by Bianca Ghose
June 5th, 2014

Journalists are known to get carried away by rhetoric.

Normally (and naturally) they are full of things they want to say about the subjects they track. Also welcome Ezra Klein, Nate Silver and their contemporaries, and the resurgence of explanatory journalism.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for explanatory, data driven and investigative writing. Heaven knows we need to demystify complex topics and have nuanced yet conversational writing.

But the Web’s democratic design means everyone today has a voice. And when everyone is talking, it’s hard to find what you are looking for, and more importantly, share what you chance upon.

Brevity is key here. We now have research to prove all good things (and I mean interesting and shareable things) come in small packages. The science behind such research comes from studies of attention spans, though of course you don’t need to be a scientist to know that you cannot make people read or share your content if you put them to sleep.

Recently, legendary newsrooms like the Associate Press and Reuters have instructed their staff to cut the fat – keep stories between 300 and 500 words. Of the many possible reasons for this new rule, two stand out for me:

  • Readers do not have the attention span for long stories and are turned off by copies that are too long, and
  • News staff fail to exercise the all-important news judgment when stories are overlong and not tightly edited

That is 100% true of any content on the Web. Whether a content marketer, a community manager, an SEO expert, a copywriter or journalist, you need the ability, and the good sense, to know when to stop.

Okay I can hear the pushback already – how can I possibly say everything I need to in 300/500 words?

Let me tell you what I’ve learnt.

  • Be punchy. Spend 50% of your time writing the headline or that first line if needed. That’s what will net the fish. And the whale.
  • Be curious. Read up and speak to others who know the subject well, so there are different perspectives shaping your own opinion. Only when you dig deeper will you write better.
  • Get off the net. Online access has opened the floodgates of verbiage. Frame your story in your head, and switch off the WiFi when you sit down to write.
  • Try mini-stories, unexpected stories. In the scheme of things today, payment is mostly not by the inch. More words do not mean more cash. Go work for people who understand that and follow that model.
  • Write for readers, not the search engine. There’s a difference between thin content and short content. While Google’s Panda update punishes websites with thin content that is full of keywords and SEO writing, it favours short content  that is informative, precise and — wait for it — original. So try that.

(472 words)

Bianca Ghose is managing editor, Mediaco for Weber Shandwick India 

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