Kevin’s recent post about how long a blog post should be reminded me of a pair of writing assignments I was handed when I was in school, both of which changed my perspective on writing forever.
You see, when I was in high school and college, I spent a great deal of time studying journalism and creative writing, my two great passions. I was hoping at the time to get a job for a major newspaper working in their Web division, helping grow and promote online journalism.
It didn’t exactly pan out that way, I came out of college just in time to find the news industry already in steep decline, perhaps already past the turning point. Still, my education taught me a great deal, but on the point of post or story length, there were two lessons, both of which were equally valuable in teaching me about writing and how people read.
The First Assignment
In high school it was common for the teacher to assign mock news articles to the class. The rules were straight forward write a news story on a certain topic and it had to be a certain length, usually 1,000 words. We could pull quotes from other newspapers and sources, but they had to be accurate and up to journalistic standards.
Then one day the teacher told us to take our 1,000 word story and quickly turn it into a 500 word one. Worst of all, we only had 20 minutes to do it in.
But while it sounds stressful it was actually fairly easy. Twenty minutes was plenty of time to get through the story several times over and editing it down was more a matter of removing a few nice, but unnecessary, details and tightening up existing writing. At the end of the time frame, most of us had stories that were less detailed, but still largely the same as the ones we walked in with.
In short, I learned you could take out half the worlds of most stories and remove only a fraction of the information, including almost none of the important details.
I received a similar assignment in a creative writing class two years later. However, this time the process we were working with short stories. We were asked to remove 25% of the words without touching the plot. Once again, it was more than possible and, in general, it made the stories quicker-paced and tighter, while sometimes sacrificing some of the warmth and detail.
From these assignments, I learned that cutting words does not mean cutting a story. If you can tell something in 500 words, there is little reason to use 1,000. However, as I later learned was not always the case.
The Second Assignment
Later on, I switched majors. I wanted to study graphic/Web design and was convinced to change my major to advertising. However, when it came to copywriting, I had walked into a whole new world.
In journalism, brevity is valued highly. Getting information across quickly and accurately is the most important thing. However, in advertising long copy is often more heavily prized. In fact, David Ogilvy, one of advertising’s most respected figures, favored long copy strongly in his ads, even writing ads with more than 10,000 words and still receiving a strong response.
The mentality in the advertising world is that if you have a lot to say, you should say it, if you don’t have much to offer, you shouldn’t feel bad about being brief. Selling candy is different from selling power tools, which in turn is different from selling cars.
It was in that spirit we were asked to design a series of ads, starting with roughly a quarter of a page in a magazine and ranging to a full newspaper page, all using the same visuals. But even if we increased the size of the images we used, which was allowed, we still had to be flexible with the body copy, adding and subtracting from it to fit the different sizes.
Quickly it became obvious that, for this particular product, the ads with less copy were not merely more concise, but were worse ads. We had a lot to say and forcing us to be shorter with our words made us harder-sounding and less friendly.
The journalism style of “get in and get out” didn’t work in advertising. As a result, neither I nor the others I was working with were ever happy with my shorter advertisements and neither was the professor.
So to get back to Kevin’s question of how long a post should be, I agree with his conclusion, that there is no rule.
I would say that you should take all of the time you need but no longer. In the end, it is more important that you write compelling copy than keep it under X number of words. Ten thousand words can feel like a hundred if your writing is good. On the other hand, 500 words can feel like torture if it isn’t.
Your topic and your writing should determine your length, not some arbitrary rule. If you write well and on topics that interest people, they will read it, no matter how long your posts are. If you write poorly and on topics with no interest, no one will bother, no matter how short you keep it.