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Does Length Matter?

No, this won’t be a post about sex.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had ongoing conversations with various colleagues about word count minimums for blog posts and online writing. It’s become common for editors to require a minimum number of words for blog posts — gone are the days where a large photo and a caption would do the trick. This is because of Google, who has made changes to its algorithm to favor quality. Although mere mortals will never know exactly what brings joy to the faces of the Google Gods, length, in terms of word count, is thought to be a pleasing marker of quality.

I get this, but I also dislike word count minimums. With a fair amount of intensity. As much as I disliked it when the conventional wisdom was diametrically opposite — it was not that many years ago when the Powers That Be  lectured about the need to keep online writing short, and discussed maximum word counts.

Partially this is because I chafe against rules that strike me as arbitrary and shifting. But mostly it’s because I think it makes for bad writing. Some topics need more word count and some don’t. The rule I like to follow for myself is to write as many words as I need for the topic, and not a single word more.

I think everyone should adopt this rule at once.

It’s been pointed out to me that the most popular pieces over time tend to be longer. And although there’s fairly compelling evidence that people don’t read long pieces all the way to the end, I’m sure this is true, I’ve seen it in my own stats. But I think this is a correlation rather than a causation, and the popularity is more about the post’s topic — a topic that needs a longer treatment is likely to become more popular — than it is about the word count, per se.

I also think that a blog with a mix of shorter pieces better reflects the process of blogging. As a writer, what I like about blogging is that I can write about a small interest, and then, through the act of writing about it and putting it out there into the world, I’ll find that a few of those small interests grow into a larger interest, and a few of those will become more substantial pieces eventually. By insisting on a word count minimum, the start of that process gets driven into a private notebook, and the blog becomes less reflective of the intellectual and creative writing process. Which is a shame.

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