You’ve likely heard of the merits of long-form content, that it performs better both among readers and search engines.
The way many people talk about long-form is as if it’s the one-stop shop to solve all a writer’s problems. “Just make it longer!” say the experts. Yet I find myself often on blog posts thinking, “Get to the point, this is too long.”
Just making it long won’t necessarily mean a successful article. A long-form piece could lose readers’ attention. For the writer, it can result in scroll blindness and inefficient writing.
There’s a right way to do long-form content, and a wrong way. From my experience, here are 10 tips for how to write long-form content better.
1. Give your posts an honest length
Definitions of long-form content vary, with anything between 1,000 and 4,000 words serving as the minimum length. Top ranking content on Google averages around 1,200 words.
But not every subject merits a 1,000-2000-word article. Sometimes readers in a hurry just need a quick answer (which is why forums are such a popular online medium). Be honest with yourself about a subject: How long of a post does the subject warrant?
If you feel the need to split an article into a series, it’s usually because what you’ve written is just too long for the subject at hand, but you don’t feel like cutting it down into a singular written piece. Do what’s hard and make it shorter.
To paraphrase content marketer Joe Pulizzi (who was quoting a friend), a blog post should be long enough to cover everything, but short enough to keep things interesting.
2. Kill your darlings
According to William Faulkner, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” I still don’t quite understand why he of all people said this (the man writes the longest sentences I’ve ever seen in my life), but his advice is good.
In writing, sometimes you must remove some of your best writing simply because it’s too much.
The mandate to “kill your darlings” can be hard, because you think to yourself, “But dang, I’m such a good writer, I can’t deprive the world of such beautifully written prose” or “It would be a crime to cut out this paragraph-length metaphor” or “Every single one of these statistics is entirely relevant to what I’m saying.”
But sometimes you have to make a hard choice and kill your darlings for the sake of the subject.
3. Write long-form content like an economist would
Economics is concerned with the allocation of scarce resources. Words and time are resources for both readers and writers. The more efficiently you can allocate your words and time as a writer, the more successful your readers will be.
Here are two principles of economics you can apply to your writing to make it more efficient:
- The principle of sunk costs. Sunk costs are costs you have already incurred that cannot be recovered. Because sunk costs are lost no matter what you do, you should not factor them into your decision-making. So just because you spent an hour writing a paragraph doesn’t mean it’s in your best interest to include it in your final draft.
- The principle of trade-offs. Any time someone spends reading part of my article, they can’t read another part. What parts will give them the highest return for their time? If your article isn’t valuable every step of the way, your readers could be better off doing something else. And that’s probably what they’ll end up doing.
4. Include a table of contents
One of the goals of long-form content is to answer a lot of different questions about one central topic. Some of your readers will only be interested in one of those questions, and they might get frustrated if they have to navigate through an entire post to find what they’re looking for.
Include a basic table of contents in your longer blog posts to help readers navigate the sea of words.
5. Break up long-form content with visuals
Visual signposts are valuable for both the reader and the writer. By using elements like headers and lines to delineate breaks in content, you can signal to readers some hard transitions from one topic to the next.
6. Use rich media
One of the best ways to break up content is to use rich media, such as images, charts, screenshots, gifs, click-to-tweet, and others. Rich media adds significant value to long-form content—a long block of text can be formidable, and a friendly picture here or there can make reading your post less like reading the text-heavy Moby Dick and more like reading an illustrated version of Harry Potter.
7. Keep the introduction short
People come to a long-form piece hungry for some meat and potatoes. So when you start off a post with five courses of salad, readers get frustrated. Serve a light appetizer, then jump right into the meat, with a little slice of visual pineapple every so often to settle their stomachs.
8. Give examples
Examples and stories make reading more pleasant and understandable. For example, once you notice that right now as you read this part of the post I’m giving you an example of giving you an example, you’re more likely to engage with the text and keep reading.
9. Use SEO best practices in long-form content
One of the main benefits of long-form is SEO. Every single post about writing long-form content will tell you that. But just because a blog post is long doesn’t mean it will perform well in SEO.
I’ve seen long-form go both ways with SEO. Long-form content done well does have greater potential to perform well in SEO. But that doesn’t mean it will.
All things equal, long-form will perform better than other pieces. All things equal. All things are never equal. So you shouldn’t be frustrated if a piece you spent many an hour writing doesn’t skyrocket to the first page of search results.
There are, however, some best practices you should always follow when writing long-form content:
- Make sure to have an appropriate keyword density (between 0.5-2.5%)
- Include variations of keywords. Some places you can look are on Google’s Keyword Planner (if you have access to a running Adwords account) or the search recommendations at the bottom of the search results pages.
- Include alt descriptions and titles for all images (without keyword stuffing)
- Include variations of keywords in headers
- Include internal links to your own content
10. Provide appropriate statistics/market research
The more detail you can give, the more engaging your content will be. Statistics help give your content credibility, and break up the monotony of your arguments. Adding statistics takes you from being someone with an opinion to someone with a conclusion based on information. If you can set yourself up as a well-read researcher on the subject, readers are more likely to read on.
But be careful: you’ll want to avoid some of the basic pitfalls of adding statistics to your written work. Statistics can be amazing, but only when used correctly.
Have any more tips for writing long-form content? Feel free to comment below, or join our Slack group to talk with other freelancers.