Writing: How Long Does This Need To Be?
In a comment on my first post here, someone asked about writing. Specifically, they asked whether the length of a piece was more important than its substance. I responded in the comments that I don’t think the length of a story/post/article is important at all. But I was thinking this over as I drove home last night, and that’s not entirely true. Sometimes word count matters.
There is a school of thought that writing for the web needs to be short. I don’t agree. Writing, for the web or anywhere else, needs to be GOOD. If you’re not engaging, people won’t read the piece, regardless of length. If your writing IS engaging, people will read it whether it’s 500 words long or much, much longer. And content, in my opinion, is king.
You need to explain to the reader fairly quickly why they should give a shit about what you’re writing. When it comes to science writing, you need to muster your facts. Not only do you need to explain the relevant science in terms your audience can understand (which will differ depending on whether you’re writing for an expert or non-expert audience), but you need to place those facts in context. For example, where do new findings fit in on the continuum of research in that field? What came before? What new directions do these new findings indicate for future research?
So where does word count come in?
If you’re writing a blog post, I don’t think word count comes into play. But a lot of writing associated with science communication is done outside of the world of blogs.
When I work as a freelance reporter, word count is important (you usually get paid by the word, for one thing). When you land a commission to write something, the editor tells you exactly how long your piece will be. Maybe it’s 500 words or maybe it’s 2,000 – but you know what you’ve got to work with before you even start typing. The trick is to make sure you get in all the essential details while still making it a story that people will actually want to read. (I’ll leave thoughts on how to write an engaging science story for another post.)
Now, as a press guy for a university, I face a different challenge. When I write up a news release about research findings I have to keep it short. The ultimate goal for a news release is to interest reporters so that they’ll want to follow up and write their own articles on the research. Reporters get approximately one zillion news releases and pitches per day. If you send them a 1,000 word summary of the research, they (usually) won’t even bother trying to read it. I certainly didn’t when I was a reporter.
I do two things to address this: 1) I keep the release short; and 2) I make the pitch even shorter.
I try to keep the release itself to around 400 words, trying to address only a few core questions:
- What did the study find?
- Why is that interesting or important?
- What are the limitations of the study? (Honesty is crucial.)
- And (maybe) what are future directions for the work?
But in order to get a reporter to bother reading those 400 words, I shoot them a much shorter email message with the following information: one sentence on why I think they’d be interested; a link to the release if they want more information; whether I have supplementary material, such as images or video; and the direct contact information for the relevant researchers (so they don’t have to go through me if they don’t want to).
This is much more effective than spamming reporters with the full news release right off the bat.
Summary: word count doesn’t matter, except when it does.