« Efficiency wages for MPs? | Main | Biased against stagnation »

April 11, 2014



Hi Chris, surely your point is applicable only to the news and mainstream media, ie. concise factual reporting? As a regular reader of websites like Arts & Letters Daily that aggregate many longform pieces on all kinds of subjects, I find that meandering and meditative writing possesses its own kind of beauty that frankly is a refreshing alternative to the blaring foghorn of the MSM.

In fact, I would recommend to those readers of this fine blog who are of more reflective character the excellent Annals of the Former World by John McPhee, a long and winding volume (comprised of five smaller books) on the geological history of the US. It's really a lot more interesting than it sounds. Sometimes it's good to just sit on one's ass and enjoy the poetry of the written word!



Long opinion pieces are boring, but reading an interesting (and also long) story or a piece that teaches individuals about a topic they never had exposure to before is fine. If someone did a long piece on the long-running Maoist rebellion in Nepal, I would read it.

Luis Enrique

it's tricky this narcissism point. Some authors are wonderful and reward the time spent with them, and if they'd thought "who am I to think myself worthy of such attention?" then we'd be deprived of them, because the answer is always "nobody", at least at the outset. I am not sure that question is ever helpful. I suspect the correct approach is to do whatever you are moved to do, try to make it as good as possible, and let people decide if they are interested in you - that's for them to worry about, not you.

Sometimes the "colour", or personal stories, are very interesting.

But I agree with you in the main, and most writers would benefit from halving their output.

I don't know how you do it (produce so much short-form output). When I write something, months later I can find myself cutting it to pieces and removing parts that were badly written, misleading, confusing or just plain wrong. If I wrote daily blog posts, they'd be error strewn, or at least badly expressed.

I often find myself disliking the comments I make on blogs, because I am inclined to focus on elements that don't make sense to me, or that I want to question, but that biases comments towards the negative. To produce 600 words that didn't have flaws for commentators to pick up on would take me about a week of solid work.

Thornton Hall

Long form is one of the ways journalists rationalize the existence of a masters degree in a field perfected by high school graduate Mike Royko.

Left Outside

Couldn't agree more.

George Hallam

"If readers think you're a prat after 500 words.."

Well done! You managed it in 134 words.

Iain Coleman

There's no virtue to longform in itself, and as a goal it is misconceived. A piece of writing should be as long as necessary, and no longer.

A few hundred words is certainly enough for a blog post expressing one clear idea. My own blog posts are more like 1500-1800 words, because they are about more complex scientific ideas and that's about how long it takes to express them fully. War Nerd posts are pretty damn lengthy, but always provocative and packed with interesting detail about underappreciated topics, so they never feel long.

What I really can't stand are those awful American longform journalism pieces where they start off with hundreds of words of "I pull up to the suburban house. There is an SUV in the drive, and children's toys scattered carelessly in the front garden. The front door is freshly painted, and the doorbell gives a confident buzz. When Jones opens the door, she is slighter than her TV appearances would suggest, yet with a hint of steel beneath her surface brittleness. She asks me in: "Hello, how are you?" and we sit down in her modestly tidy front room, decorated in cream and lavender. As she sits, she brushes a long hair away from her pensive face, anticipating the questioning to come with determined resolution. "So glad you could find time to speak with me," I say, and a faint half-smile briefly crosses her face. We have coffee in elegant mugs..."



Dear, dear. Some of you lot. Where is your joy in language? Do you have no souls????? Remember, it's the journey not the destination!



Thank you for writing this - NS seem stuck on particularly long tedious pieces at the moment.


Brevity in blog commenting is also a virtue.


@ Bob, Iain - I agree there is a place for long pieces for reasons you give, but it's a smaller one than presently exists. As Iain says, a piece of writing should be as long as necessary, and no longer. And as someone else said, things can always be cut by 10% without much loss.


Chris - don't you agree that the London Review of Books is an absolute joy, mainly because of its embrace of the multi-thousand word format?

Concision is a merit in _sheer_ communication, but let's not lose the value from beautifully written and edited long-form writing for its own sake.

Nick Cohen

The MSM want links by the thousand. We get lectured by geeks on how we must put them in every piece. Naturally we refuse.

Nick Cohen

In any case, your whole premiss is wrong. Apart from the fact you sound like a sub telling Tolstoy to keep it light, trite and bright, writers should not give readers what they want, you only reinforce their prejudices if you do. We should give them what we want in the hope, often vain, that it will enlighten them.

Thornton Hall

Where does this "Nick Cohen" post and is there software I can buy to block it?

Iain Coleman

The basic problem is in confusing the ability to craft fluent prose with having anything interesting, useful or important to say.

Witchsmeller Pursuivant

The MSM want links by the thousand. We get lectured by geeks on how we must put them in every piece. Naturally we refuse.

In your case Mr Cohen, they're probably just asking for some kind of evidence.


Brevity is not the same as terseness.

Using few words is not the same as using as economy of words. Brevity can be quite verbose, when the word-to-concept ratio is high despite there being few words. Terseness can still involve a lot of words for complicated topics.

I think that there is confusion in the above post between the two.

Brevity in itself is greatly valued only by fans of the PM question time/Oxford Union style of debate, where the goal is not to inform or discuss but to score points and deliver spin.

Often a tightly worded essay is better than a loosely worded short statement.

Phil Beesley

Laurie Penny was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize (blog category, 2010). And this is some of what George Orwell wrote in the essay Politics and the English Language:

"If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

@Luis Enrique: "To produce 600 words that didn't have flaws for commentators to pick up on would take me about a week of solid work."

You have that self reservation because you are a good thinker and writer. If you don't feel that an idea is refined enough for an essay, introduce it as a "request for comments".


I'm in two minds about this.
Brevity can be good, certainly I appreciate grazing through some quick-fire thinking.

Yet too often - and Chris is a great example of this - the failure to really work through ideas really shows. There are huge numbers of brief posts that are just flawed and I have to say comment fatigue has set in for me. I'm less and less interested in bothering with brief expositions where it's clear that the brevity isn't because of careful crystallisation, it's just a result of brief thinking.



I'm more like you than Chris - I'll spend a long time on a post (not actually working on it, but from when I first get an idea to when I actually finish is often around a month), trying to make it read well and anticipating objections.

But ultimately anything can be criticised, you will never spot every typo, and you will make mistakes. Best just to accept this and get over yourself (I'm not directing that last part specifically at you).


@Iain "What I really can't stand are those awful American long form journalism pieces"

Michael Lewis writes like this, but he's a master at it - making often fairly dull subjects a joy to read.

I don't think short trumps long. But to write a long piece, you have to be very good, and clearly not everyone has the talent.

Martin S

"Anecdotes are not data. Stories add to the wordcount and give 'colour', but they often beg the question: are these stories representative?"

Did you misuse "beg the question" here?

I don't see how confusing anecdotes with data means assuming what you set out to prove.

The use of anecdote often prompts that question, however.

The comments to this entry are closed.

blogs I like

Blog powered by Typepad