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I was prompted to write this post after a Twitter conversation was initiated by Simon Penson by asking:
“How long is too long for a blog post before people switch off? 1000 words, 2000 words? Trying so hard here to cut this one off...?!”
You can follow the strands of the discussion yourselves by clicking the link above, but the general consensus was that longer blog posts can work, provided that they’re a) interesting, and b) presented well with clear formatting.
But, this post is going to be about more than length, although that is certainly part of it.
I’ve been recently thinking a lot about content and how to approach its creation, particularly as 2012 was drawing to a close and I was beginning to consider the new year.
We all know that the tired cliche still rings true: “content is King”. That’s precisely why almost everyone is producing it. But what is it about the content we’re producing that is going to make it stand out?
The habits of our industry
I wrote a post on my own blog on New Years Eve, looking back at the SEO events of the past year, and my conclusion was that we need to rethink the content we are producing.
Content is often being produced as a necessity, as a job you know has to be done. The SEO world is using guest blogging as an easy and safe (for now) way of building links, but is unfortunately being abused.
All of this is leading to thousands of frankly valueless articles being pumped out in a regular stream. Take guest blogging communities such as My Blog Guest for example.
While I like what My Blog Guest is doing, and have used it myself, there is undeniably a huge amount of content on there which is nothing more than 300-something words hastily joined together in order to get a link or two back to a website.
Hell, even I am probably guilty of something similar myself in the past. Which is precisely the reason I started to take a hard look at the content myself and others are producing.
Jonathon Colman wrote a blog post which I highly recommend you go read, We Can Do Better Than This, where he resonates many of the feelings I am having.
Jonathon argues that we are so used to content without content, super skimmable content that consists solely of quick wins such as “Top 10 Tips to....”, that as soon as we encounter something which requires a bit of time to read or some degree of effort to digest, we shy away from it immediately.
And I couldn’t agree more.
Don’t be afraid of not keeping it short
This is also where the length of a blog post comes in too. Often, the blog posts that really try to stop and make you think, the ones which challenge you in some way, are longer than the average ones you read.
This isn’t to say that longer posts are worthy of your attention simply by virtue of being long: writing long-form carries with it pitfalls to look out for. But length, along with other factors such as subject matter, are part of the factors which contribute to people shying away from this sort of content, whether you are reading it or writing it.
I would like to say at this point that shorter posts, or ones which are focused on quick learning with titles such as “”Five ways to help you...” still absolutely have a place in our feeds. I will continue to read posts like this and continue to write them.
But I want to see more people challenge not only themselves but others by really trying to explore and discuss an issue. Thinking less about how you can make the reader digest your post in 30 seconds or less, and more about writing something that causes you to spill words over the figurative paper. If you enjoyed writing it then hopefully others will enjoy reading it.
Some publishers are already doing this, and regularly. One of the things that brings me back to Econsultancy for example is that for every few how-tos or list based articles, there is something more weighty, something to provoke discussion, to tuck into.
All of these are either useful, interesting, thought-provoking, or even better, a combination of all three.
You would have thought that longer posts and ones which are designed to induce discussion, which are by their very nature more difficult to get through, get shared less frequently. And unfortunately this is quite often the case. But not always.
If your writing is interesting enough or if your post at least gives the impression of being well thought out and authoritative, it will be shared. Sure, far fewer will actually read it. But that doesn’t mean it will sink into obscurity.
However. Any good publisher knows that you can’t simply present your readers with a gigantic wall of text and hope that it will get read. Or as Econsultancy’s editor Graham Charlton put it:
“walls of text kill blog posts...”
The obligatory five ways to...
I hope that if you have made it this far then I have piqued your interest and hopefully inspired you to take the plunge into the murky waters of writing something a little more long-form than you’re used to.
To do so successfully there are things you should do to make your post as enjoyable to read as possible, and not make the reader's job to reach the end of your post any more difficult than it needs to be. What way of presenting this information would be more appropriate than a list?
The majority of these points apply to all blog posts you write, whether they are long or short, but are often even more important when you posts start moving above the 1000 words mark.
1. Start with a clear structure and plan
It is tempting to just sit down with a blank screen and begin writing, without having laid out a clear structure first. But failing to do so will often result in a post without any coherent order to the arguments you are trying to put forward and will come across as being difficult to follow.
Do yourself a favour and make the editing job easier by planning your post before you begin.
2. Don’t make it long for the sake of being long
Whenever you’re writing a blog post, only let it be as long as it needs to be. If you can get across what you hoped to in 200 words then great; brevity in these instances are called for.
If you have a lot to say and you need an extended word count to achieve that then go right ahead. But it is important to cut the waffle and only include what deserves to be there.
3. Make ample use of formatting
No matter the length of your post, you want it to be scannable. Someone should be able to take a quick look from start to finish and get a reasonably good idea of what to expect should they take the time to read it.
Use plenty of descriptive headings to act as scaffolding to hold your words together. Break up large chunks of text by bolding the important points. Use links to not only direct readers towards other useful content but to provide some colour to a largely monotone page.
And yes - don’t forget about lists too.
4. Bring others into the discussion
Unless you already have a significant fan base, it is likely that no one is going to just want to hear your opinion throughout the post. Introduce the thoughts and writings of others to add variety and weight to your argument.
Not only does it show evidence of research, it provides interest to hear the opinion of an already well known figure.
5. Have fun
I can’t stress this enough. When you’re spilling thousands of words onto a page, if you don’t enjoy yourself then that will be reflected in your writing. It is fun to rant. It is fun to speak your mind.
It's fun to pour whatever thoughts are niggling on your mind into a blog post - whether or not anyone even reads it.
So have a go and try write something different
If there is one thing I wish to get across then it’s this: don’t be afraid of writing something that requires some patience and time of your reader.
Don’t be afraid of your opinion not being valid, or that you don’t feel authoritative enough to write earnestly on a subject. If you work in this industry then you surely have some opinions you would like to share.
Every now and again, forget the quick how-to article you are writing and share your thoughts on a subject you feel passionately about.