than 600 words described as long form. Traditionalists think it has to be about 3000 words. As a web-native writer I do think 1,500 words is ideal — especially when used in tandem with photos and video and other multimedia elements to build an enriched narrative.
Doing the right thing
When done right, Longform can be fantastic and fantastical. Remember that story by Alyson Shontell about a failed startup and a founder driven to suicide? ESPN magazine does it right and so does Rolling Stone magazine. But they are old school publications whose franchise is built on long form. Aeon magazine, an online only publication does it well, but they were designed to be a long-form only publication.
But when it is done to paint every little startup’s journey as heroic journey to reshape the world or when it is used as a tool to applaud some giant corporation for something that is moderately interesting — long form, is just boring and a waste of time: something us Internet native writers know as an ultimate sign of disrespecting the reader.
When I look at the world of words today — one not only has to adopt this new medium, but also remember that there are many ways to tell a story and knowing that some stories have a greater impact as a densely packed short piece and others need a lot more words, visuals and videos to make an impact. You know like that Snow Fall thing, The New York Times published!
And before you go, remember one simple thing — length of a piece doesn’t define a story or its impact!