Writing for the web: Swift and short, long and important but not in between

The Associated Press put out a directive to editors Monday: Write shorter.

In a memo, the AP said it had a “sea of bloated mid-level copy,” as Erik Wemple reported. Daily stories should be 300 to 500 words. Top stories from each state should be 500 to 700 words. The top global stories can be more than 700 words but must remain tightly edited.

Reuters drew the line at 500 words, too. Wemple highlighted a few key points: Stories should be short “unless we have exclusive information or a unique idea that will make it distinctive. … We often spend too much time reporting, refining and updating stories that will never set us apart from the crowd. That takes time and money away from the reporting and editing that should go into distinctive content.”

In other words, get the commodity news out fast so you can spend your time on stories that really matter.

Researcher Jakob Nielsen has preached new approaches for writing on the web since at least the late 1990s. Most of us in the news business tend to write as long as we, or our editors, think the story is worth. But Nielsen’s research is a reminder: We need to put the user first. Online, if we’re not delivering what the user wants, they’ll go elsewhere — quickly. Nielsen’s advice: Be succinct, write for scannability, use links.

The AP’s memo prompted my colleague to look deeper at the research on the optimal post length and he found some good stuff.

Medium examined data from its thousands of posts and discovered the ideal post is 7 minutes. At an average of 300 words read per minute, that would make a 7-minute post 2,100 words. That makes some sense for well-crafted Medium posts. But for fast-moving newsrooms, it seems the ideal post length is probably shorter.

As Nielsen found, users on the web prize immediacy, speed, scanability and links. The AP and Reuters said news stories online should by default be short and swift, 300 to 500 words. Stories can be longer and people will read them (even on mobile) — but only if there’s a compelling reason. To be worth it, longer stories should be important, well-told, deeply reported, artfully presented — and hopefully all of the above. An example: The New York Times’ Jameis Winston investigation.

I like Quartz’s model.

Atlantic’s business site favors stories written short and snappy or long and analytical. They despise the muddy middle. “We just don’t want them to lapse into 500 words,” editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney told Richard Edelman.

Measuring word count captures the more traditional story forms. As the AP advised, we should always consider alternative story forms: photos, videos, data, charts, lists or text blocks. The traditional newspaper story form may be what we know best, but that doesn’t mean it’s always best for the user.

This post is 481 words.

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