Longform Writing on the Web

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about writing and wondering about my aversion to crafting long-form digital content. I’m not too terrible about long-form writing on the web, and long accepted the idea of chunking text or “info-snacking” as a style of writing online. I’ve done that job fairly well, I think. My longest post on this site, for example, is only 2,904 words (see Digital History methodology). Of course, if you include the series on The Rubyist Historian, I’m guilty: Rubyist tops out at 9253 words.

In my own experiences with digital history, I tend to place a lot of value on visualizations and, as an environment for writing, always thought that text was best consumed through short-form writing. An amazing amount of complexity and nuance can be teased out of visualizing data. But that doesn’t mean narrative and analysis must be sacrificed in its place. Indeed, I’m beginning to think that long-form writing needs to be pioneered in digital scholarship.

The great bane of writers on the web is users who come across a piece but decide it’s TL;DR. Most of us probably experience this at some point in our day on the web. How likely are you, when coming across a blog post or article that’s more than two pages, to just hit your Read Later button and check it later in Instapaper from your mobile device? But I take inspiration from Mandy Brown, who wrote recently:

And yet, people do read online. They read more than they ever did. They even read long articles, and straight to the end. They read one article after the other. They crave reading in the quiet moments of the day–waiting in line for coffee, riding the bus, enjoying a glass of wine before their date arrives at the bar. They read while walking down the street; they read at their desk in between tasks; they buy devices that permit them to carry more words than they ever could before–and with those devices in hand they read more and more.

I think there’s something important that she’s on to, a lesson we should take note of as scholars steeped in the arena of long-form writing. The challenge has come down to the experience for the reader. Laptops and flat-screen monitors make for lousy reading devices most of the time (despite being originally designed to display text). Readers expect more – they expect good typography, something portable and flexible, that doesn’t strain the eyes, and doesn’t clutter their screens with advertisements or flashy graphics that add nothing to the content.

Here’s the rub: the web is the most pervasive medium in existence today spreading written and visual elements. So, shouldn’t that also mean the web is suited for long-form writing? The growth of things like Instapaper may change the way we interact with online text – flexible options for consuming digital content. What this means for the design and implementation of our projects is to be sensitive to the needs and expectations of readers. The quality of reading content and reading environments matters for the future of readability on the web. We’re past the silliness of blinking text and red text on a green background (at least I hope so). What we’re really after here is the sort of environment readers find useful for themselves. Instapaper, Readability, Reeder, iBooks, Kindle, iPad, iPod, Android tablets, and other reading environments are beginning to shape how text is delivered to audiences. More importantly, it allows the reader to choose or shape the environment they want to read in.

There’s enough room for both short and long form writing on the web. As scholars, we tend to place a premium on the long-form, and if you have an idea worth fully explaining in detail the web is the perfect medium. Not burdened by the restrictions of ink, space, or budget (at least, not in the sense of a monograph or journal article) you as a writer are free to explain your ideas with as much brevity or longevity as you need. Content is no longer confined to a single website. Instead, readers have a choice to read on a mobile device or their desktop environment and can modify the appearance of content to whatever needs they want or require to consume. Bookmarklet apps like Instapaper make it easier for people to engage with digital content on a device of their choosing. What matters – the content – is removed from its original form and stripped of everything but its essence. The web becomes not a place where reading happens to occur, but rather a space designed for reading.

05 May 2011 · @jaheppler