The Right Length

One of the things about having been an online writer for as long as I have is the number of white hairs in my beard. No, wait, that’s not what I meant to say at the start of that sentence. (I do have a lot of white hairs in my beard, though; I guess the last year has been particularly stressful?) What I meant was: After doing this for close to 20 years now, it’s strange to be able to recognize trends and attitudes towards particular things change, evolve, or simply upend themselves for whatever reason.

What’s brought this to mind is, simply, word count. As part of my new work reality, I’m writing a lot more long form pieces than I used to; at THR, the majority of my work was in theory short news bursts with the occasional long form op-ed or explainer. In terms of word count, that would translate at something roughly 300-400 words for news, and 800-1000 words for long form.

Nowadays, I’m seeing long form expectations start at 1000, and go up to 1500-2000, depending on outlet and story. Initially, it was a significant shift in thinking — I was used to compressing everything down to its tightest, most abbreviated form, after all — and something I really struggled with; I felt as if I was filling time aimlessly and trying to find something, anything, to fill the space.

What’s surprising, though, is how quickly you do adapt, though. Your rhythms change and you find the way to work through the space you have, fast enough that when presented with the old limits again — Wired still asks for pieces around the old definition of long form — that that becomes the struggle instead. I’d just gotten used to going on at length, and now I have to be brief all over again? Heavens to Betsy, who has the brain space to juggle all of this on an ongoing basis?

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