Writing Short and Sweet

Short pieces are a time-honored tradition. Don't knock them.

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Since I’ve moved into Substack I’ve been wandering around the neighborhood, checking out my neighbors to see what they’re writing and how they’re using this platform. And—wow! Did I choose the right place, or what!? One day soon I’ll share links to some of the good stuff I’ve found here, but today I want to talk about the long and short of it.

Along the way, as excited as I am to find some real gems, I’ve had to plod through some long, long, LONG pieces—often giving up, never to return—so I’m just going to say it: when it comes to telling our stories, especially on a blog/newsletter platform, often less is more.

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I came across a piece last week that was so long it actually had CHAPTER HEADINGS. The title drew me in, as well as the premise, and I read it for a while until I realized I wasn’t anywhere near the end. I took a detour and found my way out, but not before scrolling to see how long it was. It ran from sea to sea, I swear. I’m sure it was fascinating; I couldn’t tell you now what it was about, but it seemed to be well-researched, it was highly structured, and it was elaborately presented.

Nothing wrong with that. In fact, applause, applause… I get it that some pros are now using the newsletter format to reach their own specific audiences, but they’re the exception to the usual length limits.

There’s a LOT of rambling going on here, and I wonder how effective it is. Some writers thrive on writing long. (See The New Yorker, Harpers, and Vanity Fair.) It takes time and effort and, most of all, energy. It takes extreme talent. And, I should add, it takes a promise of big money to invest so much of your life into a long, long piece. In the case of those magazines, even if nobody reads it, somebody high up there saw enough merit in it to offer a comfortable sum to publish it. That incentive isn’t usually there in blogs or newsletters.

Reading some of the long stories in The New Yorker require DAYS worth of effort on my part. They go on and on and on. And on. If I finish a story, it’s because the writer did something magical and forced me to go on. It’s unnatural to read an article as long as some of those in The New Yorker, but they don’t pay those writers big bucks for nothing. They’re outstanding. Ordinary topics take on a golden sheen in their hands. Sometimes they take my breath away. They’re worth every penny the head honchos have to pay.


But those stories are the exceptions to our reading habits now. We’re reading shorter these days. Anyone can throw out a couple thousand words and ramble out a long-winded story. The real talent comes in pulling it all together in a tightly-woven piece that forces the reader to sit still and savor every word.

Columns and opinion pieces in newspapers and magazines rarely go over 800 words, That’s about four minutes. We’re conditioned now to read columns at that length, and, in most cases, it’s long enough. But more than that, it makes for tight, concise writing. We live in times where we’re bombarded by words. If we want to compete we have to grab readers and we have to hold them. To the end.

There are some amazing longer pieces being published here, but they’re the exception. They’ll probably never be the rule. As I see it, most blog readers don’t come here to read tomes.

Winnowing a piece down and turning it into a gem requires effort. It takes many stabs at it to get it just right. It means cutting and shifting and thinking. A 500-800 word piece can be just as enriching and inspiring as a 2000 word piece. Maybe even more, since you don’t have the luxury of space to spread it out. You have to pull your readers in, give them a treat, and send them out the door satisfied, all in a tiny space. You have to be clever.

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Poetry, flash fiction, opinions, and essays — their very length helps to make them shine. Long pieces can shine, too, if the length is absolutely necessary to tell the story, but longer pieces must do a better job of holding our attention. They’re asking more of us than shorter pieces do. The writer has an obligation to make it worth our while.

But I’ve drawn this out long enough. I’ll stop now. I’ve said what I wanted to say. And in case you’re wondering, I did it in 779 words.

So how about it, writers—am I on to something here or am I all wrong? Let’s talk!

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