How do you feel about writing a long article or blog? According to pretty much all of the internet, a blog these days should be around 2500 words for the best possible outcomes. That’s about an 8-minute read and a good couple of days of work putting together.
So if the recommended length is 2500 words, what counts as a long read now?
I’m going to assume that most people reading this right now are not writing 2500 blogs on a regular basis. And that being tasked to create a blog that long on a regular basis will be overwhelming.
And who is to say those 2500 words are all useful words that add something to the debate? Or that these longer blogs are useful to their audience? You can write 2500 words of utter rubbish and hit that mark but it will be a complete waste of your time.
You are running a business not writing a university essay. So the first thing I want to say about writing a long read is don’t fill up the word count with pointless sentences that add nothing to what you’re saying.
In fact, let’s put the word count to one side for a moment.
When you create a long read, it’s not to build the word count. A longer and more in-depth article should solely be about your audience. It should be about digging into a subject in greater depth, looking at it from all angles and giving your audience some insights that they cannot get elsewhere.
But why bother going to these lengths?
You’ll be amazed to find out that longer articles are good for SEO but not simply because they are long. It is because they are GOOD articles. When you create something of greater depth and quality, you increase the read-time on that page, which tells search engines that this is a piece of quality writing.
The main reason, however, for a long read is to showcase your knowledge to your audience.
How many of these big-ass articles should you be writing?
The other reason I love a good long read is that you need less of them to get the results you need (if they are done right that is). You can’t churn out a long read on a regular basis. Even monthly, you won’t get the quality you need to make it worth the time and website space.
Instead, start with one a year. If you feel you have more in you then write two or maybe three. But make sure you’re enjoying the whole process because these do take up time.
Okay, I’ve hopefully convinced you that doing a long read is a good idea. I want to share a couple of my favourite articles with you that I think showcases why these are brilliant pieces of content and so much worth the time.
First of all – there is this three-part article on the mystery of obesity.
Note how this piece has been split into three parts. They are turning the long-read format into a serial format. If I had to wait a week to find out parts two and three, you bet I’m signing up for their newsletter so I don’t forget.
Then there is this whopper of an article from an old client of mine.
You’ll notice on this one that you can download a PDF version of the article. This is a nice way to get readers to save it for later or read on the go.
It also takes me on to my next point about how you can approach a long read.
You’ve got two options here:
First, go for it in one fell swoop. Work through the process and publish the finished outcome. Now, you’re not a full-time journalist and even if you are a full-time writer, you also have other client work to do and other pulls on your time.
So let’s say you work on an article of this depth for a day a week. It might take you about 3 months to get it into a finished state.
Or there is the second option – do it in stages.
I teach this way in my SEO masterclass – or a version of this at least. This means you do enough work to get a blog published. And by enough work, I mean make it a solid read with a great angle and clear argument. Then you go off and find all the extra elements you need to add to it. Like interviews, research papers, latest findings and updates.
And you set yourself a date to go back and edit, review and improve it. This way your long read starts off as more of an average read. Then you keep polishing it up until you feel you’ve covered every single possible angle.
Of course, while you’re updating this on a regular basis, you’re also resharing it around your audience.
There are up and downsides to each approach. Whatever way you go about it is up to you. And there is nothing to tell you that you must pick one over the other.
I have long articles that are mid-research in my writing app. And I have some on my site that has a reminder in Click Up to go back and add something new.
Okay, so let’s crack on with how you decide on what idea should become a longer read.
Ideas and Development
Have you ever read an article in a broadsheet or magazine and thought “well, duh! That’s been about for ages”? This happened recently when I saw an article about the propensity of manifestation online and how it’s becoming a movement. I kicked myself for not creating the story earlier because while manifestation is nothing new in online coaching, for most people outside of that bubble – it is new and interesting.
Part of the upside of building these longer articles is that you have something valuable to pitch to other publications. You can already show there is a story there that people want to read.
But when you’re going about your daily life, look for the things within your industry that keep being talked about.
For example, you might be a vegan pet food brand. You know that one of the questions you’ll get asked is about: “well aren’t dogs carnivores?”. So you can create a long read from this about the gaps in veterinary training when it comes to nutrition for household pets.
Or if you’re a service-based business, you might want to look at common issues you see in this area. For example, if you are a VA, you may want to look at how the rise of remote working has impacted the industry.
Whatever your subject, don’t start writing straight away. You want to let your idea percolate in your brain for some time. The important part here is to get the angle right.
You need to understand how this idea will relate to your audience. What will they get out of reading about it? And how will it help improve their knowledge and understanding?
For most subjects, this comes down to getting the angle right. Let’s take the vet article as an example. This could be written for the vets, to help them find new ways to fill the knowledge gaps themselves. Or it could be written for the end consumer, to give them a set of questions to ask about nutrition for their pets. You would need to approach these two angles in very different ways. Each of them has its own complexities in research.
This is why I don’t think you should jump into research before you nail that angle.
Remember, this is something you write occasionally and so you can take time over it to get the angle right. If you’re not sure, test the idea on a couple of people.
Then you can start the research. Again, don’t be tempted to jump in and start writing. Research first will always help you and will definitely help you refine your idea more.
I always start by looking at what else is out there. What are other people saying about the idea I want to write about? Then I’ll look at what is my unique take on this. What can I add to the discussion that others can’t? And where are there research gaps in what is already published?
There will also be opportunities to say something more or something different on a subject.
Next, you’ll want to do some SEO research.
- How many people are searching for this already?
- What key terms are they using?
- How competitive are these?
This is more to keep in mind than to focus solely on these terms. It may well be that no one is searching for what you’re about to write but if you know that people are talking about it, this could be an opportunity to leverage that search spot before it does become a more popular search. Don’t necessarily rule out a low search volume term but do be aware that it may never be searched.
Next, take a look at some of the research papers on your subject. Depending on what you’re writing about, you might need to get creative to find the data.
Market research is expensive, so use Google Scholar, find those white papers, and get as much information as you can online. And if you’re still stuck, you can put out your own survey. This might take time to gather enough responses to make a valid argument.
You’ll also want a hit list of people to approach for an interview. It’s best to think of longer reads like a piece of journalism so the rule here is to have at least two sources. The more voices you can add, the better your work will be.
My advice is to find someone on the other side of the argument. It is about balance rather than debate. Much of what we read in the media now is about creating arguments and dividing. Instead, look at the different viewpoints (and there will be more than two of these).
There is a brilliant Guilty Feminist podcast episode that looks at this subject.
Plan your work
By now, you should have all the background research in place and be ready to start writing. Except before you do – make a plan.
When you plan out your work first, you can visualise the path it’s going to take. This stops you from getting distracted by all the different directions you can go in, from muddying the message, and going off on a tangent. All things that are very easy to do and things that I’m guilty of myself.
I once spent about five hours writing a blog about how I wasn’t a tree only to realise that by the time I got to the conclusion, it had naff-all to do with what I wanted to say. It was a total waste of my time and it never got published. If I’d planned, I’d still have those five hours of my life to use on something useful. Or watch Bridgerton.
Although, because I do all my writing in an app called Bear, I still have a copy of that waste of time as a reminder about not planning my content properly. As an aside, you might find it useful to write in something like Scrivener, Bear or Notes. It gives you less chance of being distracted by emails and other things pinging about on the internet.
I stick my app open on full screen, have it in dark mode and bung all the research links and notes in at the bottom so I can refer to them. Right now, I’ve got several half-written articles ready for a polish up so I feel like the hard work is done. Plus, it’s a whole lot nicer to write in a pretty app than it is on a Google Doc. Unless you like Google Docs, of course.
How to plan
Now I’d hate to tell you how to plan as a hard and fast rule. There are many different ways to plan out your long read. I approach it in a couple of ways. First of all, I write down the one thing that I want people to take away from reading this article. This also helps in the editing process – which I’ll cover next week.
If all you do to plan is write down that one thing, you’ll be doing great.
But if you want to go further, you can sketch out a bit of a story arc. Where does the story begin? What are the salient points? And what do you want to reveal as you go?
You can’t ram all the information into the first paragraph, so deciding what you are going to cover and in what order before you start writing, will help you a lot when you are writing. I’ll be honest, I don’t always write this stuff down.
Sometimes I hold it all in my head and other times, I make a few bullet points if I think I’m going to get distracted or not tackle it all in one go.
This leads me nicely onto the writing part.
Start the writing
Before I start talking about the writing, I want to say that this does count as generic internet advice. I can tell you how I do this but I can’t tell you whether this is right for you. This is the kind of thing you have to try for yourself and figure out as you go what works best for you.
There are two approaches I use for writing a long read. Sometimes I’ll do one and sometimes I’ll do another. I think the difference is how much I’m enjoying the subject that I’m writing about and how much research I’ve done beforehand. Usually, research is the biggest difference.
Approach 1 – Do it all in one sitting
I like to think of this as a well-prepped approach. You have everything you need and now all you need to do is switch off to the world put on some music and get those words out of your head.
My biggest warning for this one is to definitely NOT edit as you go. That will make the whole process painful. Sit and write. See what comes out and don’t worry too much about the order of things. Especially if you’ve not created a detailed plan.
This is about getting the words down and doing it fast. Well, as fast as your fingers will let you.
I’d also advise that you don’t need to do this writing from start to finish. If you know what your conclusion will be, get that down first so it’s not clogging up your head as you’re trying to write it.
Besides, writing the intro can often be the hardest part. Why try to tackle the hardest thing first if you already know what you want to say in the middle or end?
Sometimes you will be able to write from start to finish, letting your thoughts flow. Those are magical days.
I’m drafting a chunky blog at the moment using the next approach but I started slap bang in the middle. I knew what I wanted the belly of my post to say and am kinda hoping the rest of it will figure itself out.
There are no rules about what you do first and what you do last. Besides, it all comes out in the edit.
Approach 2 – Do it in chunks
If you are short on time or have only a couple of hours here and there, then doing it in chunks makes more sense. Maybe, like me, you only have the middle so far and you need to think about how to connect all your ideas together a bit more.
This way, you give yourself permission to take more time over it. I’d advise that you go back and do a bit each day rather than once a week else you might find your half-written draft a year from now and realise it was actually very good but why did you never finish it?
The chunking approach works really well when you have other things to do in your business. Or it’s the school holidays and you’re short on time.
Whichever approach you choose (or if you have one of your own) then remember that this is your first draft. It really doesn’t matter too much what you put on the screen right now because no one other than you is going to see it.
Here’s a peek into my world: no one ever sees the first draft. It goes through a couple of iterations before my work reaches the client as a first draft. I made the rookie mistake of sending the first draft to a client once. She’d requested it to see if I was going in the right direction. There was a very long phone call that followed, pointing out every bit of repetition, grammar and the rest.
I learned an important lesson that day.
Never show anyone the first draft.
Okay, so no one is going to see your words as they stand right now. This means you can write away and not worry about the emotional ties you have in your work.
Everyone feels a connection to their writing in some way unless you are a professional writer and it quickly gets trained out of you.
Remember in school and you had to read your writing out loud in front of the class? It’s a horrible feeling. You put so much of yourself into writing and then you have to let other people read it.
What if they hate it? Or they laugh? What if someone calls me out and tells me that I’m wrong?
All questions go through your head when writing something. And all little mind-gremlins that can be controlled because you don’t have to show this piece of writing to anyone just yet.
This is why the editing process is as equally as important as the writing process. And I’ll be covering this next week in a step-by-step approach.
Snip, Snip! It’s the best bit
I absolutely love editing. It really is the best part of the process. If you have someone else edit your work, they are like a little word fairy, sprinkling magic dust over your words and making them sparkle.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been times I’ve submitted work and someone has come along and re-written it beyond recognition. That’s not editing. That’s interfering unless they are a fully trained sub-editor and have good reason to do so.
But editors are wonderful people and that is because the editing process is the most important part of any writing.
Remember last week when I said to never show anyone your first draft? This is because editing should take as long as writing if you’re doing it well.
So let’s start with some tips about the editing process.
1. Leave some time
If you’re editing a long-form article, like the kind we’ve been chatting about for the past few weeks, then you definitely need to create some distance between the writing and the editing.
For normal editing tasks, I’ll at the very least go get a brew, have a walk outside and clear my head a little. This is when I’m short on time. If I have the time – and I usually build it in – then I’ll wait a day or two before coming back to the copy. This lets it settle a little. You look at it differently.
This is why an external editor is so good. They can see things that you cannot. They are coming at it fresh with one hand on the brief.
2. Don’t tackle it all at once
The editing process is just that – a process. It’s not to be done all in one fell swoop. Tackle one thing at a time and then go back and do the next thing. Breaking it down will help you make your work the best it can be.
3. Save the headline until last
Tweaking or re-writing your headline last will help you make it better. This is the most important part of the page so get it right and give it time.
Alright. This is not an exhaustive list of things to check while editing and you don’t have to do it all in the same order. I’ll no doubt miss something (or add new stuff when I edit this newsletter). If there is something you check for when you edit, do reply and let me know.
Right now, the important thing I keep in mind is Orwell’s rules of writing.
If you’ve not seen them before they are:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
So we’re going to start with using the first five of these as a checkpoint.
Check your copy for over-used phrases.
Go through and make sure you are not using any cliches. I once handed in a feature containing the phrase ‘Johnny-Come-Lately’. I got a stream of strongly-worded feedback about using cliches and being lazy. In my defence, I’d never actually heard the phrase before so it was new to me but I never did that again.
If you do find yourself ‘thinking outside of the box,’ or being ‘as cheap as chips’ think of something else you can use in its place.
I did a wonderful writing exercise once around similes and metaphors where you take a colour like purple and an inanimate object like a key. Then you try to create some imagery from the two words. Such as, “the sound of the key turning in the lock sounded purple and bruised in my ear.”
Play around with your language and see if there is another way you can illustrate your words. Is there an analogy you can use instead?
Check your copy for long-words
We like to think that long words make us look smart. Usually, they just make us look like a prat. And make our readers feel stupid. No one likes having to look up the meaning of a word online.
At the same time, check for repetitive words. Common culprits are ‘so’ and ‘like’ and ‘nice’. The thesaurus is your friend. Go forth onto Google and type in “synonyms for [your word]” and it’ll bring up lots of alternatives.
Cut it out
Cutting out is far easier than adding it. First, you’re going to check if you need that first paragraph. If your intro still makes sense without it, delete it. You want to start in the action.
Then go through the rest of your copy. Does every sentence and paragraph add to the point you want to make? Remember, you’re writing in-depth with a long-form article, not writing to hit a word count.
I usually go through and check for “also”, “just” and all those “ands”. Next, I’ll look out for anywhere I’m making the same point but with different words. They can all go as well.
The more you do this with your work, the better you will get at spotting where you can edit it down.
Use the active phrase
This isn’t simply SEO-pleasing. The active sentence will make your writing have more urgency and presence. It will read better as a result.
For example, “I write this email on Tuesdays,” sounds better than “this email gets written every Tuesday.”
The way you phrase your sentences can put your reader in the moment, in the middle of the action. Rather than watching it after it’s passed.
Don’t use jargon
This is for those of you who are super passionate about what you do. It’s so easy to slip into using industry-specific words. I might harp on about CTAs, metrics, conversion rates, UI and all that but it’s not exactly plain English.
You want to write in plain English and adjust anything that isn’t. This used to be called simple English but there was a connotation that simple English meant simple minds. That’s not true at all. You’re trying to reduce the friction between your words and the reader.
BTW, I stuck ‘connotation’ in there on purpose. This is the kind of word you can replace with something else.
Science writers have a tough job. Scientists and medical folks are hugely passionate about their area of work. Rightly so. But the rest of us cannot understand scientific language.
This week I was reading instructions in a crystal making kit for my 11-year-old. Mr B commented that I was reading a word as I’d never heard it before. I hadn’t! I had no idea what it was or how to pronounce it. You can never know what your reader knows. Take out those subject-specific words and either explain or change them.
Sentence length and flow
Use short sentences. This is hard if you’re writing lessons stopped in school. The way we learn to write in school is often not how we write in the real world. People skim read so keep those sentences short.
However, you are also writing a long read so you need to think about flow. You don’t need every sentence to be short. Look at your paragraphs, are they flowing properly? Have you got a mix of long and short sentences?
Read it out loud and see how it sounds. It’s far easier to accidentally write a long sentence than too many short ones. Go back and re-write those wordy sentences.
How often do you fact-check what you write? Follow the reference links back to the source and check they are still there and still relevant.
You can probably find a source to argue any position online but that doesn’t mean you should hunt out the sources that only support your view. If you find contradictory evidence, include this.
Other things to fact check are name spellings, locations, and dates. These can easily go wrong.
Is there a better way to communicate this?
For each point that you are trying to make, ask yourself if there is a better way to communicate it. While we like to think that lots of lovely blocks of paragraphs are great, we might be playing the word count game rather than making it good for someone to read.
Would an infographic work better? A list or bullets? Could you say it in a different way?
The same is true for quotes. Quotes should add colour to the story not be the story.
Check the tone of voice
It’s so easy when going through all this editing to lose a sense of your voice from your writing. Give it another check and make sure your little idiosyncrasies are still there.
If you have been making tone of voice notes, now is the chance to take them out and check your copy against them.
Check against your one takeaway
Remember last week when I said you keep one thing in mind when writing that you want someone to take away? Right, now you need to read through your copy one more time and check they are getting this outcome.
If not, go back and re-write until they do.
Spelling and grammar
Before you’re ready to publish, check the spelling and grammar. The rule of spelling is that you’ll notice your next error 10 minutes after pressing publish.
I sent out an email yesterday with the wrong subject line that made no sense. It got good open rates because it was ridiculous. I can’t say if my original subject line would have done better but everyone sends stuff with mistakes on it. Unless they are a robot.
Other ways to spot errors are to use Grammarly, change the font, change the colour, check after a good night’s sleep, get someone else to check.
Almost there. Next, you want to check you have the basic elements of your copy. Does it have a call-to-action where you ask someone to do something? Do your headers help tell the story to all those skim-readers? Is your headline compelling enough to make someone want to read it? Have you got a proper conclusion?
Check all of these things. Then go get another brew and have one final read-through and hit publish.
If you write a lovely long-form article after reading this blog, please let me know. I would LOVE to come and read it.