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Record length of article online will render greatest impact

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A lot of people still believe that you “must keep it short” when writing online because people don’t like to spend a long time reading on screen. They should take a look at the New York Times’ list of the most engaging articles during 2015.

For the year 2015, the New York Times measured the 100 most popular articles during the year in a new way: they counted the total length of time during which readers interacted with them. This is a highly relevant measure – better than how many just clicked on the link, for example – as a longer engagement time means more advertising exposure and higher revenues.

I’ve gone through the top ten and counted the number of words/characters in each text. This is what the list looks like:

  1. No. 37: Big Wedding or Small? Quiz: The 36 Questions That Lead to Love: 4 323 characters, 792 words
  2. How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco's Life: 24 215 characters, 4 385 words
  3. Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace: 35 467 characters, 5 984 words
  4. To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This: 8 337 characters, 1535 words
  5. The Mixed-Up Brothers of Bogotá: 65 328 characters, 11 489 words
  6. South Carolina Officer Is Charged With Murder of Walter Scott: 7 053 characters, 1 254 words
  7. The Moral Bucket List: 11 619 characters, 2 050 words
  8. The Lonely Death of George Bell: 45 508 characters, 8 075 words
  9. 52 Places to Go in 2015: cirka 54 500 characters, 8 900 words
  10. My Own Life. Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer: 4 794 characters, 888 words

What can we say about this? Love and death are clearly important subjects. Only one of the ten is a typical news item (number 6). A contributory reason why it has been read a lot is presumably that it has more than 4,000 comments.

But the average length of the ten best articles was 26,114 characters. That’s extremely long for a text in the media. Normally writers are invited to write no more than 5,000 characters – one fifth as long.

Furthermore, articles 1 and 4 in the list above are really the same story, divided into two URLs – they were published on the same day and are linked to one another. If you add them together you get a top nine instead. This means that only one of the most engaging texts is shorter than 5,000 characters. Only two are shorter than 10,000 characters.

As they have measured over the calendar year, the list is biased towards stories published early in the year. But interesting texts can live for a long time. The article about Justine Sacco’s unfortunate tweet – number two in the list, more than 24,000 characters in length – was published in February 2015. In December it was in fourth place in the NY Times trending list!

It is quite simply untrue that we are only prepared to read short items online. If the texts are good and engaging, we’re happy to read long ones.

So, media companies, here’s a recipe for success: don’t try to compete with 140 characters. Don’t focus on writing short texts. Focus on writing good ones. 

PS: If you’d like to find out more about writing online content, I offer very popular courses on the subject. Contact either me or Jane Murray if you’re interested.

PPS: In a future blog I’ll be dealing with another misconception about reading online: “We read in an F-shaped pattern”.