So, I’m not a huge fan of short-form content. Well, I have to clarify that a bit: short-form blog articles. While I know that there is a time and place for short-form content (think social media), articles that appear on blogs, in my opinion, are simply not doing a reader justice if they are just a few short paragraphs. Yes, I know that there are plenty of bloggers and writers who are masters of the short-form article. And I commend them for being able to pull it off. Unfortunately, I simply cannot.
I have been writing blog articles, professionally and personally, for well over a decade. Heck, HighTechDad.com has over 1000 articles. (Where I find time to do it, I’m not entirely sure but it has become a sort of addiction.) And as my writing evolved, I started to notice a tendency towards longer pieces. Let me qualify what I consider a long and short piece. For me (currently) any article over 700 words I consider to be “longer” and I tend to now write a minimum of 1000 words. If I were to write a “short” piece, it would be between 500-700 words. Anything below 500 words I feel is almost not worth writing (there are exceptions, of course).
And, as I said, there are some superhero bloggers out there that can pull off the short-form article and do it all of the time. But frequently, those same authors also post their short articles daily or several times a day. This I cannot do for one reason or another – time being one of them. But also, many of those authors are masters of the written word and able to pack immense amounts of meaning into minimal prose. They are concise and effective. (I, on the other hand, am verbose and…er…well, I hope equally effective.)
The funny thing is, one of my most favorite authors, Ernest Hemingway, is a master of the minimalist writing style. In fact, he has been attributed to being the author of the world’s shortest story (although it’s not proven that he DID actually write it). But this is the “story:”
“For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn.”
That’s it. 6 words. Those 6 words pack in a lot, subject to the imagination and interpretation of the reader. According to the legend, Hemingway won a bet writing this short story, all complete with a beginning, middle, and end. But that was the purpose of the writing — to win the bet.
When we talk about content marketing or blogging, you also have to tell a story, but you have to do it deftly while still conveying a key message or convincing the reader to take a certain type of action or evoke some sort of positive (or negative) reaction to the words.
I’m definitely NOT that great of a writer. I make tons of mistakes. I sometime ramble on and on, veering away from a concise execution. And I adopt a very casual style when writing, even with my work articles. I have my own reasons for this (for one, I find it much easier to write that way – words tend to flow a bit more easily). Also, my father taught me when I was young, to write the way you speak. And while I think that I’m fairly articulate when I speak, I definitely don’t want to have a huge disparity between my verbal and written communication styles.
But, your style of writing is extremely personal. I marvel at those freelance writers or copywriters who are able to change styles from one article to another. I always find myself slipping comfortably back into a more casual and conversational tone. But heck, I have written white papers, ad copy, ghostwritten for other authors, etc., where you don’t have the luxury of “doing it your way.”
How did I get sidetracked by writing style? Well, I believe it does relate to long- versus short-form content, as well as your “writing assignment.”
I always gravitate back to the long form, especially when telling a story.
Telling A Story
As an exercise for myself as I prepared to write this article, I decided I would try to illustrate the difference between short and long form content, specifically as it relates to story-telling and contextual details. I’m a firm believer, as I said, that the best way (unless you are Hemingway) to story tell is with more (despite the saying “less is more”).
So, I started playing with an extremely simple storyline, actually an extremely simple sentence.
The man walked.
Ok sure. You have someone doing an action. To me, this is the epitome of short-form content (almost like a tweet). Let’s add a bit more context and detail.
The man walked into the bar.
Now we have a bit more. A destination. We can start thinking about this guy. Is he a drinker? A drunk? Suddenly you want to learn a bit more, right?
The tall angry man walked into the dark bar.
With a few adjectives, we know a bit more. The man is tall. And he’s angry. Why is he angry? And the bar is dark. We all know that type of bar. Perhaps it’s a dive. It’s probably not a more modern bar. Those are pretty well lit.
The tall angry man walked into the dark bar and sat at the end.
We now are moving into a story. He had a destination within a destination. And hopefully you, the reader is beginning to become engaged.
The tall angry man walked into the dark bar, sat at the end, and asked for a Scotch.
Ok, so he’s a drinker. But why is he drinking? There is just not enough context here.
The tall angry man walked into the dark bar, sat at the end, and asked for a Scotch. A smile broke across his face.
So, he’s now happy. Is it because of the drink? Or perhaps something else…
The tall angry man walked into the dark bar, sat at the end, and asked for a Scotch. As the woman sat next to him, a smile broke across his face.
Now we have some more context. There is a woman involved and the action of her sitting next to the angry man makes him happy. But we are still missing the full story, aren’t we?
The tall angry man walked into the dark bar, sat at the end, and asked for a Scotch. As the woman sat next to him, a smile broke across his face. “Happy anniversary,” he said. “Sorry I’m late. The car wouldn’t start again.”
Woah! Lots of context here. We learn that the man and woman are a couple and that it is their anniversary. And that perhaps the man is angry because 1) he’s late to the bar and/or 2) his car is broken. More context = more of a story.
The tall angry man walked into the dark bar, sat at the end, and asked for a Scotch. As the woman sat next to him, a smile broke across his face. “Happy anniversary,” he said. “Sorry I’m late. The car wouldn’t start again.” She gave him a squeeze on his broad shoulders. “It’s ok,” she replied.
More details starting to round out the story…
The tall angry man walked into the dark bar, sat at the end, and asked for a Scotch. As the woman sat next to him, a smile broke across his face. “Happy anniversary,” he said. “Sorry I’m late. The car wouldn’t start again.” She gave him a squeeze on his broad shoulders. “It’s ok,” she replied. She slid a small box across the bar. He opened it and peered inside.
And now we have a cliffhanger, right? And now, the conclusion…
The tall angry man walked into the dark bar, sat at the end, and asked for a Scotch. As the woman sat next to him, a smile broke across his face. “Happy anniversary,” he said. “Sorry I’m late. The car wouldn’t start again.” She gave him a squeeze on his broad shoulders. “It’s ok,” she replied. She slid a small box across the bar. He opened it and peered inside. A set of shiny keys glinted back. “Happy anniversary,” she replied.
Ok, yeah, it’s not Hemingway. And I probably could continue adding details and context to provide much more to round things out.
But the idea here with this overly-simplistic example of short versus long content should be incredibly obvious. Starting with “the man walked” and adding substance and detail throughout the process is, in my opinion, much like writing a short versus a long article. Sure, you communicate something in a short article, but without relevant details or providing more context, the short form (even the mid-story example above) doesn’t really engage the reader that much.
Now I’m not saying that you should write dense blog posts that people struggle to work through (unless of course long form is your style or that is what your readers are expecting you to produce). I sometimes bail out on reading really long articles. Call it Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or just me being lazy. But if I’m really interested and engaged, and the writing is amazing, I will work my way through 20,000 words if I need/want to.
My main point in this section of this article is really about the importance of telling a story. Hemingway was a master. Me, well, hardly close to that at all. Good content, in my opinion, does tell a story or has sections within the content that engage the reader to want to consume more. But there is a time and place for short form content or dropping a story line entirely. It depends on the purpose of the writing.
Other Reasons Why Long Form Content Might Be Better
Apart from trying to evoke an emotional reaction by the reader or providing contextual details to make an article relevant, there are other reasons to consider making your articles a bit longer. A big plus that you should consider is that Google now seems to prefer longer-form content for positioning in search results. There is a key word missing though – quality. Sure, you can spew out thousands of disjointed and meaningless phrases and sentences together, but Google is getting smarter. It’s AI (Artificial Intelligence) and ML (Machine Learning) at work, making search results more relevant.
As Harsh Agrawal writes in Shout Me Loud:
“It’s not about length, it’s about quality”
Agrawal goes on to describe tactics to help with SEO and SERP (Search Engine Result Pages) like making sure your pages load quickly (something that my site is absolutely HORRIBLE at…sorry) or adding Rich Media to give the reader some memorable eye-candy to get them through the long form content. (If you are interested in some additional, more scientific tactics for bettering your long-form content, read this article by Agrawal.)
So, Google likes long-form QUALITY content and as its search algorithm becomes contextually more intelligent, those writers who produce longer, quality content will get better SERPs among other things.
Ramsay Taplin writes on his site, Blog Tyrant, states “…long-form content is nothing new. In fact, journalists (especially investigative journalists) and authors have been writing like this long before blogs came along.”
Ok, time for another tangent here. I’m not a trained journalist (my wife is). I’m “just a blogger.” But one of my professional career jobs was that of being a “brand journalist.” Essentially, I was an embedded reporter within a company searching out and writing about stories that traditional journalists on the outside might not have access to. Our model was to research and write stories and articles and publish them freely for others to take, copy, plagiarize, and use as source material (complete with videos/photos under Creative Commons licensing).
Why do I bring this up? Well, the funny thing is, I often got into “arguments” with my Editor in Chief on the topic of long versus short form content. My whole argument was that I believed the pendulum was swinging (once again) AWAY FROM favoring a higher quantity of shorter articles instead of fewer, longer higher-quality ones. My boss wanted more, short-form articles that were quickly churned out. This was 5-6 years ago.
But I really didn’t want to write 300 to 700-word articles. So, I always handed in 1000+ word articles. My boss affectionately called this the “Sheehan-factor” and often either sent my drafts back to be chopped and reduced in size or would heavily red-line the article, deleting much of the storylines that I felt were helpful to paint the full picture.
Anyway, if you are planning on writing longer articles, here are some tips that Ramsay offers:
- “Solve problems, but not all of them” – essentially, leave some room for discussion
- “Research carefully (like really carefully)” – so yeah, before I started even writing this article, I read a bunch more to make sure I wasn’t completely off-track
- “Don’t do it just for the sake of it” – the topic (like this one) should be relevant to you (and you should have some passion behind it)
- “Get a feel for what works” – see what others do as well as what’s successful on your own site (my how-tos are evergreen, for example)
- “Practice writing like you’re speaking to a mate” – remember what I wrote earlier that my dad told me? Write how you speak!
How about some facts here about longer-form content?
HubSpot (heard of them?) did an audit and analysis of their own content on their marketing blog. From the 6,192 blog posts, they extracted a bunch of relevant measurable items like the number of words in the title, the number of words in the article, overall views, organic search visits, external links, social shares, and more. From that, they were able to find some interesting factoids.
- Articles with a word count between 2,250 and 2,500 earned the most organic traffic (by the way, that short-form content of fewer than 800 words, barely a blip in comparison)
- Social shares were highest for articles over 2,500 words
- More inbound links came from those longer-form articles
It’s an interesting analysis so definitely take a look.
One more interesting read (pretty technical with lots of stats) is by Neil Patel on the QuickSprout site. More focused on rankings and conversions, Patel draws many of the same conclusions: bad content doesn’t perform well, longer content tends to have better conversion rates, social media helps, and don’t ramble on (which I think I’m starting to do here!).
So, maybe you made it this far, or maybe you just scrolled down to the end of the article (cut to the chase, right?). Either way, here are some nuggets of insights and knowledge. Let me preface this with: these are my opinions, completely open for discussion, ridicule, adoption, rejection, what have you. While I play a content marketer by day (and a dad, husband, and technology blogger by night), I’m definitely NOT one of those hugely popular and famous content bloggers out there.
I do have ideas, and some strong opinions about things though. Long form content being better is one of them.
Anyway, here are my suggestions:
- Tell a story
- Provide relevant details to make point #1 actually work
- Don’t write to just fill up space – use your passion to support #1
- Google seems to like longer, QUALITY content…
- …so does social media
Overall, however, write in a style or format that you feel comfortable with. If short form is your style, do it! If you have a ton of information or stories you want to convey, then perhaps long form is better for you. Those who produce lots of regular, short-form articles probably have a regular following and readership, and in those cases, the audience is clamoring for the regularly-paced, quick content. My site, on the other hand, really doesn’t have a huge following of “regulars.” In fact, over 80% of my traffic is from Search. So, in that case, I’m “winning” that battle of making my content available to many (but on a more as-needed basis).
How do you feel about content? If you write it, what do you prefer, long or short? What about as a reader? Does it depend on the content you are looking for? For entertainment purposes, is short form content better? Please leave a comment! Share your thoughts.
HTD says: Yeah, this is a long article, but when you are writing about the benefits of long-form content and why you might want to use it in your content initiatives or just personal satisfaction, would you really trust a short article? There’s obviously lots to say about this topic!