The Story Economy Blog

The Long and Short of Good Content

max's contentI’ve had dozens of discussions about whether a given piece of content is too long. These exchanges have often been with designers (you know how those visual people are) and have generally gone like this:

Designer: “This is too much copy.”

Me: “Umm . . . I don’t think so.”

Designer: “People don’t want to read that much.”

Me: “They will if it’s good.”

Sometimes it probably was too much copy. Plenty of times it wasn’t.

However, it was never really the right argument to be having.

After 18 years in the business of writing for the web in one form or another, I’ve realized that the length of a given piece of content is not much of a measure of anything.

Yes, Google now tells us that long form content does better with SEO—and, as the person constantly arguing that the copy wasn’t too long, this makes me happy! But good SEO is only part one. Part two is engaging your audience. Do they want long? Do they want short?

In truth, they want neither.

They want the information they need. And that comes in various word counts. My son Max’s piece about Woodrow Wilson is quite short. But . . . well, you can see my point.

Content Length vs. Content Clarity

In marketing copy, the amount of words matters less than the intent, tone, and how hard the sentences work.

Complex and thorny sentences are wonderful in literature. But if you’re reading about what to do when your child has a fever, they are sort of terrible. At the same time, you might need several paragraphs to really feel like you have a handle on this fever situation. Brevity for brevity’s sake can leave you high and dry (and your kid a whiny mess).

A matter-of-fact tone with short, unemotional sentences is quite appropriate if you are comparing two brands of toilets (which one hypothetically flushes more golf balls?) or trying to configure a wireless network.

By contrast, if you are choosing a school or a heart treatment, that tone won’t work at all. You are worried about making the right choice. There’s a lot on the line. You’re looking for some empathy and reassurance—along with facts. Preferably, the copy is scannable, with clear headings. You can duck in and out as you need.

In fact . . . you might like to hear a story of a child who thrived at the school or an older adult who got their quality of life back after that non-invasive heart procedure. Such stories need as long as it takes to tell them well. If the content grabs you (as a story should), length is irrelevant.

Content that Over-Explains

There is another piece of the puzzle surrounding content length, and I feel the need to explain (keep reading and you will understand the irony).

I am a serious over-explainer. Even as I confess this, I desperately want to explain what I mean. My preferred over-explaining method is to write something in three different ways that all say the same thing. I like to hit hard with a point, find an even more eloquent and impressive way to say the point again, and then top if off with one more grand iteration of the point (do you see how I literally just did it again?). My “say it three times” technique is great for essays and speeches (and sometimes blog posts)—not so much for the clean language of a home page brand promise.

A concise thought should be concise.

(This is very hard to do.)

I have been checking this in my own work in the past few years, as the web shifts and attention spans drop again. Busy people want information fast and the clutter of over-explaining sends them away from the page. This means chopping sentences brutally—explaining powerfully one time (when I really want to explain eloquently three times).

The writer in me wants 21st century humans to be wired like 16th century humans. But the content creator in me knows better.

So while I might throw a bit of Shakespeare around (all the world—or rather, the web—is absolutely a stage), I know better than to make readers work that hard. That doesn’t mean I won’t write 2,000 if it merits it.

Channel clarity in your content and think deeply about what your audience needs. The length will follow.


  • Shel Horowitz

    Posted by Shel Horowitz on 03/09/16 5:02pm

    I'm another over-explaining copywriter. I did manage to control the impulse in the first paragraph of my latest project, - but then the three columns below that go pretty long.

    You may find this quote relevant:

    "Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte."
    --Blaise Pascal, 1657


    I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.

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