January 2018 - Dominic Jeff -Writing for Business
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January 2018

What’s the ideal length for a blog?

A good editor once pointed out to me that every journalist wants to be a documentary maker, when they should be concentrating on finding more stories and giving them the treatments they deserved. No longer, no shorter.

Seeing as, at the time, I had to give my stories the treatment he thought they deserved (he was usually right), the adage is more useful to me now than then. The internet era has done away with strict word counts and in theory, every online article can be as long as the author feels necessary to cover the subject.

Unfortunately, many bloggers forget the second part of the old joke relating to dresses and speeches (and articles): they should also be short enough to be interesting!

So, how long should a blog be? If you’re guest writing for a publication, or even for someone else’s blog, the simple answer is that it’s as long as the editor or blog owner asks for. While this was a strict rule in the days of print because the text had a slot to fill – even longer articles had to be within 25 words of the target – it remains common courtesy today.

There are certain advantages too: a strict word count forces the author to edit and prune ruthlessly and this is usually a good thing – see my last post for the relevance of old-school style. But it’s also worth remembering that major blogs and online magazines still have a style to stick to.

Editors really appreciate copy that is to length, and it will vastly increase the chances of your article appearing as you wrote it. Because if you don’t edit it to size, somebody else will. Even if you’re not given a target length, it may be worth emulating what is currently on the site you are writing for.

What about your own blog? Can each post be as long as the subject deserves? Maybe it’s my newspaper background but I think that some sort of adherence to a style is desirable. For a start, it forces editorial discipline and stops you getting carried away into the realms of the documentary.

Opinions as to the ideal length of a blog vary wildly. Even excluding the picture bloggers, gif-copiers and news-spammers of the blogosphere, formats range from around 300 words to over 2,000.

This admirably detailed post on Medium aims to take a scientific approach, by analysing the number of clicks and links which blogs of various lengths get. Curiously, they concentrate on the time it takes to read an article, rather than the word length – Medium’s conclusion is that for SEO purposes at least, you should be aiming for 7 minutes.

They don’t give a word estimate for that, but this blogger did the calculation and comes up with a whopping 1,600 words. That drops to around 1,000 if you include lots of pictures and graphics (assuming people stop to look at them) but it it still sounds a bit too long to me.

It’s not that people’s attentions are short – it’s just that there are so many distractions out there. If people are reading at work, how long is their break? When will the boss be back? A 1,600 word article looks like it will take a good chunk of time. Personally, I think you’re getting close to the length where you might consider writing a ‘white paper’ or downloadable report.

For the purposes of a well crafted opinion piece, aiming for the length of a newspaper or magazine column seems a good bet: That means between 600 and 1,000 words. That is a nice size for your readers to enjoy in their coffee break, with a chance to think about it and hopefully share it on social media before going about their day.

This is why a lot of the premium content in newspapers is of this length: it’s a golden chunk of someone’s time – when they take a break from their main activity.

Of course, the scientific evidence points to 1,600 words as an ideal length for SEO, and that’s not to be sniffed at. But what if you split that blog into two – part one and two? Medium’s analysis doesn’t make clear if your two shorter blogs will gather more clicks than one long one, but with a broad bell curve on the graph, its a good bet they will.

Here’s one I did for a client recently – hopefully you’ll be tempted to read the second half too!

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Do George Orwell’s Rules on Writing Still Hold True?

When it comes to teaching and encouraging clear writing, George Orwell’s famous six rules are often cited. With the vast amounts of content being churned out on the internet and in the media, the need for clarity and economy of words is greater than ever – but how well do Orwell’s points stand up to modern needs?

The six points originally appeared in the 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” in which the author railed against the deliberate twisting of words which he said were corrupting political thought. It is remarkably prescient stuff, the crude ’doublespeak’ tactics of the Nazis and Bolsheviks having been perfected over the decades by marketeers, spin doctors and government spokespeople.

Orwell’s brilliant and alarming take on the relationship between language and politics is beyond the scope of this blog, however: Such matters are better discussed on a cultural forum.

Rightly or wrongly, Orwell’s essay is largely remembered for his writing rules which are still taught on journalism courses today:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4.  Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5.  Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Let’s look at each from the perspective of modern writing:

1 – Cliches have no place. It doesn’t mean you can’t use turns of phrase or expressions, but Orwell was not referring to that. The problem in the modern media is when a phrase becomes a go-to, trendy, lazy way of scoring points. How many times has something been described as “not fit for purpose” as a catch-all way of attacking and institution? There are surely better, more precise ways of describing issues with NHS funding or school buildings, and yet when this phrase is trotted out, journalists and commentators seem to delight in repeating it ad nauseum as if its very utterance were a cast iron argument condemning management incompetence.

2 – This is a good rule of thumb, but there are reasons to break it at times. Yes, short words are good. They are often more direct in meaning. And certainly, one should never use a long word when trying to be clever. This is balanced against the need to vary the words used in an article, and the fact that sometimes a long word conveys more precisely what you are trying to say.

3. – Almost always true. Occasionally, the cadence of a sentence requires an extra, technically superfluous word to be judiciously left in or even added. But then, many a council press release would require two thirds of the drivel to be cut out. Though this rule seems to have been included on a mainly aesthetic principle, it has grown in relevance now that waffle is used as an obfuscation tactic and marketing device.

4 – The theory holds that the more common, active voice is more immediate and exciting. That is true, but there are good reasons why the passive is sometimes preferred, both in speech and writing: usually, to emphasise the ’doer’. For example, ‘that such arguments should be made by a British Member of Parliament’ – ie, we expect to hear them in a council estate pub but it’s a bit of a shocker from the Honourable Member for Newton Abbott, or some such. Indeed.

On the other hand, where the passive voice is used to disguise the subject of the sentence, or obfuscate responsibility, then Orwell’s dictum could hardly be more relevant.

5 – Why would you use a word that can’t easily be understood when you are trying to communicate? Some will argue that they are ’writing for a specialist audience’, but this is rarely as true as they believe and anyway, specialists appreciate clear language too. More likely, jargon is being used to exclude the public from the conversation, keep access exclusive, or hide something that will appear abhorrent once expressed in plain English.

6 – Obviously. We’ve just seen that all Orwell’s rules carry caveats. And rule vi shows that these were intended.

It’s easy to see why these rules are still cited by teachers today – although perhaps not by enough of them! Not only does Orwell score a solid six out of six, it is clear that his rules regarding cliches, jargon and waffle have become more relevant over time. All three are widely employed in the public and corporate sectors for the purposes of obfuscation. Journalists need to spot this and call it out, while good PR and marketing writers should avoid them in favour of clearly laying out a message they genuinely believe in.

The rules also remain an excellent guide to good writing and are a good crib sheet for those new to editing copy.

It’s tempting to think that Orwell, who at times comes across as a bit of a curmudgeon, would have hated the internet age. Probably he would. But this line from Politics and the English Language suggests there are aspects he’s have appreciated: “Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.”

Yes, Orwell would enjoyed a (non-cliched) meme, and he’d love a gif!