Keep it brief, or long; just make it great

What’s the “right” length for a news article or blog post – for instance, this one? Should I go long and deep, keep it brief or aim for somewhere in between?

For writers, the answer may hinge on style instincts and journalistic necessities. For editors, product managers and business builders, usability research and conventional wisdom point to a simple formula: be short, be crisp.

But there’s more to the story. In 2007, research from the Nielsen Norman Group found that web site visitors got the most “benefit” from a mixed diet of both short and long articles.

That research, focused on web sites, predated the global explosion of social and mobile media formats that inherently favor short content. Think: 140 character tweets, tiny screens, Facebook timelines. But a mix of short and long posts appears to be working for Quartz, the business web site from Atlantic Media, The Media Briefing reports. However, “in-between” posts – neither short nor long – don’t do well there.

“We call it the Quartz curve,” Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delany recently told a London gathering of digital editors. “The place between 500 and 800 words is the place you don’t want to be because it’s not short and fast and focused and shareable, but it’s not long enough to be a real pay-off for readers.”

The Media Briefing’s Jasper Jackson further implied that the in-between place you don’t want to be is where most traditional news publishers are still roaming. He cited a quick, unscientific word count of articles from The Guardian, Telegraph and MailOnline. “Almost all fall within the borders of Quartz’s 500-800 word no-go zone,” Jackson wrote. Hence, the provocative headline: Why newspapers are writing the wrong articles for the web.

Of course, an article isn’t “wrong” just because it’s too long or too short. It’s wrong when it isn’t done well. Consider word count at best a hint at whether it’s “right” for your audience. Is it smart? Does it tell me something new? Does it provide a payoff? Is it worth sharing? Publishers should always bear in mind the advice Steve Jobs offered to Nike’s Mark Parker: “Get rid of the crappy stuff.”

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