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Short or Long-Form Writing?

at 9:15 am

Last week I noted a post by John Hagel called Stupidity and the Internet in my post on the The Post-Screen Web. Hagel covered several topics in that post, one of which was the web's effect upon thinking and whether short-form content makes that effect a negative one. He writes:

If it is about content, will snippets trump books and will we all be dumber for it? As someone who has never mastered the art of the snippet, let me proudly count myself as one who still sees profound value in the long form where texture and nuance can be teased out and explored... Snippets of information, loosely coupled, have enormous value in enhancing peripheral awareness and provoking new ideas. At the same time, snippets of information alone are deeply dangerous. They distract us with never-ending waves of surface events, spreading us ever thinner and obscuring the deeper structures and dynamics that ultimately are shaping these surface events. Those of us who stay only on the surface, swimming in a sea of snippets, will ultimately lose sight of land. We need books, or whatever the digital long forms of content are that will replace the book, to help us penetrate the surface and explore the deeper structures and dynamics that make sense of the changes around us.

Don't Panic! We're in the thick of it, but all is not lost.
Ultimately, I think that Hagel is right. In fact, I agree with many of the thinkers who are concerned with the future of literacy in light of our digital life. I am concerned too. When writer's like Nicholas Carr talk about not being able to focus on a book like they used to, I can relate. But I'm not ready to declare a state of emergency. I think we're in the middle of a significant shift in the way we engage with information and learn because of technology and that there's no compelling reason to assume that reading will die. For more optimism like this, watch Andrea Lunsford, a researcher at Standford University, describe her study which led her to conclude that student writing ability has not declined as a result of recent technological changes.

There is a place for both short and long-form writing.
In the meantime, there is a place for both short and long-form writing. Each form has merit as a content strategy, depending upon the goals the writer has. In a presentation I gave recently called Professional Writing for the Unprofessional Writer, I elaborated on the different functions of short formats (i.e. blogs), and longer formats (i.e. monthly newsletter articles or whitepapers). Here's the gist of it:

Short-Form (Blogs)
Blogs take a cumulative approach to tell an ongoing story with many short posts. In other words, if you blog on behalf of your company, you'll want to think long term, allowing the "idea" or identity of the company to be worked out over potentially years of regular posting. Remember, blogs are essentially relational, so when someone subscribes to your blog's RSS feed, they're making a commitment to getting to know you and/or your company. The way you write should respond to that fact. One other thing that I really value about blogging is that it provides a good opportunity to explore new and untested ideas. I feel free to ruminate on things that might be risky and even say things that I'll disagree with later when writing for our blog in a way that I don't with our newsletter.

Long-Form (Newsletter Articles)
Long format writing, on the other hand, develops a single idea in a more in-depth manner contained in one article. This kind of writing requires a more strategic approach. Because of the infrequency of this format (for example, I write one newsletter article each month) your ideas need to be as tested as possible. You're going "on the record" in each article, and at the rate of 12 a year, it will take much longer to bury an idea that you've come to disagree with than it might had you written about it in your blog.

The only additional consideration of the long-form is that it is much more difficult to win readers than it is with short-formats. It obviously requires much more investment- attention and time- of the reader to get through multiple pages of content, so you have to captivate them early. This is not easy. I'm not sure I know how to do this consistently.

No matter what format you choose to write with, you must be patient and let your voice develop over time. Writing is an art that takes years of repetitive practice to do even passingly well. Again, I'm not sure where I am with that, but I know by reading things I wrote even last year that any improvement from then I owe to the commitment to regular writing.


Chris | November 4, 2013 1:15 PM
Please can i customize the default create an account form under the login form
Nova | April 18, 2012 8:38 PM
Chris, thank you for this!
I disagree that people will no longer write in long-form. That's like saying people will stop painting because of the prevalence of clip art. Or worse, that people will stop enjoying it. Because anyone can "publish" these days, there is indeed a lot more to sift through. Seems like we each have our own way of honing our filtering skills. For some that might mean a shortened attention span, but I might just call that being discerning. I Scan when I am looking for content, and I Read when I am enjoying it or learning something. Or both.
jenny | October 3, 2011 8:42 PM
I agree with allenra cuz.who will read it i wont.
Christopher Butler | November 16, 2009 3:02 PM

I hear what you're saying. I used to write much longer blog posts, but don't as often now for similar reasons. Some people are definitely not going to have the ability to read them in full, so I try to write posts of varying length. Also, because I write our newsletters once a month, which are much longer, I don't have the time to write a ton of long posts, so it works out for me and the readers (I assume).

DerekPadula | October 30, 2009 10:32 PM
According to my research, marketing sites focused on blogs say to write a succinct post at least once a day to generate the most traffic. But I like to write in the long form. It's nearly impossible for me to create a well researched and informative 5-10 page essay every day. I average 1 of those a month.

Unfortunately I find that most people do not stick around for the long form explorative essays on my blog. The blog is to help promote a non-fiction book, which is also (by it's nature) long form.

But the internet and book's are two different medium, and to compete on the web may require a different strategy. At least if the amount of visitors to your site that actually read your content is important to you. To me it certainly is, so more posts with shorter content is the direction I'll follow.
Christopher Butler | October 29, 2009 4:04 PM
@Allenra, I agree with Joe and Sarah- I read lots of long form content and will continue to do so.

@Joe Grobelny, Thanks for vouching for the long form! What library do you work for?

@Sarah Dooley, That's what was a surprise to me about Lunsford's study. I didn't expect positive results, but she has a pretty strong case for the web increasing students' exposure to written content.

@Martin, You wrote, "For she has always been an effortlessly graceful tactile assemblage of current events and colorful insight- our beloved Grey Lady. The online edition is then, however, an awkward, braces-clad, bumbling younger sister." I'm not sure I could have put it any better myself, or any stranger, for that matter ;-) Thanks for the comment!

@Joe Keenan, Thanks for the recommendation. I'll definitely check out the book.
Joe Keenan | October 29, 2009 3:56 PM
Check out Peter Block's book "Community: The Structure of Belonging." The book is structured in a way that can allow a quick read or a full read, or combination. This, I think, is the solution: to allow one to get the gist, but offer more depth for later reading and reflection.
Martin | October 29, 2009 8:51 AM
Thank you for this post. It's a topic of great interest to me.

Perhaps the guiltiest in leading us down the path of short-format supremacy is the online news website. We must be honest with ourselves; we live in the Information Age, where the populus is gripped by a swollen appetite for facts. Figures. Names. Places- concise things of the short order. Most want to cast as broad a net over the internet as possible, as to drag in as many ankle depth tadpoles, if you will, as possible. Perhaps you'll bring up a salamander, but only on an awfully good day.

Everyday, I look at the New York Times online, and acknowledge how people wish to perceive the news: The latest crisis notice that straddles front page is juxtaposed with more bad news to the left, a twelve inch string of countless categories further west, to the east rest further headlines, ready to be supplanted by...more headlines. The trend continues below. I believe this not only to be a cumbersome and overwhelming arrangement, but also indicative of the lack of depth- highly contrary to this paper's legacy as a printed edition. For she has always been an effortlessly graceful tactile assemblage of current events and colorful insight- our beloved Grey Lady. The online edition is then, however, an awkward, braces-clad, bumbling younger sister.

Hagel may be on to something. In the modern combat between breadth and depth, breadth does appear to be having his way. But for those of us who wish to see Marsha recover, and put Jan into her place once more, there is hope. Certain news websites are less constipated than the Times. For instance, when I opt to visit the Christian Science Monitor online, I am greeted by a more diluted and yet more sincere form of news- stories; stories to be read in detail, that are both informative and provocative. I think News should be considered more for its long-format, as it is the role of the journalist to interpret current events, and make sense of the humanity behind them.

Any thoughts? Keep up the great work, Chris.
Sarah Dooley | October 25, 2009 6:30 PM
I'm with Joe on this. People have been worrying about whether and what and how much the public reads for about as long as there's been a mass culture, and the internet is not the first change in technology to be fretted over as the death of reading. Yet somehow people keep reading. If anything, internet culture provides more ways for long-form writing to engage with audiences than before. The corollary of Lunsford's work--which shows that exposure to the internet and related technologies is making students more frequent, adept, and audience-focused writers than students in previous recent generations--is that the increased amount of writing is being received by an increasing number of readers. I don't see any reason why it should be one or the other, short form or long form; it seems like cultivating a culture of reading in general should only increase its importance all around.
joe grobelny | October 25, 2009 3:50 PM
I disagree with you Allenra. Plenty of people still read long formats. If you spend too much time on the web, then you start to loose sight of that, but working in libraries has shown me that people of all ages still read long formats, despite the somewhat lopsided perspective a lot of web-centric folks have.
Allenra | October 25, 2009 1:27 PM
Totally disagree about long-format writing. A few years from now, nobody will write that way. Why? Because nobody will read it. It's that simple.

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