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Long-Form

Jonathan Mahler’s When “Long-Form” Is Bad Form in The New York Times this weekend has generated a lot of discussion. I saw it as a sloppy collection of disparate rants with mixed validity, but one resonates:

The problem is that long-form stories are too often celebrated simply because they exist. And are long. …

When you fetishize — as opposed to value — something, you wind up celebrating the idea of the thing rather than the thing itself.

Mahler quotes from (but doesn’t link to, for no good reason) last month’s Against “Long-Form Journalism” by James Bennet, editor of The Atlantic. It’s much better-written and goes deeper into the “long-form” issue:

In the digital age, making a virtue of mere length sends the wrong message to writers as well as readers. …

As a writer, I used to complain that my editors would cut out all my great color, just to make the story fit; as an editor, I now realize that, yes, they had to make my stories fit, and, no, that color wasn’t so great. The editors were working to preserve the stuff that would make the story go, to make sure the story earned every incremental word, in service to the reader. Long-form, on the Web, is in danger of meaning “a lot of words.”

I faced a lot of pressure when running Instapaper to embrace the “long-form” fetish, which I resisted as much as possible. With whatever influence I had by starting the read-later-app genre, I tried to take the focus away from length and more toward context switching.

Read-later apps let you separate reading from finding, since they ideally happen with different mindsets and environments. This is necessary not because browsing aggregators, timelines, and feed readers is given too little time — people happily devote hours to it — but because the goal is to “get through” them and keep checking for new items, keeping readers in a skimming, active, dismissive mindset that’s hostile to attentive reading.

Instapaper’s usage data backed this up: there was almost no correlation between article length and number of saves on Instapaper. People routinely saved everything from three-paragraph Lifehacker posts to 10,000-word feature articles. The most-saved sites were usually just the most popular sites read by the kind of people who knew about Instapaper, not just the longest articles they found.

Nobody was saving Lifehacker posts because they couldn’t read three paragraphs right then: they saved them because they wanted to attentively read them, which wasn’t going to happen in their current context.

But the “long-form” fetishization exploded around me, despite my efforts to separate read-later apps from that term.

Skimming fluffy articles and social timelines all day is like eating junk food all day. Eventually, you feel horrible, burn out, and just want something real. After decades of evolution, experimentation, and testing, web producers have honed the formula for addictive junk content to perfection. We have infinite junk available to us on demand, on any subject, from small rectangles available in our pockets, all day, every day. It’s no surprise that a growing number of people have begun fetishizing salads.

The problem is that long doesn’t mean good — it just doesn’t look like most of the junk. Too many people now ask for (and produce) “long-form” when they really want substantial. It’s entirely possible to be substantial without being long, and good editors have helped writers strike that balance for centuries. Emphasizing and rewarding length over quality results in worse writing and more reader abandonment.

Smart writers, editors, and publishers will recognize the difference and give people what they really want, rather than what they’re asking for.

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