How Long Should A Blogpost Be?
It’s a problem that that troubles every blogger at some stage; how long should a blogpost be? It doesn’t help that there’s so much conflicting advice on offer.
Most of us bloggers are not trained writers. We didn’t come to this with degrees in literature or journalism. We started a blog because we had a story or experience to share, maybe a product or service to sell, or both. So it’s natural to be looking for guidance.
For a long time “experts” told us to keep things as short as possible, at least until it became clear Google preferred articles that were at least 300 words in length. Yet the “short is better” advice persisted, even if many of us remained unconvinced that sticking to an arbitrary word count mattered that much.
Consider Time Rather Than Word Counts
A few weeks ago I ran a poll on Twitter asking how long a blogpost or online article should be; or more specifically, if you were reading something that interested you, how long it should take to read. I posed the question in units of minutes rather than words, partly because of a current trend on some blogs to give a suggested read-time, and also because most non-writers don’t really have a good feel for the word count of any article.
The results were fascinating. The winner was 3-7 minutes, which in the course of a day, perhaps over a coffee break at work, or between activities in the evening, doesn’t seem a big commitment.
Medium, on its help pages, explains how its read-time suggestions are based on an assumed reading speed of 275 words per minute. This is a little below the 300 words per minute suggested in a Forbes article in 2012, although the fascinating thing about that article was the reading speeds suggested for college students (450) and high-level executives, academics, and other professionals (575).
Let’s put those numbers in context.
At 275 words per minute, a three-minute article comes out at 825 words while a seven-minute article will be 1925 words. For the college student, those numbers go to 1350 and 3150 words, and the executive, academic or professional is getting through 1725 words and 4025 words!
Now let’s step away from the calculator, take a deep breath, and ask what these numbers mean in a world where so much blogging and “content marketing” advice suggests a blogpost of 600 words might be too long.
Clearly, something doesn’t add up.
Perhaps Readers Sometimes Like Longer Reading Sessions?
It’s always worth applying scepticism to self-reported time analyses. There’s ample evidence, for example, that most people significantly over-report how many hours a week they work and underestimate how many hours a night they sleep. We aren’t anywhere near as overworked or under-rested as we often tell ourselves.
And might we spend longer than we think reading things we enjoy?
Last week I posted an article (Why I Deleted The Twitter App Along With 122 Others), which in just a few days became my most-read blogpost of the year. Evidently its 1738 words were not enough to turn readers off, and the analytics suggested most readers hung around long enough to read the whole piece.
A few years back I heard a BBC digital editor explain that readers exhibited different behaviour on the BBC’s Desktop news site compared to the Mobile site. It seemed the Desktop visitors preferred shorter articles and tended to scan the site more, looking at big news stories during a fairly random session. Mobile readers were often prone to locking into longer articles, jumping around less, and committing to read a few stories in a session.
Looking at the most popular articles on this site, what stands out is their length. Most are over 1000 words, with some well over 2000. I’ve noticed something similar on several sites where the creators share their most popular blogposts. Mark Manson’s most popular post, the evocatively titled The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck, shows up as having a suggested read time of 12 minutes, and by my count weighs in at over 2300 words!
What If Reading Is A Pleasure – Not A Chore
It’s clear this is a topic where there’s the advice of the experts, so-called common sense, and then what actually happens in the real world. The advice is often to optimise at around 600 words, 2-3 headings, to break up long articles into shorter ones and be consistent. The so-called common sense is keep it as short as possible. This is based either on a misunderstanding of what makes good writing (concision is everything, cut out unnecessary words) or the assumption that because of the internet, people now have have the concentration span of a goldfish and all that.
What actually seems to happen, though, is that when the writing is good and the topic worthwhile and timely, the audience becomes engaged and length seems to become a secondary consideration. This shouldn’t surprise us because when reading is a choice, something we want to do, then it is also a pleasure, a thing we enjoy. And most of us aren’t trying to limit our pleasure.