The Long Form

“You can’t do long-form writing online.”

Really? It’s 2009 and we’re still having this conversation?

The human brain is extraordinarily well adapted for associative thinking. It helped ensure the survival of our ancient ancestors. Even lacking direct empirical experience of a danger, they were able to piece together the puzzle from snatches of previously acquired data. (Enter predator: “Woah. Never seen that one before. Big claws? Check. Nasty fangs? Uh-huh. Run like hell? You bet.”)

It’s also, unfortunately, what leads us to constantly ascribe properties and biases from an old medium to a new one.

So here we find ourselves, well over a decade into this newfangled thing called the Web, with the prevailing folk wisdom about writing for it too oft unexamined.

Reading a candid, public back and forth between the print and online camps of a major publication once revered for its progressive technical stance, I very nearly went apoplectic (and let the above tweet fly). Even while fighting for their piece of the pie, online writers and editors implicitly ceded the point as if it were a given, in a conversation that largely conflated reporting formats and business models with writing styles: long-form writing is somehow assumed to be the domain of print only.

It went largely unarticulated, but there it was. Again. The base assumption lurking under it all. It’s palpable as you roll through those comments. ut it’s not like there isn’t solid data informing us to the contrary.

Late last year, Michael Meyers managed to buck the trend in the November/December 2008 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. In his article “Surface Routines”, he cited the results of the Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack '07 study, which examined the habits of both loyal print and online newspaper readers, to challenge the widely held assumptions anew.

Since the original article is now behind a pay wall (an irony and anxiety for another discussion) here’s a sampling of the conclusions drawn from the data:

Web readers were more selective in the stories they chose, but once they found what they wanted, they read a substantially higher percentage of text than their print counterparts—a result that was true across all story lengths. Rather than running from words, Web users tended to be more textually based, and typically entered a story through a headline rather than a photo.

In fact, all of the differences between the actions of print and online readers in [the study] could be far more easily attributed to the navigational structure of a news Web site than to the mysterious force of a new medium.

And in case that didn’t package things neatly enough, Meyers continues:

The study proved the obvious but still anxiously held point that the Web is capable of delivering stories of any length and complexity. It also proved that people are still interested in long-form content—even people who choose to read the news online.

Bottom line? It’s a bald fallacy of presumption to hold that presenting text on a webpage ipso facto induces peripatetic behavior in your audience. The content itself, and the design used to present it, are the leading factors in shaping success. Not pixels or points. The hands that matter are those of the writer and the designer. If you’re a Web designer, you have incredible power (and a responsibility) to help further the case for this medium.

No more lazy assumptions.