Short vs long online articles: which are better?

I’ve always been aware that the average Ethical Nag post here runs far longer than your average blog poster might choose to write.  Isn’t there, after all, some rule out there advising that a couple snappy paragraphs are best for the short attention span of blog readers? Are my readers being turned off because they lack the time or luxury to absorb 1,500 words of my deathless prose?

I generally approach writing for The Nag much like I did when I was writing magazine pieces. Start with the main theme, some solid background, some pithy quotable quotes from appropriate sources, reactions from The Culprits being examined, and finally my own two cents worth on the subject. (I can do that. Because it’s my blog).

But are my articles too long, I sometimes wonder, and thus turning off the average busy, over-tasked reader out there?  And what works best on the web: short or long-form journalism?

That’s the very question pondered by veteran journalist Lewis DVorkin, whose name will be familiar to readers of Forbes, The New York Times, Newsweek or The Wall Street Journal.  He describes his own uneasy transition from traditional print journalism over to online writing more than a decade ago:

“My traditional media colleagues ribbed me for abandoning ‘real’ reporting in favor of the fast and the short. No one reads in-depth stories online, they said.”

But his recent piece called Inside Forbes: The Inspiring Data Behind Two Digital Reporting Strategies argues that online news consumers crave both: fast and short, plus in-depth.

According to DVorkin, readers devour brief and timely information, but they also seek out the in-depth coverage that news stalwarts feared would disappear in the digital age – particularly when this coverage is about health care.

He offers the illustrative case of Forbes journalist and Medicine Show blogger, Matt Herper, described by DVorkin as a walking, talking, posting encyclopedia of nearly everything that has to do with medicine”. 

Herper has a strong online following. He has over 65,000 Twitter followers, 3,400 Facebook followers, and 12,400 LinkedIn connections (updated numbers June 2016).

In an informal graph that charts Matt Herper’s journalistic output online, DVorkin explains that it’s apparent that Herper started out posting quite a bit, but reduced his output as he discovered that long-form rhythm worked best for the topic, his audience and his traffic numbers. He explains:

“I think it’s partly because, in medicine, a lot of the challenge isn’t just pointing out what is important, but also why. For a piece to be really valuable, you may need to take the reader into another world.”

Consider, for example, my own piece last February about disease-mongering called We Never Imagined People Would Think of Osteopenia as a Disease. Here’s the short Coles Notes excerpt emailed to my subscribers on the morning it was published here:

“There was no payroll, no building, no office – but drug giant Merck invented its own non-profit, the ‘Bone Measurement Institute’, to help sell more of its Fosamax drug.”

If that teaser intrigued you, you could then click on the full article (a whopping 3,200+ words – a long post even by my standards!) for more details on Merck’s very brilliant drug marketing plan. It was a plan to convince consumers and their physicians that their drugs should be in the medicine cabinets of millions of women worldwide. But more broadly, this article also described Big Pharma’s plan to change the definition of what a disease is, and the role that drug companies can play in that change.  It also contained stats, sales figures, historical background, and extensive quotes from (and links to) academic and industry experts in their fields.

This kind of detail may not be for every reader, but if you’re a woman whose doctor has told you that you suffer from what’s essentially a made-up disease called osteopenia, and that you should now be taking Fosamax or any other bone density drug in the controversial bisphosphonate family, you are likely seeking far more than a Tweet-length blurb on the subject.

Please note that I LOVE WHITE SPACE here.  You’ll see in most of my essays a lot of  quotable quotes”, bullets, interesting images, bold coloured text – anything to break up the piece so you’re not facing that dreaded solid wall of text.

Many years ago, when I was first taking web writing courses, we were taught that there’s a BIG DIFFERENCE, physically, between reading ink on paper as opposed to light on a screen. And according to Darren Rowse, founder and editor of ProBlogger, the ideal minimum length of a good online article is 250 words, and the maximum should be under 1,000 words.

But Darren wrote that back in 2006 (a lifetime ago in the tech world)  – before gadgets like eBook Readers exploded in popularity.  Now, we read entire novels on our little screens – and we like doing it, apparently.

Meanwhile, Matt Herper’s online audience over at is trending up, even as his writing output slows down. That’s also my experience here on The Nag: I now rarely new posts compared to previous years, but readership here has doubled compared to this time last year.

And this post turns out to be among my shortest ever: a mere 860 words!

See also: Year in Review: Top Ten Ethical Nag Posts (a list that includes plenty of long reads!)


10 thoughts on “Short vs long online articles: which are better?

  1. First—– I’m dichotomous about your post. — There IS such a word and here I was so proud that I’d made up a new word! 😦

    I have many thoughts about it.

    But first (!)—– I love your habit of giving lots of white space. For the many people with neurologic defects (me), densely packed text is like looking at Sanskrit. And I’m sure that many people without neurologic defects are the same. Although you do that for your own reasons, I thank you. It saves me from having to copy/paste into Word and then entering my own white space.

    Back later with some of my own deathless prose —- with nothing concluded, merely my point of view.

      • ***I generally approach writing for The Nag much like I did when I was writing magazine pieces. Start with the main theme, some solid background, some pithy quotable quotes from appropriate sources, reactions from The Culprits being examined, and finally my own two cents worth on the subject. (I can do that. Because it’s my blog).***

        I like this blog just the way it is, thank you very much. 🙂

        Make entries shorter?

        ***consumers crave both: fast and short, plus in-depth.***

        What? In the same entry??? How? Use Text Language? Gack!

        #idk I think deets r imp 4 peeps BR

        Now for my deathless prose—– pretty much “the jury is out” in my mind.

        I don’t usually waffle—- but I think it’s going to take a while for a trend to show up.

        Right now, I’m betting on the lowest denominator winning but I hope I’m wrong.

        So I’ll stick with Edwin Newman and let the world pass me up.

        • Hi Cave,
          “…consumers crave both: fast and short, plus in-depth…” refers to different writers (and topics!) The Forbes piece quotes stock market blogger Eric Savitz, for example, who writes 10 posts a day but says he keeps them “short and punchy”. That is SO not me . . .

  2. Neither, I’d have to answer. I want an article that is long enough to say what needs to be said. I hate to read something even mildly interesting and find myself left with unanswered questions that are conspicuously missing. That is so frustrating! However, like anyone, I do not like to read repetitive or unnecessary reporting or discussion of a topic. If there is much written in an article which doesn’t really add any important information or perspectives it only irritates me and drives me away. (I don’t ever see that here, by the way.)

    I also only read what interests me. That may seem a given but I used to read almost everything in front of me. No more. I can only read so much within the time I generally allot to reading, so I am picky. I skip a lot altogether or perhaps read a subheading, if there is one. I am always so behind – trying in vain to read everything of any interest that comes my way, that I’ve long given up saving it all for “later.” “Later” only brings more interesting things to read! When I’m truly intrigued, though, or the topic is one of great interest, I save it to read when I can move something else aside or just forgo something else I’d planned on. With my problem finding time to read, you’d think I’d prefer shorter articles but I really don’t. If I’m interested enough to read something, I want the whole banana.

    I’ll share an interesting peripheral note: I have been very surprised to find that since I retired and have far more discretionary time, I read less of everything! I have a lot more time to spend however I want – more than I’ve ever had in my adult life. It wasn’t long after I retired before I discovered activities that were new to me and which I enjoyed tremendously. There were so many things going on in my community, such as a Socrates Cafe philosophical discussion group (!), which I never even knew existed, as well as personal interests and talents I never knew I had. The real frosting on this delicious cake was that I could indulge myself in all of it! Well, up to a point. And therein lies the rub. Sadly, a day still only has 24 hours. So now, after being an avid reader my whole life, I read much less than I used to back when my life was so hectic and lacking in free time. Given extra time, I’ve discovered things which are even more rewarding than reading.

    So there you are, Carolyn. My long answer to your short question!

    • Very interesting (long) answer, Bev – thanks for this! Retirement has opened up many new doors for you which helps to explain your drop in reading time, or maybe you’re simply being far more selective in reading what you love now. Personally, that’s why book clubs have never held any interest for me – don’t want to spend five nanoseconds reading what others have picked for me to read when there are so many books on MY list!

  3. I have to join Cave in my appreciation of white space. When I write an email to a friend with an especially long paragraph, I think, “Oh my gosh! She’ll die trying to get through that sea of words!” It pains me to begin a new paragraph where none belongs. It can even confuse my reader, what with a new paragraph signaling a new topic or at least a new perspective or the like. Usually the new paragraph solution wins out, though. So yes, a big thank you to your gift of white space. (“White space” – A new term for me – thanks!)

  4. I’m with you regarding book clubs and book discussion groups. I don’t want to have to read what the group chooses when I only allot so much time to reading. Too bad I don’t get to choose the books!

    Again wandering from your topic, I wanted to comment that our library’s book discussion group only spends 2 hours reviewing each book! How much can really be addressed in such a short length of time? I’ve never been part of such a group, but isn’t there more to say about a thoughtful book – as in addressing one or more issues in some depth – than what can be said, much less discussed, in a book review or discussion group?

    (I have the luxury of having a stunning library system! I feel SO lucky!)

    Say, Carolyn, what do YOU prefer on this issue of short vs long online articles?

    • Hi Bev – what do I prefer? I think it depends on who is doing the writing. For example, I always read Tara Parker-Pope, who writes the health blog Well for the New York Times. Her pieces are very long compared to most, yet each is so well-researched, beautifully structured and worth the read. Yet I also love Kate Gilderdale‘s witty and quirky little posts on The Jaundiced View, rarely more than a few paragraphs about her life in Stouffville with hubby Mr. Wallethead. Here’s an example from Sunday.

      • Very funny! Kate’s piece is indeed short, so little risk to a new reader, and anyway, so wonderfully written, (and in a style I think most would find funny) that it should be only a rare reader who would regret stopping by to read.

        I have a dry sense of humor. I also don’t find many types of humor funny at all. Whether the two go together, I don’t know (does anyone else know?) but it’s really no fun to sit at some movie or another where everyone else is just dying with laughter, and I’m rolling my eyes, wondering (honestly) what in the world everyone’s finding so funny? Oh how I’d love to be one of those with tears of laughter falling! So it’s nice to see I really love this wonderfully written and funny play with words! Thanks for introducing Kate Gilderdale to us! Has she written any books, Carolyn?

        (Oh how lucky I am to be doing so well that I even think of my lack of appreciation for slapstick humor as a problem!)

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