“Long-form” is not a genre

Jonathan Mahler, on ‘long-form’ articles:

What’s behind this revival? Nostalgia, partly, for what only recently had seemed to be a dying art. And technology: High-resolution screens make it much more pleasant to read a long piece online than it was even a few years ago. Also the simple and honorable intention to preserve a particular kind of story, one that’s much different from even a long newspaper feature, with scenes and characters and a narrative arc.

Up until the moment I read this article, I had no idea there was a specific term for long(er) articles, let alone that some consider it a genre. I realised that virtually all of my reviews are apparently “long-form”; the Jolla review, for instance, was 9000 words long. I’ve done much crazier than that, though – the Palm article was 22000 words long.

However, in both of these cases, I never intended for the articles to become that long, or in fact, to achieve any specific length. When I start out, I just have a number of things that I want to discuss, and I won’t stop writing until all of those things are in the article. I will make a distinction between things that get lots of attention (say, the gestures in Sailfish) and things that get a passing mention (e.g., the backplate), usually based on some sort of combination between what I personally find interesting and what you, the readers, might find interesting. Since the gestures in Sailfish are at the core of the user experience, it gets a lot of attention; because the backplate and its hardware potential offers little to no benefit right now, it gets a passing mention.

I also like to pick some sort of overarching red thread, like the whole The Last Resort thing in the Jolla/Sailfish review, to tie everything together and frame the article. This can be a dangerous thing, since it’s usually very personal and can easily be misinterpreted as pretentious or have other unwelcome side-effects. Originally, I framed the Jolla/Sailfish article using Manifest Destiny, but I quickly realised that its pitch-black consequences were unacceptable in a mere technology article.

Combine these things, and the article is done. Whether the resulting article turns out to be 2000 words or 10000 words is irrelevant to me; if it contains everything I want to convey, it’s done. If it leaves things out just to be short and more digestible, it’s a bad article. If it contains useless, irrelevant crap just to pad the word count, it’s a bad article. Years ago, when both my best friend and I were writing our master’s theses, we ended up with very, very different word counts – mine was 27000, hers was a mere 8000. Both contained all the required information; nothing more and nothing less. Both were graded positively. Word count is a measure of nothing.

By now, some of you might be wondering why the sales pitch for the Palm article did contain the word count – which seems to contradict the above. My reasoning there was simple: we were selling the Palm article. I figured that since I was asking people to pay money for an article that was freely available on that very same page, I should at least give them information about what they were spending their money on.

Long articles like the ones mentioned above are not for everyone. In fact, their potential audience is much, much smaller than, say, a three paragraph jab at software patents. While those jabs are fun – sort of – it’s these long articles that are by far the most fulfilling to write. The Palm article alone took months and months of work – research, making notes, educating myself about low-level stuff, devising a structure, setting a tone, organising the six hundred different subjects I wanted to cover, the actual writing process, revising it all, while also doing my regular job, and so on – but it is by far the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had for OSNews.

I’ll never forget getting emails from former Palm executives and engineers – big names – congratulating me on a job well done.

Writing articles like that is not easy, with my biggest enemy being a lack of time because OSNews is a hobby, not a full-time job (I wish it was!). A few weeks after publishing the Palm article, I started work on a similar article about Psion and Symbian, but due to work and personal life (which was rather tumultuous in 2013) sucking up a lot of time last year, I never found the time to continue work on it. With things having settled down since December, I’m making plans to dust off the Psion and Symbian material, possibly take a few weeks off work, and finish it.

That article could end up being 8000 words, or 50000 words. I don’t know. The goal is not be long, but to be comprehensive, and this is my inherent problem with the term “long-form”. This term puts the focus on length instead of content, which absolutely baffles me. A good article is not defined by its length – or lack thereof – but by its content.


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