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Ignore Everything You’ve Ever Read About How Long Blog Posts Should Be

Shout-out to our buddy Will Strunk for giving us “The Elements of Style.” (Photo: JT)

Shout-out to our buddy Will Strunk for giving us “The Elements of Style.” (Photo: JT)

How long should a blog post be? My advice is to ignore everything you read on that topic. And by “everything,” I mean everything written by everyone except me.

Is that unreasonable?

If you search for tips on the ideal blog post length, you’ll see it’s 1,600 words. Or between 600 and 1,250 according to a different source. Another expert says 2,000.

There’s a shitwhack of analysis out there about algorithms, SEO rankings, shareability, long-form, short-form, ranking factors, long-tail search queries …

I’ll stop there because I feel the same way about analyzing data that I do about soccer: I know a lot of people are into it — but it’s just not my bag, baby. Even when I try, it's not long before long my mind wanders off to a song lyric or a copy of MAD magazine I read when I was 11.

My pragmatic position on blog-post length isn’t popular among data-driven marketers, but here it is:

An article should be as long as it needs to be.

[Way to break new ground, Johnny!]

Yup — I keep it pretty simple. Can you make your point in 400 words? Great! Does it take 2,000 words? Fantastic!

What really matters is making every word and every sentence count. Instead of obsessing over the number of words, put your energy into editing and polishing. William Strunk had it right in The Elements of Style when he said, “Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery.”

When you think you’re finished with an article, close the file and walk away for a while. Come back to it 24 hours later for revising and rewriting, and you might realize the 400-word post is missing something that can make it better. Or maybe the 2,000-word piece can be trimmed by a hundred words. That’s the stuff that makes a difference.

If your sole objective is to rank higher in search results based on what Google is doing this month, then research “best practices” (oh, how I loathe that term) and follow the paint-by-numbers recommendations.

But if you want to write something that serves your audience and will stand the test of time, then make it useful, entertaining, or educational. Don't worry about meeting a word quota.

A Focus Group of One

I would never have to work again if I had a share of Apple stock for every time someone gave me a content theory based on personal preferences.

“I wouldn’t read something that long.”

“I wouldn’t open an email with that subject line.”

“I only read articles with a lot of subheads and bullet points.”

Got it. Cool. That’s what you like. But I never overreact to feedback, particularly when it’s based on a focus group of one person. For every person who won’t read something “that long,” there’s someone who will.

Right up there with the focus group of one is the ever popular, “no one” theory.

“No one watches videos that long.”

“No one reads blog posts that long.”

Or even better: “No one reads anymore.”

Look — if a blog post, email, video, or podcast is GOOD, then people will read, watch, and listen. As I write this, nearly all of the most popular articles on Medium are north of 2,000 words. Of the top 10 trending videos on YouTube, seven of them are longer than 10 minutes.

And if listeners only want short-form audio content, then someone better break the news to Chase Jarvis, Marc Maron, Amy Siskind, Joe Rogan, Rekaya Gibson, and Brian Koppelman. They seem to be doing pretty well in the 45- to 90-minute range.

However, length is only one variable. You can’t overlook the “make it good” rule. Sometimes I get to the end of an hour-long podcast episode, and I’m sad because I want it to keep going. On the other hand, I recently got halfway through a 25-minute episode of a new podcast and stopped it because I found the hosts and production style annoying.

Of course, I’m only a focus group of one. That show probably has an audience out there. It’s just not for me.

A Bit Long

Nothing should surprise me anymore when I get notes from a client. With so many opinions and theories on content length, tone, and strategy — I’ve heard it all.

Or so I thought until the day a new client asked me to write a blog post about an upcoming event. At a minimum, an article like that needs a friendly opening, the meat, and a call to action or closing statement that wraps it up.

I put a decent amount of effort into editing, tweaking, and massaging that thing until it was as tight as I could make it. I fired off the draft and then received this note:

“Might be a bit long, but I’ll leave that to your expertise.”

It was only 240 words.

If you read between the lines, what that person said is: “I’ve read some studies saying short-form content is best because people are so busy these days. They have zero attention span and no time or capacity to read anything this long. And I personally don’t like reading more than one or two punchy paragraphs.”

I get it. I have empathy for people with a lot of time, money, and emotion invested in a company. They want to make a positive impression on the broadest possible audience.

In the end, I brought the client around with the reasoning I always use in those situations. I reminded him that no one is ever required to read an entire blog post. They can bail out at any time.

If someone reads the lead paragraph and gets what they need, then they can move on. There’s no penalty. But for those who want more, they can keep reading through to the end.

The point is that we need to give readers the opportunity to take the “I want more” option if that’s their thing. Chop too much out of a post and it’ll end up reading like a tweet.

So put your energy into being good instead of merely checking off a box on an SEO checklist. And remember — you’re never too old for MAD magazine.

Need help with your company’s storytelling or branding? Contact me here and let’s see if we’re a good fit.

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John Terry