Wisdom is not etched in stone so much as it’s hammered out in dialogue. Here two writers square off on writing, marketing, and content in a segment we call Boxing Clever.
DM: Hey Brandon, I found the topic of your latest blog post intriguing—millennials and job hopping. So I dove in, expecting to spend 5 minutes and gain some insight into the phenom. But I read and read and read and got nowhere near the end. Ever think of shortening up your posts so readers don’t have to block out calendar time to read them?
BT: The short answer is: yes, all the time! But as you can see, I don’t.
The slightly longer answer: Brevity in writing is a good thing. It forces you to really think about what you are saying and how to say it. Plus concise writing has the added bonus of not scaring away your readers.
But there can be too much of a good thing. Being brief and punchy can easily slide into being superficial and sensationalistic—or worse, misleading. Most blogs out there these days cater to short attention spans (because, you know, nobody reads on the internet). And so there is a lot of superficial stuff being echoed, and no one is taking the time to drill down further.
And that’s one of the things that my blog is fighting against at its core. Sure, there is a need for short and breezy—but there also needs to be room for long and in-depth. For every Newsweek, there should be an Economist; for every Popular Science, a Scientific American; for every Salon, a New Yorker.
Plus, this is why I have a “print” button on every page
DM: So much for brevity being the soul of wit. In a guest post I wrote for Jeff Bullas, I noted that Glen at ViperChill analyzed the most tweeted posts and determined the average length runs around 1100 words. So if that’s a measure of what people want, what they don’t want is l-o-n-g. Maybe it’s not that the readers’ attention spans are short, but that their time is.
Unless you’re fascinating—and most writers aren’t—writing long means losing your reader well before you get to your point. And it’s generally self-indulgent. It’s like the old Twain quote: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
I think many writers don’t take the time to distill their message; instead they spew, with no thought that they could have their say in half as many words. If what you have to say truly requires an in-depth approach and thousands of words, why not break it into two blogs? I’m willing to bet that length correlates all too well with lack of focus.
BT: Uh oh. I think we are actually agreeing on most things. That’s usually a sign to be optimistic but careful.
Really you’ve made two arguments here. And I agree wholeheartedly with the first one, that length is often a symptom of lack of focus (not to mention self indulgence). Indeed, one exercise I often ask of my students is to take a paper that’s, maybe, five pages and see if they can condense it down to one while saying the same things. Most are surprised that, with some work, they can do it. (I would ask my business clients to do the same, except that they pay me to do it for them.)
But your second argument—that the most tweeted posts are around 1100 words—doesn’t tell us much. It could be that this is the ideal length people want to read. But I’m not so sure. I’d bet that most of those articles come from larger sources, like Forbes, Fast Company, The Atlantic, etc. Many of these places set their own word limits, and for reasons other than readability and tweetability. With a large readership and established credibility, those outlets get their articles read and retweeted, regardless of length. So we can’t use re-tweeting as a credible metric. It’s a false correlation.
But even supposing that length does affect sharing, there’s another wrinkle: Your argument assumes that getting re-tweeted is, or should be, one of the goals of your piece. It might be. Then again there might be other things that are more important. All depends on what you are trying to do.
I mean, if brevity were always the main goal, then the bard would have simply said “Brevity is wit,” to use your example. Sometimes something really is lost by saying less.
DM: I’m going to disagree that we’re agreeing. In the previous round, I said that if retweeted posts were an indicator, than 1100 words is a good number.
But actually I think that’s long. I’d bet most people prefer posts of fewer than 1000 words and probably don’t want more if they read one that’s 750. I believe a good writer—who’s also a good thinker—can say a lot in that space. It’s knowing what to leave in and what to leave out.
In Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon states that “Self-editing is one of the most difficult forms of self discipline.” He goes on to say that in this age of information overload, “those who get ahead will be the folks who figure out what to leave out, so they can concentrate on what’s really important to them.”
And we can thank them for figuring it out, because then they’ll also concentrate on what’s important to us. So if your readers aren’t commenting, aren’t attaboying, aren’t clamoring for more, maybe it’s because they give up before they get to the point. Ask them. Or just try writing short—you may find limitations actually increase creativity and insightfulness.
BT: And I thought I was the contrarian in these parts.
I think you’ve identified the true enemy here. As the nice folks at Copyblogger say: “Long blog posts don’t scare away readers; sloppy writing does.”
Now brevity is often an indicator of the care the author has taken and hence quality. Many of Seth Godin’s blog posts, for example, are just a few lines long but can convey a single idea with punch. Malcolm Gladwell has a knack for giving just the information that’s interesting and no more. And literary masters such as Twain are students of the short story. (My favorite is by Hemingway, and it is only six words long: “For Sale. Baby shoes. Never Worn.”)
But brevity is not to be confused with quality. There is plenty of advertising copy that is short, pithy and absolutely worthless. On the other hand, War and Peace, The Idiot, Les Miserables, and even Infinite Jest are masterpieces of the written word, even with their length. Stories in The New Yorker or The Economist or The Atlantic can be lengthy, but still tight. And good content marketing could possibly benefit from longer form. (If good writing has one or two or even three thousand words of something to say, why stop sooner?)
nd this is the problem with the typical call for brevity: It often amounts to some arbitrary word count. A writer should not be spending time worrying about length but on having something worthwhile to say and finding a way to say it clearly.
This isn’t license for folks to ramble on at length, mind you. Far from it. Good writing is tight, and it takes work. So let’s end with some advice for avoiding the trap of self-indulgent long-form writing:
Write freely, then remove. Don’t interrupt the creative juices when you first draft a piece—but when you’re done, see how many words you can remove while still keeping the same content and tone. Make a game of it.
Make sure every line does “work.” If a sentence is not a statement of your main point, it should be an example of the point, a bit of evidence for the point or some refinement of that point. Anything else is veering off on another subject.
Read your piece out loud. This is the best way to edit anything, because it prevents your brain from “filling in” what it thinks should be there. It is also a great way to catch awkward sentences, tighten up the wording and improve flow.
Ask a colleague or friend to read it—but for only 20 seconds. If that person cannot get the main idea in that time, you need to cut. The best result comes when they read for 20 seconds, and then insist that they want keep reading because they are intrigued enough to go on.
When you’re done with these steps, you might have three sentences left—or three pages. But if it’s good writing, no one will care. It will be engaging to the end. If I may repurpose a saying from the world of design, “A writer knows she has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
DM: You give some good advice, my friend. But three rounds and we’re done. So tell you what: Write your next blog post. Then I’ll edit it. And we’ll see what readers prefer. I predict a knockout pour moi ;-).
Diana Montana makes techie stuff fun, primarily for Fortune 500 companies. She lives and plays at the base of Black Mountain near Missoula, Montana.
Brandon N. Towl writes for businesses, blogs, and friends through his agency Words Have Impact, out of St. Louis, Missouri. He also enjoys teaching, speaking, and trying to figure out what really works in marketing and communications. When that fails, he turns to philosophy, anime, and his dogs.