When I first restarted this blog at the end of May, I wanted to start writing longer posts. After seeing how little I’ve posted, I’m re-thinking that goal, at least for now. I’d rather post shorter bits more often than long bits rarely. I thought a lot about why and how to write longer, so going into that may help clarify why I’m suspending that goal, for now.
Wordiness and intellection –Sosan, Xìnxīn Míng
The more with them, the farther astray we go:
Away, therefore, with wordiness and intellection,
And there is no place where we cannot pass freely.
Why longer? For one, I felt stuck at writing 200-300 word notes that captured my thoughts but didn’t really say much. I had topics scattered around too many short notes. Another reason is that at work, when I’m called upon to write the sort of documents a software engineer writes, I struggled to write in a way that really covered the topic. I could bang out what amounted to glorified bullet lists, but pulling things together into a whole was harder.
I studied journalism in college, and writing for news media always emphasizes pithy, to-the-point, “just the facts, ma’am”, and I was pretty good at that, but it’s just one way of writing. Sure, there are a few magazines that do long reads, but those are the exception.
I wanted my writing to be useful for readers who happened to be interested in what I write about and maybe did a bit of searching to find related articles, but I’m not selling anything nor am I specifically looking for attention. In order to be useful, of course, my writing has to be discoverable, and on the internet that means it needs to show up in search engine results, Search engines definitely have quirks to be taken into account. Not that I want to spend time on full-blown SEO, using click-bait headlines and other tricks to rank higher, but neither did I want my ideas to disappear into a void.
I did some looking around for recommendations and found most places suggesting that 1500-2000 words was a good target. Apparently most search engines will favor items around that length. I also looked a bit at “length” as in “how long it takes to read”. The internet has, objectively, ruined the average person’s attention span. Nobody is going to sit down and read for twenty or thirty minutes without some serious motivation. If anything I happen to write is so good that someone is motivated to sit down for half an hour and read the whole thing, I’d be flattered. So I’m aiming, again based on a little research, for seven to ten minutes. How does that translate to word count?
To get a post that takes a certain amount of time to read, I need an idea of how fast people read. I keep seeing the figure of 200-250 wpm for the average adult reader, and a few places saying 300! There’s also a lower limit, sometimes cited, as 180 wpm. In any case, I’m going for the low end, because with the distractions and problems around attention span, I find it hard to believe people hit 300 wpm with comprehension.
With a bit of math we find that seven minutes is 1400 words. That’s a bit on the short end. At the top end, 2000 words is 10 minutes, at the top end. Good, my word count and time to read converge.
Some ways I have tried to write more words without artificially increasing word count through pointless verbosity include:
- Addressing all the aspects of whatever topic prompted me to write.
- Making sure the introduction and conclusion relate to the rest of the text.
- Insert quotes where appropriate.
- Add examples.
I’m also working to improve my note-taking and notes, so that I have more and better material for my first drafts.
Now that I’ve said all that, let’s get back to what I’m actually going to do. Jumping straight from 200-word notes with my thoughts to 1500+ words of carefully organized writing was probably too much of a stretch. I still have longer pieces as my goal, but I’m going to work up to them. In the mean time, I’ll be around with whatever length works for me to get something out weekly. Over time, I expect that the number of words will grow from the current 600-700 as I accumulate practice.
The practice I have in mind is going back to the suggestions I’ve found on how to turn notes into writing and bulking out a short bit of writing into a longer essay, and each time I write a note, try to apply one or more of those tips, until they become habit.
To my future self: good luck!