Some articles should be short. Some articles should be long. No articles, as Vox and its SB Nation demonstrated, should be longform. Greg Howard’s postmortem of SB Nation’s “Who Is Daniel Holtzclaw?” debacle offers lots of insights into how a story can go wrong, but the most concise may be his reporting that a freelancer for SB Nation’s now-closed Longform section “said that per the terms of his contract, the story had to be at least 4,000 words long.”
“At least 4,000 words long” is a bad number in an even worse formulation. 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.
And 4,000 words, specifically, is a crummy benchmark for that. Somewhere in the mid 3,000s is a good, natural length, for writers and readers alike. A lot of pieces want to be that long. Three sections of 1,100 words; four sections of 800 words. Certainly by 3,800 there’s going to be a natural stopping point.
Out past 4,000 you’re slogging. Off in the distance is 5,000, a terrible milestone. On average, as a reader, you’re better off reading a 10,000-word piece than a 5,000-word one. Even in this age of fetishized sprawling longform, a 10,000-word piece is likelier to have been diligently edited than a 5,000-word one. Five thousand words is the piece you didn’t like or care about enough to cut down to 3,800.
Beyond 5,000 words, even if you’re a literary genius, you’d better have a really good art director.
People who think of themselves as writers get angry when someone suggests that long writing is not, in and of itself, a worthy goal. Some of the very best pieces of writing are very long. But so are many very bad ones. If you really want to prove you’re a writer, write 600 words. Nothing is harder to do than a strong 600 words.