Against Bite-Sized Content

An early draft of this entry began as follows: “I know, I know. The irony. Railing against ‘bite-sized’ content in a measly 1,000-word blog post.” Then, whilst prowling the interwebs this morning, I stumbled upon the following advice from John Rampton at Forbes in defense of longform blog content:

We’re talking about 1,000 words or more. If that sounds insane, it’s not. It’s actually pretty common. Why would someone sit down and write so many words? Because it’s good for SEO.

Silly me! This Tolstoyan epic of word meat might well come equipped with SparkNotes and a character list. I mean, 1,000 whole words (1,253, to be exact). The insanity. How long did that take to write, what inspired you to write it and can you autograph my copy? And let’s not neglect the last line. Why did Melville write Moby Dick? For SEO, of course.

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Over-writing is, obviously, a thing. Longer content is not automatically of higher quality, and not all short content is shallow or poorly researched. Tom Scocca, writing in the annals of Hulk Hogan’s jockstrap, ponders the dilemma of longform journalism thusly:

Some articles should be short. Some articles should be long. No articles, as Vox and its SB Nation demonstrated, should be longform… Editors have traditionally sized up stories when making assignments—based on how interesting a piece seems likely to be, how much money they want to spend on it, and, in the olden days, how much physical space they had to fit the words into, around the ads—but an open-ended length is unhelpful to everyone. It’s like a cartoon cutout holding a ruler at the roller-coaster gate: Over this much, you’re a big-boy writer.

Charles Dickens wrote long novels because he was paid by the word (well, okay, it’s a bit more complicated). Sylvia Plath called writers “the most narcissistic people.” Clearly there is good long and bad long, and that mostly depends on a writer’s skill. Marieke van de Rakt at Yoast warns that “If you aren’t the best writer, try to maximize the words of your post around 700-800.” Seems a bit arbitrary, but okay. Protip, though: few people on the internet admit they “aren’t the best writer.” Haven’t you heard? Everyone on the internet is an expert on grammar.

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I am a novelist and college professor with a master’s degree in linguistics and six years of experience teaching writing. I got credentials, man. But credentials don’t impress much in my field. Try arguing with someone on the internet about language. Why would they listen to me (i.e. an expert)? They’re experts themselves, you know. They’ve gone to high school and they can Google things.

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[meaningless filler content because a picture before a headline with no intervening words somehow triggers my OCD]

Life in the Slow Lane

Longform content is more time-consuming to create. That’s a good thing. Maestro of slow living Carl Honoré writes “the central tenet of the slow philosophy is taking the time to do things properly, and thereby enjoy them more.” Writing this blog post took me a long time. I harbor no delusions of crafting a literary gem, but finding good quotes, continually honing my opinion through research and revising, revising, revising, is a lengthy process (when done right). Sure, I could crank out ten blog posts per week. I’m a professional writer who once wrote 12,000 words in a single day. But I’d like to think that writing is a thing writers should enjoy (unless you are Philip Roth). We live in a world that values quantity over quality when it comes to entertainment, food, alcohol, sexual partners, resume items, extracurriculars, and yes, I’m obviously aware it extends to word count as well. Research shows that human beings feel a constant need to be busy, and often correlate business with happiness. And this is not a smartphone-induced hypermodern mindset. In 1945, poet Edna St. Vincent Millary penned the following:

We have gone too far, we do not know how to stop: impetus
Is all we have. And we share it with the pushed Inert.

We are clever, – we are as clever as monkeys; and some of us
Have intellect, which is our danger, for we lack intelligence
And have forgotten instinct.

Progress – progress is the dirtiest word in the language – who ever told us –
And made us believe it – that to take a step forward was necessarily, was always
A good idea?
In this unlighted cave, one step forward
That step can be the down-step into the Abyss.
But we, we have no sense of direction; impetus
Is all we have; we do not proceed, we only
Roll down the mountain,
Like disbalanced boulders, crushing before us many
Delicate springing things, whose plan it was to grow.

We have no sense; we only roll downhill. Peace
Is the temporary beautiful ignorance that War
Somewhere progresses.

Her poem speaks to a point made a couple years earlier by Winston Churchill:

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What I take from that is that we should only do things if and when there is a need beyond our imagined need to do things.

But Oh, How the Poor Reader Suffers

Brain science tells us the average human attention span is eight seconds. And, no, that is not a default state of human nature. A similar study in 2000 found a 12 second attention span. (Some problems.)

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Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the year 1840, seems prophetic on this point as he laments the secularization of society. He argues that “In the ages of faith, the final aim of life is placed beyond life. The men of such ages are therefore used naturally and, as it were, involuntarily, to fix their gaze for many years on a static object towards which their progress is ever directed.” He argues that viewing one’s life as a single long-term project is good for attention span and happiness. He continues:

As soon as they have lost the way of taking a long-term view for their principal hopes, they naturally tend to seek the immediate gratification of their smallest wishes, and it seems to me that from the instant they give up the hope of living forever, they are inclined to act as if they were to live for only one single day. In skeptical times, therefore, there is always the danger that men will surrender themselves endlessly to the casual whims of daily desire and they will abandon entirely anything which requires long-term effort, thus failing to establish anything noble or calm or lasting.

As a teacher, I don’t discipline students for texting in class. I don’t pick on the kid in the back who looks like he’s not paying attention. Heck, in the future I don’t even think I’ll penalize late work. I talk to my students often about taking responsibility. I can’t force someone to be successful, or creative, or even to be smarter. It’s a conscious choice on their part. Students in my classes end up with the grade they want.

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So why should bloggers contribute to soundbite culture by cranking out daily hot takes on Donald Trump and the Kardashians? Not only is that dumb, it’s not even a good way to drive traffic to your blog. And, believe it or not, I got to take my time writing this blog and actually found it enjoyable. Approaching the subject from a cross-disciplinary perspective – neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, religion, history, poetry and literature – left me with a deeper understanding. There’s nothing old-fashioned or counter-cultural about living slowly. It just means you like doing things right.

2 thoughts on “Against Bite-Sized Content

  1. Are you eagerly anticipating this year’s new iPhones? Rumor has it that we will see three separate iPhone models in 2017 – two “s” models of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus and a third premium version that will have all the wow and whiz-bang innovations (we’ll refer to this premium model as the iPhone 8 for now).

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