Don’t watch your word count.
Longform is good. So is shortform.
Word count matters. The more you say, the more they’ll listen. One can’t simply share a recipe or tip. You first must tell your life story; only then can you relate a tip or three.
Or so goes the standard online advice, arguing why you should write long-form content. We’re wearing out keyboards, padding word counts for SEO like we’re writing high school essays in 12pt Times New Roman, double-spaced, with 1” margins.
Then you have Seth Godin, publishing 90 words or so a day for years. He’s written twenty books; he’s got to be doing the internet right. And yet, he clearly isn’t worried about writing a long enough post.
If anything, shorter may be better. It’s hard not to make time to read Godin’s daily post, while you might save a more expansive post for later (to languish in your reading list until forgotten).
“I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter,” goes the Blaise Pascal quote often attributed to Mark Twain. Pascal ascribed value to brevity. Get to the point, say what needs to be said, and stop. That’s a skill long lost in the war to outrank your competitors on Google. More’s better, and so we write with abandon.
But ask Google’s team; they say we’ve got it wrong. Google Developer Advocate Martin Splitt, when asked if length matters to Google’s ranking in 2020, said “No, it’s not a ranking factor. If you can say what the user needs to know in 50 words, that is fantastic.”
The goal is answering people’s questions, not telling them everything there is to know. “It’s about trying to figure out what’s the intention,” continued Splitt. “If you see yourself repeating yourself multiple times and saying the same thing over and over again in the same document or on the same page, what’s the point?”
There’s a time and a place for everything. A time for long stories, books that take weeks to finish, like Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and its 407,450 words. A time, too, for short stories, brief flashes of brilliance you’ll read in minutes, like Andy Weir’s 997 word long _The Egg_. One has more time to paint a picture, the other more space for you to imagine. Both will linger in your mind for years.
And that’s the goal: Writing that connects. You don’t need to talk forever to get people to remember. A TED talk, alone, might be enough. “One path to true innovation is through subtraction,” as TED founder Saul Wurman said, so he cut down talks until they were 18 minutes long. Long enough to share something important, short enough to keep your attention.
The written word is different, granted. People can skim titles and jump to the section they want to read. Sometimes incredibly detailed articles are what’s needed. Wirecutter and Zapier’s detailed roundups can share products for a wide range of people’s needs in one article, perfect to compare and find the best product for you without opening a dozen tabs. That’s when thousands of words are perfect.
And some topics are worth digging into deep. It’d be a sad world without the New Yorker’s lengthier stories, one where books were capped at 10 chapters and letters at a single page each. Thus Edmund Bohun’s twist on Pascal’s quote: “The Reader may pardon this long Discourse, because the Subject so well deserved it, and I wanted Art to make it shorter.” Some things require long-form writing.
There are also the accidental benefits of verbosity. The more you write, the more keywords you use. You might randomly say things in a new way that match a search query better, or add details that certain people are looking for, things a shorter article would have skipped. But that, alone, isn’t reason enough to write without limit.
We’re terrified of thin content, and yet Google itself defines thin content as “pages with many words but little or no authentic content.” Thousands of words without substance are thin content; a few dozen unique words and ideas can be weighty enough. The shortest thing you write yourself will likely do better than the lengthiest AI-written piece.
So write what’s needed. Pay little attention to the word count. Don’t keep typing simply to have lengthier content than the competition. Share everything you’d want to read in an article about that topic, then stop.
That’ll be enough.