The conclusion is clear: people prefer to read short articles. This is also what we’ve found in empirical studies of users’ behavior while reading websites. People tend to be ruthless in abandoning long-winded sites; they mainly want to skim highlights.
— Nielson, Jakob. Long vs. Short Articles as Content Strategy. 2007.
A website is useless if a user can not use it. Copy is useless if a user can not read it. These two statements are not separate from one another. Readable, engaging content contributes to the usability of a website by minimising confusion and, as a result, bounce and abandonment. As articulated by Nielson, above, users want short articles (2007). Users will scan content, not read it (LSE 2014; Nielson & Morkes 1998; Nielson 2006; NYE Web Communications 2017; Stolley 2011).
Users won’t read your text thoroughly in a word-by-word manner. Exhaustive reading is rare…
— Nielson, Jakob. F-Shaped Pattern for Reading Web Content. 2006.
The implications of these findings are clear: write short, make it scannable, keep it simple. The repercussions, however, have the potential to be much more complex. These repercussions will be the focus of this discussion.
It has long been assumed that the convergence of written media and the web has deemed long-form as good as dead. For example, Manjoo’s classic You Won’t Finish This Article includes the following ‘Chartbeat’ research (2013):
(Courtesy of Chartbeat and Slate. You Won’t Finish This Article. 2013)
The results are quite clear, and reflective of the ideas discussed, about user engagement. Most people are not finishing articles and many are not even starting them at all.
Interestingly, Manjoo points out:
…articles that get a lot of tweets don’t necessarily get read very deeply. Articles that get read deeply aren’t necessarily generating a lot of tweets.
— Farhad Manjoo, You Won’t Finish This Article: Why people online don’t read to the end. 2013.
It seems clear that readers online are not interested in sticking around for a long time and certainly not to go in-depth on a single topic or narrative. O’Neil’s take is that writing for engagement, usability and shareability is ruining journalism:
Big Viral, a Lovecraftian nightmare that has tightened its thousand-tentacled grip on our browsing habits with its traffic-at-all-costs mentality—veracity, newsworthiness, and relevance be damned…
The more in-depth, reported pieces didn’t stand a chance against riffs on things predestined to go viral. That’s the secret that Upworthy, BuzzFeed, MailOnline, Viral Nova, and their dozens of knockoffs have figured out: You don’t need to write anymore—just write a good headline and point. If what you’re pointing at turns out to be a steaming turd, well, then repackage the steam and sell it back to us.
This conflation of newsiness with news, share-worthiness with importance, has wreaked havoc on the media’s skepticism immune systems…
As Big Viral gets bigger, traditional media organizations are scrambling to keep pace. We’re seeing the BuzzFeedification of the entire spectrum of the media…
— O’Neil, Luke. The Year We Broke the Internet: An explanation. An apology. A plea. 2013.
However, in spite of the reality ‘bouncing’ and low engagement rates, long-form has seen a recent renaissance (Grothaus 2015; Longhi & Winques 2015). Journalists and storytellers alike have begun to see the enormous possibilities of digital storytelling, as an extension, rather than restriction, of detailed, comprehensive writing (Bennet 2013; Jayasekera 2011).
Long Live Long-Form
Here are some examples of digital long-form:
We took a bet that long but really thorough, really high-quality articles would not only be acceptable to certain people but would be a really fresh, standout thing in a current world of really short list articles. And that smart people would start reading it, and would keep reading it and get to the end. Then they’d want to share it, even more than if it were a great short article.
— Urban, Tim qtd. by Grothaus, Michael. The Secrets Of Writing Smart, Long-form Articles That Go Absolutely Viral: Going deep with the founders of Wait But Why, who show that thoughtful, long-form content is king. 2015.
Embracing the technological, multimedia possibilities of digital storytelling, journalists and writers are now creating long-form work that is, arguably, more engaging and more compelling than ever. Despite what heatmaps or Chartbeat tests may reveal, the success of works, such as Snow Fall, make a case for both digital long-form, and contemporary attention spans. Nielson even notes, that despite any and all heatmapping and F-shape research, if you want to attract people who have specific interests, comprehensive coverage could be the answer (2007).
“High-impact, magazine-style journalism is not a throwback to the past,” Politico’s editors declared in a memo that should chasten the hand-wringers. “It is a genre that is even more essential in today’s hyperkinetic news environment. It is a style of reporting and a mindset about illuminating what matters most that has a brilliant future.”
— Bennet, James. Against ‘Long-Form Journalism’: When it comes to great magazine writing, what’s in a name?. 2013.
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