Sometimes a short blog post, a Tweet, or a quick interview just doesn’t do a subject justice. What’s called for is long form. But stringing together more than 2,000 words that keep the reader’s attention is hard. Andrew Davis, Ex Editor of Weekend FT, explains how the professionals do it.
At eight seconds humans have a shorter attention span than goldfish, which have nine, according to a 2015 study sponsored by Microsoft. If this is true, what hope is there for long-form writing?
Are you still there? Good. Because long-form writing is in fact a really important part of the content marketing arsenal. According to serpIQ, a web analytics company, articles of around 2,500 words are top-ranked in search engine results. What is more, Mark Johnson of Think Traffic says these articles get better results in terms of shares and links, driving traffic and engagement.
So on the one hand, readers find it hard to reach the end of a paragraph and on the other Google prefers to put many-paragraphed, even many chaptered, articles in front of them. The big question, therefore, is how to get these articles read.
Long form is really no different from writing any other feature in terms of structure and planning. It needs an intro, point one, point two, point three and a conclusion. The only real added extra is that you need a really good writer. There’s nowhere to hide in long form as it really puts pressure on the skills of the writer and will show up their shortcomings. It’s tricky, fiddly and demands time, good planning and good processes.
Professional writers also know how to take feedback better. Someone who’s funny in the pub and writes a good email or blog often can’t take direction or criticism. This makes it hard to get it right in the first place and hard for them to fix it when it goes wrong.
Of course there are different forms of long form. White papers are factual, academic almost, and high-level in their content, going into detailed arguments that an informed reader will be able to follow. Others might be lighter reading, a sophisticated take on marketing presented in a nice editorial package. This could be about achievements or a vision of the future. But whatever the form, the content reads better when it’s informed and accurate, has pace and rhythm, and offers citations and validations where appropriate. These might be in the piece, in footnotes at the bottom of each page, or in an appendix at the end. Their position really depends on the flow and style of the piece.
Long form eats facts and figures, so it’s really important that the writer makes sure the client is aware of just how much material long form will gobble up. It’s a good idea to sit down with them to go through what they want and what they have available – research, real life case studies, interviewees, graphs, pictures and other illustrations, as well as facts and figures. If there are gaps, the writer should be able to point them out and encourage further preparation. Indeed, the best work is very much a collaboration between writer and client.
Some clients haven’t done a lot of content creation before and are therefore not used to thinking about how much material is needed to create something that size. The burden here is on both sides to know what can be done with what they have. It’s really important for the client to understand that good content comes from the material, not just a good idea. The best pieces start with the material and let the idea emerge.
Once the style of the piece has been decided upon and the amount of available supporting material quantified, the next step is a well-crafted commission or synopsis. This should be detailed and time spent here is well spent as it will make the writing very easy.
Besides giving direction, the process of writing the synopsis should test that the very idea of the piece is worthy of at least 1,200 words – the minimum for long form. A detailed synopsis also helps manage client expectations – they will get a clear idea of what the piece will cover and how it will read. This means when it comes to signing off, they are no sudden changes of mind.
There’s nothing worse than when a piece is written, revised and ready for sign off that it is rejected by the boss because it wasn’t what they were expecting. When this happens you either have to do a lot of rewrites, which always ends up compromising the piece, or all the work goes down the drain. And trust is lost too. To minimise the risk, ensure the person signing the piece off is involved early and then kept in the loop about any changes of direction.
Once you have the synopsis the writer can start research, reading up on the subject, and doing interviews. This should take time and shouldn’t be rushed – I like to think of it as a fermentation process. The writer can mull over the issues, look at the material, find and fill gaps, and work out the best structure. It’s a key part of the process and the more you concentrate here the less likely you are to end up with problems later on.
Once the prep work is done, it’s time to write a plan. Without a good plan, the piece will lack structure, pace and even miss relevant content. Readers can lose focus if new ideas keep coming at them without warning or in a random order. And they’ll certainly turn away at the first sign of padding.
But equally too much material can alienate the reader, leave them confused or overwhelmed. In this case, it’s best to keep the key points and save the rest for another time.
Perhaps contrary to what you might think, shorter long form pieces are the most dangerous. I always worry about pieces of between 1,000 and 2,000 words. There’s a tendency to pad. Over 2,000 and writers will know they need lots of material and will plan accordingly.
Finally, a word about sub editors. Long pieces really do need at least two pairs of eyes to look over them, which is where subbing comes in. These wonderful professionals aren’t just spelling and grammar wizards: they check for continuity, consistency, fact check and will question an odd turn of phrase. They can rewrite sentences and even whole pieces. But Caroline Elderfield, former chief sub editor of paid content at The Daily Telegraph, cautions against big rewrites, saying it will almost always involve cutting things that the sub doesn’t understand, which makes the piece shorter and likely less informative. It’s really worth ensuring there’s enough time for the subs. The piece will be better as a result.
If this all sounds a little too like a regimented process that removes creativity it shouldn’t. In fact, if anything it will get the creative juices flowing more freely. It will give the idea time to grow, the writer time to research, and the piece space to develop.
Are you still with me?
The A-Z of Banking Fraud
Swiss anti-fraud and compliance software company NetGuardians came to FirstWord in the summer of 2015 for some marketing collateral with a difference. They didn’t want a straight-forward white paper. They didn’t want a big sales brochure detailing their product. They wanted something eye catching, informative and compelling that would firmly associate the company with anti-fraud technology.
What they got was the A-Z of Banking Fraud, a 39-page booklet at more than 8,000 words that made serious points about the problem of global banking fraud and what needs to be done in a readable, memorable format.
It was a real team effort – both from within FirstWord and the client, who made sure that the right people were available for interview. The team spoke to five different sources before settling down to mull it all over, do more research and work out what content went best where.
Having transcribed all the notes we copied them, chopping up the copied version and moving the bits about to see where we could use the different topics. We quickly realised some could be placed under multiple letters, while others were really one letter ponies.
While there was masses of material, some letters were difficult. Inevitably “x” and “y” were hard to find, but NetGuardians again were really helpful with lots of dialogue between us all about each letter and the topics. The whole thing was really like solving a really intricate puzzle.
After a few weeks of thinking, chopping and playing around, we had solved the puzzle and set about writing. This took another week or so. A couple of rounds of revisions followed – addressing technical details and the odd bit of rewriting.
By the end of the year, the document was finished. From start to sign off was about four months.
For the NetGuardians marketing team, the brochure is everything they wanted and they say it gets a great reception. Indeed, so good is it that we are now working on another long form piece for them.