In Praise of “The Long Thought”

Long content vs short content, that is the question. I’m constantly asked about what kind of content is best when blogging. Some will say that long content is best; others say that short content is better because the Internet trains people to read short content.

The arguments abound on both sides, but I recently read a post that made me rethink how I think about content. It’s well known that I am a big fan of big and epic content, especially long-form content, as I enjoy the written word and think that it is an incredible medium through which to express thoughts. While the Internet also exposes us to other mediums, such as video that can also be used to communicate ideas, the written word has existed for hundreds of years and has always held great power (why else is there a history of book burnings going back even as far as the 7th century BC?). The written word is powerful.

The article I recently read is called The Long Thought, which I highly recommend reading. I was intrigued by the following quote, which I found via 99U Workbook:

When I observe how I consume information, I’ve become increasingly aware of how little actual deep information I’m consuming. Each morning, I launch a series of tab groups (News, Nerds, Apple, Games, Hockey) in my browser, and as I read each of the front pages in these groups, I’m basically reading tweets — the short headlines that describe what occurred. Sometimes I’ll drill down on an article, but again, if I carefully consider my reading of them, my eyes dart from headline to headline without truly consuming and digesting the words.

I am learning something. The article I’m lightly consuming has become bookmarked in my head, and if it comes up in casual conversation later in the day, I can vigorously nod and say, “Yes, yes, I read that”. But I haven’t really. I noted the shortest version of it; I can quote the simplest version of it. I have a facade of the story and the illusion of knowledge.

I miss long thoughts.


This resonates with me as a writer, a thinker, and a content creator because of the power of the written word. We’re not engaging, and so our points of view can be blown around from place to place as we take on bits and pieces of ideologies or thoughts where we do not have the full context.

I want to challenge us to do better. We must rethink Internet publishing, must create content ourselves that is worthy of being consumed (yes, and linked to), and must make a point to share high quality and useful information with our peers - information that we have fully read.

Rethinking Internet Publishing

According to Wordpress stats, users produce about 39.3 million new posts and 41.4 million new comments each month. This is a lot of content, and most of these blogs wither away in squalor and are abandoned within 3 months. In fact, according to the New York Times:
According to a 2008 survey by Technorati, which runs a search engine for blogs, only 7.4 million out of the 133 million blogs the company tracks had been updated in the past 120 days. That translates to 95 percent of blogs being essentially abandoned, left to lie fallow on the Web, where they become public remnants of a dream — or at least an ambition — unfulfilled.
I think we are seeing the end of websites as content homes, and the future is platforms. We have so many devices on which we can consume content:


In the past we’ve consumed content in fairly static ways, such as RSS feeds and forums. In recent years, we’ve tapped into content aggregators like Alltop, HackerNews, and Techmeme to find new content (at least in the tech industry). In even more recent years, we use social networks, especially Twitter, to keep up with our content. While websites will never go away, and the prevalence of direct traffic to large websites is evidence that many people still use trusted websites as the beginning point for their content consumption. However, the way we consume content has changed. Previously, the content consumption flow was thus:


But now, it’s thus:


With Google Reader dying dead, I hope that we are finally going to see content in new ways. Aside from new services that I am sure will come up (after all, what’s next after RSS?), I think we are starting to see the beginning of “people as brands”, meaning consumers follow people not necessarily websites anymore.

So, curate a place where your best content can be found. I have one on my personal site here. More people should aggregate content like AdvertisingShould, because it’s low effort and useful.

As far as websites are concerned, every publisher should:

  • Allow readers to subscribe to individual authors
  • Make it easy for readers to follow individual authors on social media
  • Invest in your writers so that they write better content (pay them well, give them perks)
All of these are valid places for content as well, and any one could become a place to curate as your content home:


The Internet is Noisy, So Stand Out

As Rands says in his post:
Our current communication constructs make us intellectually lazy. It’s too easy to blurt out what you’re thinking on Twitter and Facebook and then forget you said anything at all.
Because anyone is able to publish anything (almost) anywhere they want on the Internet, bad writing and miscommunication abound. Most of the content found on most blogs, for example, is not worth reading, but is rather safe, 500-700 word posts about nothing in particular. Rarely do people put in the work to create a truly compelling, thought-evoking, high-quality piece of content. This is probably why people like Danny Sullivan and Rand Fishkin, both great bloggers/writers, are so venerated - they have taken the time to become experts at what they do, that being content creation.

If you look at my What Kind of Content Gets Links in 2012 post from last October, you will see a common theme - the content that gets links, and also strong social activity, is content that has gone above and beyond. It is usually:

  • Longer than average
  • Contains video and/or images
Here are the word count to links graphs:


Use Intrigue to Drive Pageviews

I was asked at a meetup a while ago about Startup Content Marketing, where I was asked this question about writing and how longform content can work online.

My answer at the time was intrigue. Basically, good writers use intrigue to keep the reader interested and wanting to dig deeper into whatever they are reading. Think about a novel or long piece of content that you read in the past that kept you up until 4am because the story was so good. You didn’t want to put it down, right? Just me? I didn’t think so.

Books have chapters. Blog posts and articles have headings.
Books have chapters to divide up the content and to keep you going deeper. Part of a well-edited book is that the chapters end at a climax, and they keep you reading on. “I have to finish this chapter”, you say to yourself.

Blog posts or articles are no different, except that our “chapters” are headings (often an H2 or H3). SEOs get sidelined with the “Does an H2 matter more than an H3 for ranking?” I say we need to quit thinking about that and instead give the consumer what they need - good engaging content that they will reference again and again.

If you’re still not convinced about this, reference the perfectly optimized page (source) and do that. Then write content people care about.


Marketing Isn’t About New. Marketing Is About Better

I’m tired of short content from 8 different sources that all give the same information, but is simply written for pageviews. While this can be useful for strong links from many sources if your company or content is featured, the content provides little to nothing in the way of information other than a quick “heads up”. Here’s 300 words on Google Keep. Here’s another 300 from another source. Get my point?

This isn’t content. As a growth marketer that I respect said recently, everyone in content is treating it as a commodity to monetize but their content only reaches a small niche and no one outside of that niche cares. The growth comes when you reach the larger audience and let them apply it to their lives.

The Verge is one site that goes above and beyond the call of duty with their tech writing. Their recent piece on Blue Products, a cell phone company seeking to take on Samsung, gained incredible social traction:


CNET’s article on Google Keep didn’t get even close to that:


Here’s the comparison in a graph:


This tweet sums up my point nicely:


Finishing Up

I’ve crammed a lot into this post, so here is your tl;DR:
  • Websites are no longer content homes. Content is becoming independent
  • The noisy blogosphere requires going above and beyond. TheVerge is a great example
  • Intrigue drives pageviews and time on site. Oh, and links
  • Marketing is about better, not necessarily new. Cue Ross Hudgens.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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  1. Great article! I agree with your point of view about the content creation. "Marketing is about better, not necessarily new" is the light at the end of the tunnel.

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  2. There seems to be a lot of attention being pointed at "long content" of late.

    The problem with a lot of the posts is that people are making claims that "long content" ranks better - when that isn't technically the case.
    (There is no preference/ranking influence based on word count etc. - Google have even said as such)

    The other problem is that people tend to fail to point out "suitability".
    Long Content is great for certain post types, for certain audience types etc.
    But there are times when Short is more suitable, more preferred, will get more traction, links and shares etc.

    It's the same issue as people saying "great content is content that informs" - which runs flat in the face of Funny or Music or Novel content.
    People really need to start realising that there is no "one size fits all" nor "one method above the rest".
    It boils down to suitability, and meeting the needs/wants of your audience.

    If you go and write up a 2.5K page about how to get msconfig running on windows7, do Not expect it to do that well compared to many of the 400 word posts.
    If you go and put together a 2K word post about how to check for crawl errors, and someone puts together the same points, in the same order, offering the same value in 600 words, I know which one I'd rather read.

    You can even turn it sideways.
    Rather than "Big Content" with "Long Thought" - you could make a series, tackling individual aspects of the whole. That way you become more tightly focused, breaking things down for the user, removing the perceived "fluff" etc.

    Making Big Content work ... either happens naturally, or with serious care and planning.
    Things like rhythm, emotion, suspense, fear, pain, humour all play a part.
    Interesting visuals often play a part.
    Legibility of the content, formatting and styling ... again, these can influence retention as well.
    Then you have the actual "content" and what is being said. It's not just whether it is informative/useful - it's whether it's boring/dry, smooth or disjointed, providing question-answer, or leading through to the end etc.

    So many different things, so many different ways - and all of it should be looked at ... starting with who it is for, what the objective is, and whether long or short will suit the best.

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  3. "Marketing is about better, not necessarily new."

    Quite right. Even more so when it pertains to gaining links and social shares, which are highly prized for good reason.

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  4. Content is becoming independent

    This. And it's only going to become more independent. Conversations and ideas are no longer tied-down to websites, or even blogs.

    Websites, blogs, social networks, stuff we haven't even thought up yet, are just communication tools.

    The meat is in the communication. e=mc^2, short powerful idea. The U.S. Constitution, longer powerful idea. Both important in the marketplace.

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  5. On our editorial travel-planning site, slightly more than 25 percent of our pageviews on any given day come from readers who spend more than half an hour on the site or read more than 20 pages. That number never ceases to amaze me, and I always like to cite it when people insist that all Web users suffer from ADD.

    I also like to point out that has quite a few readers, despite the fact that the Times favors depth over brevity.

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  6. Great article John! I can agree with you when you say the written word is powerful. I have been known to read just the headlines as opposed to reading the full article. Some good tips here!

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  7. Good to see this topic continue to be explored, John. The way the internet 'trains' us to prefer short content and quick hits of information is a topic I've been fascinated with for years. Nicholas Carr wrote about it eloquently in his piece for The Atlantic titled "Is Google making us Stoopid?" which he then expanded in to a book called 'The Shallows' - definitely worth a read.

    Also recommended is a collection of essays edited by John Brockman, available in book form under the title 'Is The Internet Changing The Way You Think?' Lots of excellent arguments put forth in there both ways, though the consensus is that yes internet usage affects our mental processes in varying degrees.

    That in itself is not a controversial statement - neuroplasticity is a thoroughly researched concept, so of course using the internet a lot ensures certain mental pathways are used more often and as such become paths of lower resistance, and our brain prefers to use those.

    The real question, which Carr answers negatively and the likes of Clay Shirky (in 'Cognitive Surplus') answers positively, is whether or not these changed mental states are a good thing or a bad thing. I haven't made up my mind yet on that one.

    Translating this to the content we publish - and, more importantly, the reasons we publish content - I'm squarely in the camp Jonathan Colman so powerfully put forth in his essay "We Can Do Better Than This": it's about adding value.

    And often - though not always - more value can be added through longer content. But it's not the length that judges a piece of content's worth. It's all about that value add.

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    • John Doherty

      Thanks Barry, and great thoughts here. I loved that Atlantic article, and I'm glad you referenced it because it brings up many good points. I've never heard of the Brockman essays, so I'll check those out.

      Your point there at the end is so important. It's not about length - it's about value. Long pieces are long because of the value they provide, not just for the sake of being long.

      Really appreciate your insight!

  8. Interesting. I've been pondering whether I should write more, shorter pages, or fewer longer ones. My inclination is to go the longer route. Thanks

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  9. I have found myself spending a lot more time writing longer blog posts, and publishing less frequently. In fact, I have about 3 still in draft mode that need finishing up. I am finding with our readers, when we create content that is detailed, yet easy to consume, TOS goes way up and they start to engage with other content.

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  10. Focusing on the length of the content you produce is 'missing the forest for the trees.' Unless you just love blabbering on and on and don't care about your readers' feelings, the content you produce should be the minimum required to achieve your goal.

    Personally, I prefer lengthy, detailed articles and blog posts over the 400 word, over-generalized, link-bait, "I learned practically nothing" sale pitches so commonly spewed around the web.

    BUT... If you're going to go long, you better be awesome. AND the pinnacle of awesome is the rare writer (think: Seth Godin) that can make a profound point with just a handful of words.

    Great writers know that it takes a long time to go short.

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  11. Viktoriya

    My opinion is that it all depends on what kind of a blogg youre running and measuring what type of post gets the most readers. Is it an educational blogg or is it a latest news kind of blogg. My blogg is educational and therefore its big posts and then I use Twitter and newsdesk for short kind of pr.. Its been working great for me and my readers. I get the most trafic this way and with that comes links and better raknings.

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  12. Hey John, I dunno if this was intentional or not, but I find a lot of irony in making a TL;DR for a post that essentially promotes digging in deep and going the extra mile to write (and read) past the fluffy titles and "300 word" tech regurgitations.

    I've seen a lot of that reflected in my own stuff, where bland and to the point posts get little reaction, but a painstakingly written piece with step-by-step on detailed importXML tutorial gets shares, links, comments, etc.

    You'd think people would zone out and bounce, and I'm sure many do, but the ones truly interested stick around and appreciate the effort.

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  13. David McMillan

    Nice points, John. The "links to number of words" and "TheVerge/CNET comparison" graphs were a little challenging to understand at first glance. The former because the title of the vertical axis is on the right side of the graph and my eyes kept looking at the stats for number of words on the horizontal axis (and thinking the numbers correlated to links). Also, the horizontal axis is missing numbers, so I have no idea what the true correlation is or how to gauge it. What would be considered high? What would be considered low? Perhaps it's not entirely relevant, but I think it might be helpful to know. Regarding the latter graph, I'm not sure what the numbers are indicating...shares? views? words? links?

    Again, nice points and helpful info. Just bring more clarity to the graphs to even further drive those points home. :-)

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  14. The article invokes a powerful vision of a longline of abandoned posts floating in the ocean waiting to hook unsuspecting sea life in the years ahead...

    I am basically a long form writer - I got it from long form copy which has been a recognized, highly differentiated direct marketing medium for a long time - yes even before there was an Internet...

    I am not sure that the Internet trained us to do anything. I think a lot of people are poor readers (check US education levels). For many people I know, reading is more arduous then enjoyable. Even more people are poor writers, and reading them (never mind rewriting them) is nothing short of painful...

    There is a clear parallel here to what I call the democratization of the desktop - a phenomena which first took place with the advent of Aldus, Adobe and the Apple LaserWriter in 1985. Suddenly everybody was a desktop publisher... Since then technology has moved on to revolutionize (up end?) music, film, graphics and yes, thanks to WordPress, writing or perhaps more accurately, publishing. Because I believe that what John is primarily adressing and what we are all experiencing is that there are many more publishers then writers.

    Originally this democratization was greeted with a lot of hand-wringing, teeth gnashing and breast beating. Those people aren't real designers, they haven't been to Parsons or Cal Arts, forgive them they know not what they do... But there is an important counterpoint which is that a whole lot more people produce products in and for all these mediums then was imaginable 25 years ago. (Just consider YouTube) And in the end, while it is obvious that not everyone is equally talented, it is probably important that everyone who wants to has the opportunity to publish.

    At the same time, I share with the author the opinion that a lot of people publish Internet content as a means to some other end - some kind of logic along the lines of "I blog therefore I rank..." Where writing is an essential task to be accomplished to get to ranking - which is in turn supported by some belief that ranking somehow leads to revenue.

    But there is another piece of the equation: it is a by-product of progress and democratization and that is the sheer volume of information. How does one deal with that? (see Intrigue)

    Because of the frequently poor quality of content that is generated for the sole purpose of housing keywords, there is a need to wade through increasingly large piles to get to the occassional useful nugget. Thus the increasing popularity of site search.

    In this regard, Twitter and others performs a very useful function. Not to say that it is unbiased or even well-informed, maybe so or maybe no. But it does reflect the zeitgeist and the thinking of the day.

    Is it sufficient? Well that depends on what you want to know - if your issue is life threatening or life changing, no probably not. If it is life affirming, what used to be called wa... [continued below]

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  15. [continued from above] ...ter cooler chat, it is probably perfectly adequate which is the OP's point.

    There is the old saw that a carpenter tries to solve every problem with a nail. There is no longer any one solution for all that even one person of company might want to share, present or debate in one day.

    Which is why I have to disagree - I don't think that Marketing is necessarily about better. Not everything is created equal or is equally valuable or well made... or worth my time and attention no matter how well written.

    I do however agree with John that the inevitable consequence of all this is that people will follow those writers who demonstrate value regardless of where their content appears. Think of Hemingway the newspaper writer, the novelist, the editorial writer - in newspapers, libraries and magazines.

    If you write in a way that reflects and addresses the needs, the interests and the passions of your audience, they will follow you. It certainly doesn't matter what its displayed on...

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  16. Sean

    Wait, you can just launch tab groups?

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  17. The same question comes up for me all of the time. Do I go short and sweet and to the point and spare the details or do I let `em have it? I too prefer my content to be on the longer side, more detailed and descriptive. If I'm spending the time on it, I should get what I am looking for.

    Thanks for the post. Good to be back following 'distilled'.

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  18. Hi John -

    I love the assertion about content becoming independent. I think this is further solidified by Google's addition of author rank. They're making a pretty bold attempt at trying to determine who the valuable content generators are outside of a "contained" content environment.

    The problem I see is that this could very well signal the death of the brand in favor of the individual. I call it a "problem" because I'm an employer and, as much as I love my folks, I'm essentially losing readership/following/call-it-what-you-want to my employees. It's an interesting conundrum - do you think businesses can do anything to curve the effect?

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  19. In the often used words of Rand, "correlation does not equal causation". However it does show a trend, and trends are important.

    As has already been pointed out, just because a post is long does not make it valuable. I would argue however that the most valuable posts ( and therefore most shared ones) tend to be longer in nature. See Neil Patel stats on that here -

    Any good argument or for or against a subject takes longer than 400 words to do. ESPECIALLY if you want to invoke some emotion! So while the occasional writer like Mr Godin does come along and wow us, that is what is considered the 1% club.

    Good stuff John.

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  20. Leo

    Will this ever really happen? "Invest in your writers so that they write better content (pay them well, give them perks)."

    I really doubt it. Businesspeople mistakenly believe that good writers are a dime a dozen. If they cared about quality content, they would have invested in it a long time ago. It's not like this is a brand-new idea.

    Most businesses are just now -- reluctantly -- warming up to it. And they're only doing that because they can't figure out an easy way to game Google.

    But they still don't get it yet -- not really. Most of them are going to experiment with cheap, inexperienced writers until they realize that there is just too much competition online for that strategy to work.

    At which point, they'll either give up on content marketing altogether or begrudgingly start paying a little more for quality content.

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    • John Doherty

      Leo - thanks for the comment and the questions. I do believe that some companies will do this, and I'm trying to encourage them to do so. You're right, they don't get it. Hopefully the words I have written here, along with Tom Critchlow's post last year, will keep moving them in that direction.

      But you're right. Most businesses are going the cheap route. Most businesses are cheap. But I firmly believe that the ones who invest in quality will see the real wins.

  21. This seems Chekhov said, write a novel, then cut it to the story, and then to the anecdote, and the last will be brilliant. :-)

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