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!
29 thoughts on “Are you feeling the Longform Overload?”
I don’t get this trying to fit into a long or short format. I just write as many words as needed to say what I need to say depending on what is being said. Sometimes the topic demands more, sometimes brevity is best. Could it be the problem is some articles feel contrived? Make sense?
Reblogged this on TheSlashDash.
Well said, Om. One could make a lot of different arguments about why long-form is back on the rise. About time on page, about increasing the opportunity to cross-sell and promote other content (or experiences). And when you slam images and video and infographics into pieces, almost all content becomes long-form. But one thing that the web has done is really evolve our engagement with content. It’s no longer just about the words themselves. It’s about the experience with the words. Thanks to all that digital goodness, it’s about how we interact with the words rather than consume them. The images associated, the extra content from Wikipedia, the video pop-ups and slide-ins. To be honest, I don’t think most people are even reading all the long-form stuff (you should check out Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows” on that point; I don’t completely agree with him but he says the Internet is changing the way we read into skimming). They are simply interacting with it because the act of finding all that “extra” stuff is probably more exciting than reading the content itself. We are wired that way, to get excited about finding something new or novel. So think about like this: the content owner wants to make money (but has to give the content away most of the time) so they focus on other monetization like ads which necessitates keeping people on the page longer (and engaged longer); to do that, they create longer-form content with lots of stuff around it (most sites, unlike yours, have lots of extra digital goodness in the text and margins). Because the only way to keep people engaged is to spruce the content up, to create an experience out of it.
You win the best & most useful comment of the day award. Really well articulated.
You are, of course, very welcome! Keep writing great stuff. It makes it easier to write thoughtful comments 🙂
Om, it’s a trend. No one really reads longform anyway even if they say they want it. Longform written well reads itself, it propels the reader along, from paragraph to paragraph until it ends. The rest is scanned, or canned, or sent into the “read later” box from which nothing ever returns.
The F style of skimming content 🙂 I think there is a way to think about long form – just differently
I read a social media post somewhere saying that ranking on google is better with a long post and since I’ve noticed lots of bloggers writing epic posts. I follow so many blogs that I hardly have time to read all the long ones and sadly pass a lot of them by.
Om, for brevity I guess we will have to do it the court way – Yes or No!
I think we live in a society of fast driven information and slow understanding of thoughts. In that mentality a short blog post will be gain more visits and more comments and maybe more social sharing. The long blog posts will have a select group of readers that care about opinions and thoughts, the fact is that it will be less than usual because the demographic that want more for less is age based and the user that demands fast content is a younger crowd. If you want to get a high number of hits on your page a short post blog will do that combine with social networks. Sad story but is also the truth.
Long for the sake of long is a guaranteed path to boredom. Brevity is not, as is so fashionable to lament, solely for half-wits. I see plenty of room for cuts in this story, for example.
This is not a story — the type I was mentioning. It is my personal blog and is musing and it isn’t pretending to be long form or short form. It is the best I could do to make my point and still keep the fidelity of thoughts. Please if you can do better, share a link. It be a great way for me to learn.
Sorry, didn’t mean to sting. I just thought the same principle applied, regardless of tags, short form, long form, no form. Actually, I thought I was agreeing with you.
This is a timely and really informative piece. I’m a blogging novice (it’s my first week) and have been toying with how long to keep my content. I always recall a literature lecturer inform my class- “Never be too sentimental about your sentences. If you wrote something you think is fabulous, you will come up with another, but do toss the redundant text!” This is my measure when writing: Avoid the sentimental hold and crop/ cut and cull till the core and bite remain. That being said, this comment is somewhat verbose! In short, cheers & thanks! Loved this piece!
Good piece. Good info.
Biggest pet peeve: long form as result of poor writing skills. Too many writers assigned to or freelancing stories on the internet these days are just, well, incredibly bad. And host sites don’t seem to care about content quality after the opening paragraphs.
Old school long form: meaty, spicy, nutritional. New school long form: rambling, empty calories with a dash of bad editing.
It used to be that people read books. By that standard, 1500 words is hardly long form.
By the standard of 9th grade homework, 1500 words is not long form (for reading, not writing).
It’s not so much about the reader’s attention span that’s at issue; I doubt that’s a problem if the will to read 1500+ words is there. But the will is the thing. How many people visit blogs to find content of that length? Deep down, I think we all know that the 300-word posts are good old-fashioned Short Attention Span Theater and a lot of people want to feel like they’re pursuing something more substantial. That’s where the voiced demand for more long form posts comes from. At the same time, few people want to spend their time with so much substance and are looking for a break. By that measure, long form posts are mismatched with the audience.
Remember .. It is easy to write long form, hard to be susinct.
Reblogged this on bermanj1forchange and commented:
Very good read. Well done!
I love this. It’s quite relevant to concerns I have as both an amateur blogger and a windbag.
For me i deal with any thing i write from a reader point of view , i’m a reader after all and as long as i can remember short pieces were my passion especially if the subject doesn’t require hundreds of words. sometimes less is more .
thank you for sharing, much enjoyed
Well, if you really want short form get on Facebook or Twitter. And if you don’t like what you’re reading, just stop reading it. Getting at the writers is just plain daft. It’s like asking if there are too many photos on photo sites, or too many Belgians in Belgium.
I so agree with you that the length of a piece doesn’t define a story or its impact! I hate when people tell me to write a story or article with so many words. Glad you shared this blog!
1,500 words may be longform on-line. It certainly isn’t for print. I write for a living — short and long — and agree that yes, some stories are easily told in 500 words. But some readers are also starved for nuance, detail, anecdote, not stupid sound bites and endless links, and not only from the fortunate few who still have a staff job at a magazine and a paycheck that allows them to spend weeks, even months, to produce it.
So let the editors and their budgets figure it out. These days, there are so very few places to publish smart, serious longform work (3,000+ words) that also pay adequately for the skills that make a story compelling…I focus most of that energy now on writing books instead.
I think the problem is not so much the long-form itself, but that many of the people trying it can’t write; “which begs the question is are we starting to overdo it?” being a case in point. When writers change case in the middle of a sentence, as in your, “you can call us bloggers, reporters or whatever — who barely get a couple of minutes to make your point,” this diminishes the impact of and frequently distorts whatever they were trying to say. Another example from this post: “When I look at the world of words today — one not only has to adopt…” Writers who do these things do not deserve to be read, however long or short the piece.
I’m an investigative journalist working in the UK and I’ve always found that the story writes itself.
The length of the piece is dictated by the amount of relevant information available and, with the exacting libel laws we have in this country, it’s critically important to stick to known facts.
The fact that, one day, I may have to go into a courtroom and prove every single thing I say today, concentrates the mind wonderfully!
I am going to have to post this in my writer’s group page on Facebook.
I have a hard time reading dense paragraphs. Makes me quit reading or scroll to the end to read the conclusion, if there is one. Sort of the way I skimmed textbooks in college.
Sometimes long form does grab me, and propel me along, as the Tom Foremski in one of the comments above points out. That is good writing.
I did a word count on this to see if it was long form or short form…maybe short. Just curious.
I’m more feeling an overload on so called “short-form”: I gave up on Facebook and G+ entirely, and only at certain times can I honestly tolerate Twitter; yet so many of my friends seemed buried in that sort of media.
But I am often rambling and prone to wander to numerous tangents, so I appreciate your words. I am still trying to figure out what’s best, and so I tend to switch up approaches– sometimes adding pictures, sometimes staying mostly with pictures, sometimes just keeping to text in varying lengths. My main blog has a theme, now (for a long time, it was more random), but I’ll never totally give up writing about an eclectic, eccentric mix of things. Hopefully a few appreciate that even if most don’t.
Reblogged this on I Read, I Reblog.
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