A brief word about running longer essays given the long piece from Alastair Roberts we’re running today. There are five brief points I want to make that you can read parallel to the piece Alastair ran over at his blog yesterday.
- As far as the logistics of reading longer pieces online is concerned, if you don’t like reading long pieces in your web browser, get the Pocket extension in your web browser and install Pocket on your computer or, if you have one, a tablet. In my experience it’s easier to read long pieces in an app like that because it’s not quite as easy to navigate away from the piece and, particularly if you have a tablet, it’s easy to go sit down in a reading chair, put your feet up, and read that long essay. You can learn more about Pocket here. (I’ve also heard good things about InstaPaper, but am a Pocket user myself.)
- Second, given our stated goal here at Mere O, I have no problem running pieces this long because we’re not trying to be a typical online magazine; we’re trying to be a publishing forum that a group of friends gather around for discussion, friendship, learning, and so on. We’re less magazine and more an open republic of letters, in other words. So pieces like Alastair’s belong here.
- Third, if you do want to consider this from a purely marketing/traffic standpoint, longer pieces generally do incredibly well with regards to web traffic. Matt and Alastair have both commented on this in the past. Marketing experts in the business world have also taken note of this.
- Fourth, internet writing is plagued by the problems that George Orwell anticipated in his essential essay “Politics and the English Language.” Rather than being substantial works of original thought, online writing is often a set of strung together cliches meant as a kind of signaling for certain readers. Alastair actually makes this point in today’s essay. Long writing isn’t immune to this problem, of course, but the ignorance and lack of original thought that might pass in an 800 word column is going to be much harder to maintain over 5000 words. You can have nothing to say and still pad out a blog post to a thousand words. But length has a way of forcing a person to actually demonstrate the capacity to think and develop arguments rather than simply showing that they have the lung capacity to blow into a dog whistle.
- Fifth, this anecdote illustrates the most important point: After finishing a public reading of some of his poetry a woman asked TS Eliot if he could say what one of the poems meant. Confused, Eliot looked at the woman briefly before saying “You mean you want me to say it worse?” We ran Alastair’s lengthy post today for the simple reason that the length is appropriate given the topic. The same approach governed our approach to Matt’s multiple long posts in his final weeks at the site as well as my recent memoir review. This doesn’t mean everything we do will be that long because sometimes our argument will be narrow enough that we only need 1000 words or even 650 words. So when we run a post at Mere O our approach is that the piece should be as long as it needs to be given the complexity of the topic and the argument.