This blog post is based on a presentation I did last weekend at WordCamp Toronto.
It’s widely believed that all online content should be short to contend with diminishing attention spans. In fact, a common online response to long-winded pieces of writing is “TL;DR” (or “Too Long; Didn’t Read”).
Yet, there are many vibrant examples of how long-form content is being consumed and shared online, and even driving traffic. Many of the most popular websites include long, in-depth content, and communities like Medium and Narratively are built around the idea that people crave long content – as long as it’s worth their time, obviously.
Keeping an audience hooked is a crucial aspect of long-form storytelling, but its something that requires specific strategies to keep them engaged.
This blog post will go over some of the fundamentals of long-form content, what stories are best suited to long-form, and what tools and techniques can be used in WordPress to create compelling long-form pieces.
Basically, the reason I think this is worth talking about is that different stories require different ways of telling them.
What do I mean by “different stories require different ways of telling them”?
Let me use an example:
This is from Mental Floss’ one-sentence reviews of Shakespeare plays:
Classified as a comedy, even though its most famous character, the moneylender Shylock, ends up bankrupt after trying to extract a pound of flesh from Antonio, who is saved by the lawyer-like contract analysis of the hot young heiress Portia (who’s like Paris Hilton, except smart).
It’s The Merchant of Venice, by the way.
Obviously, it doesn’t go into the complexity of the play and its language, nor does it provide a thorough criticism. It’s probably safe to say that the one-sentence review is funny precisely because it is so inadequate.
Of course, we’re not always talking about Shakespeare. We often treat complex topics – whatever they may be – with similar inadequacy rather than do them justice. And it’s not always amusing. Seeing something you know a lot about and care about being treated with extreme simplicity can be infuriating.
Basically, we can’t treat all online writing as the same thing.
And online publishers are starting to realize this…
Some Long-Form Examples
New York Times’ “Snow Fall” is one of the classic examples of Long-Form writing and design that does a wonderful job of using the web medium for storytelling.
It’s about the 2012 Tunnel Creek avalanche in remote Washington State in which 16 backcountry skiers and snowboarders fought for their lives and rescue workers tried desperately to save them.
It’s a wonderful piece of writing that goes though the people and the issues involved in the rescue effort. It’s separated into six chapters, and features such as images, diagrams and video are used to convey information. Even the white tones in the design convey the cold bleakness of the avalanche.
Pitchfork has been doing something called “Cover Stories” a few times a year in which feature interviews are given a creative digital treatment.
They can actually be very experimental. One of the more atmospheric ones is the feature on Savages.
As far as examples of long-form, I wanted to include “A Stiff Upper Lip is Killing British Men” from VICE. This example is simpler, and just relies on text and illustrations.
The piece incorporates the author’s own experiences as well as original reporting, and facts and figures,to create a very compelling article.
So, there are some wonderful and wildly different examples of online long-form writing. But what really ties these pieces together? Can we come to a definition of a thing called “long-form”?
What is Long-Form? (And Why Now?)
The term long-form has come to stand for narrative and expository and deeply reported journalism and memoir- this is in opposition to blog posts that are like; “6 new albums you need to hear this month” or a How-to article. It’s not to say that those aren’t entertaining and important, but just that’s we’re ready for something different.
So, what has changed?
- People bring their phones wherever they are. And they might be reading stuff instead of playing Candy Crush.
- Tablets create a better long-form reading experience
- There are reading apps that simplify the reading experience such as Pocket and Instapaper. getpocket.com
- There’s also the media landscape. Many paper magazines that have traditionally provided long-form content have gone bankrupt.
- There are lots of “web natives” who are smart and think of the web as a way to express themselves.
- In the new media world, it can actually be less important to compete on speed than it was before because you have Twitter and news aggregators. It can often be useful to get readers after the initial news has been reported.
- Simply, we’re consuming more information online than ever before. For instance, I get the economist delivered to my apartment, but I read it using the Android app.
There are lots of long-form based websites. Communities like Medium and Narratively are built around the idea that people want to write and consume long-form content. And sites like Grantland and Toronto’s Hazlitt operate more like traditional magazines, paying writers to create good content.
I should also note that sites like BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post, which are known for their quick, short (and often shallow) articles, have also experimented in long-form writing. For BuzzFeed, this doesn’t just mean a longer lists of “French Bulldog gifs that perfectly express our reaction to WordPress 4.0.” For instance, one of their most recent articles was an investigative piece on How ISIS’s Oil Smuggling ring has made ISIS the world’s richest extremist group.
And it’s not just written content. Many sites are doing Long-form video. For instance, VICE produces half hour documentaries, and Vimeo is becoming a venue for long-form video. Meanwhile, a lot of photographers are pursuing long-form photo-essays that tell a story as the reader scrolls down the page.
The bottom line is that people are going to consume content they find valuable – wherever it is. And publishers are starting to realize that people want longer and potentially deeper pieces.
I also want to draw your attention to this chart of “viral stories” on popular websites. Notice that the New York Times’ top 10 viral stories averaged more than 2,000 words. Even the BBC’s articles are a rather long 721 words when you consider that online news stories and blog posts have been typically around 300-400 words.
Why are they so sharable? My theory is that they:
- Offer jumping off points for discussion.
- Their complexity makes people want to discuss them. So, it’s not just a fact.
- They provide all the materials – facts, opinions, and questions for people to discuss.
There are differences between long and short content.
Let’s keep in mind that different stories require different ways of telling them. I don’t want to say that long-form is better than short-form – it’s not. But it’s different, and presents some advantages for certain types of storytelling. Certain stories are simply better suited toward long-form more than others.
In general, a short piece might have a single source or perspective. It represents one development in a larger story, so readers always anticipate a new post. And frequent updates represent points in an ongoing narrative arc.
Long-form pieces have more space to deal with complexity and nuance. While a short story might be just a few facts or a prominent person’s opinion, a long-form piece might try to have multiple, competing viewpoints. Consequently, long-form pieces also tend to be more self-contained, providing a more complete picture of a certain issue or topic which is still tied to a certain period of time, but can often seem relevant longer after it has been published.
Long and short stories take different forms.
Short stories often take the classic “inverted pyramid” form in which information is revealed in the order of importance – like what you would see in a news story. It starts with a sentence just full of information so that if someone isn’t able to read any further they already know the gist of the story.
Long-form articles take various structures.
Rather than start with a quick summary, long-form articles tend to start with a narrative hook. It’s something that isn’t necessarily information, but something that entices the reader.
For instance the following is the first sentence of the literary nonfiction novel “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote:
“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’”
So, you don’t know that it’s about a grizzly murder, but it sets the bleak setting stage for that by creating atmosphere.
It’s also important to note that long-form articles have a beginning, a middle and an end. Whereas a short post kind of fizzles out with the least important information at the end, a long-form post provides something meaningful at the end, whether it’s a conclusion that ties everything together, or a bunch of questions you want to pose to the reader.
The structure can be chronological based on the flow of events, or non-chronological, meaning the narrative moves back and forward in time.
Long-form also can borrow extensively from fiction writing. You can turn to writers like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese to understand how to write in a literary way. The writer might, for instance, use stylistic elements to create atmosphere, describe people, or write a quotation in a way that shows ‘er accent.
We all know people who are terrible storytellers, who waste 10 minutes stumbling through a story, getting things wrong along the way, and not even to get to a simple point.
Long-form isn’t just more stuff – it’s longer because it NEEDS to be longer.
Casey Neistat, an excellent filmmaker and popular YouTube video creator, said, “In storytelling, it’s what you leave out that makes the story good.”
Just because it’s longer doesn’t mean it isn’t tightly edited. You have to ask yourself whether each thing included in your story is necessary in order to communicate what you want. Don’t include things just to inflate the length of a piece of writing.
Most writers would be smart not to adhere too much to a particular word count if at all possible. If anything, try to make your piece as short as possible, while still conveying what you want to express.