by Bonnie Jean Feldkamp
NSNC Director of Media
There’s a reason Erma Bombeck and Art Buchwald columns were under 500 words and Ernie Pyle kept his to 700. It works. Not only is that what many editors want, it’s also what most people are willing to read. Humor columnists and opinion bloggers, in particular, must master the short form.
Service journalism and investigative work is different. Longer form is accepted and enjoyed. But even then, it’s broken up online into readable chunks with subheadings, bullets or other visual markers. Online columnists (and if you are a blogger you are a modern columnist) must work on restraint.
We know online readers have shorter attention spans and yet when our blog stretches beyond our word count goal we get lazy, shrug it off and publish. Unless we have an editor saying to us “keep the word count to 500.” We simply don’t.
In an interview with Howard Stern, Conan O’Brien talked about how when he worked on the Late Night Show someone suggested that since he’s “hip,” he should wear a leather jacket and ditch the suit and tie. O’Brien said, “No.” It wasn’t funny. “Comedy is about restriction and constraint,” he said, “The good work comes from people trying to stop you.” In the writer’s world, that’s usually the editor. The suit and tie were O’Brien’s constraints. “There’s nothing funnier than a guy in a suit acting like an ass,” O’Brien explained to Stern.
On the Internet, in our own blogs, we have to form our own constraints. Our word count is our suit and tie. It’s easy to get long-winded and self-indulgent and thus lose readers. Who cares if I post a 1,500-word blog, we say to ourselves. The reader. That’s who. Studies show that most readers only read the first third of any given article. (Yes, tracking stats will tell a publication exactly where you stopped scrolling.) If you’re lucky, your audience will read half and then retweet. Only a small fraction of people really make it to the very end. Even then, most people have scanned the content, not savored every word. Many will even repost based on the title alone. Think about your own reading habits. When do you stop reading a blog post? Your writing is not the exception. All writers have to make every word count.
Hemingway wrote in his memoir A Moveable Feast that writers should “judge a piece of writing by the quality of what has been cut.” Make yourself cut. Your writing will benefit from it. If you really have 2,000 quality words to write on a given topic then think of your audience and how they will best absorb the information online. Maybe you’re writing two blogs or a series, not one. Suit up for writing online. Hold yourself accountable to a word count. Your reader will thank you. Repost you. And want to read more of you.
Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a blogger and frequent features contributor for Cincinnati Family Magazine. She also freelances for other publications specializing in children and family. Find her on Facebook HERE and on Twitter @WriterBonnie.