Here’s what you need to know about viral article length


By   |   June 6th, 2018   |   Reading time: 5 minutes Digital Journalism

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Quartz was one of the first publications to consciously avoid the classic 800-word article. We look at the data to see if they are still doing that, if it’s working, and whether other publishers have also got in on the act.

When you think of writing for the internet, you may have an idea of what people are looking for when they come to reading your work.

There are a number of preconceived notions of what makes a great online article, many of which stem from holdovers from the print-only era that have been hastily translated to the digital format. One of these is article length, which has typically averaged out at somewhere between 600-800 words.

There are a number of reasons for that, from readers’ attention span to making things easy to read on screen, but it was almost a fait accompli that pieces published online would fall somewhere in or near that word range.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Three years ago, Quartz’s co-founder and Editor-in-Chief Kevin Delaney spoke to Digiday about how his publication consciously tried to avoid the standard article length.

He told them at the time “What people read online, when you look at the data, is shorter stuff that’s focused, creative and social with a really good headline. It doesn’t mean it’s unsubstantial. It just means it’s really clear about what’s interesting and focuses on that. A lot of the 800-word stories have been padded out with the B matter. It’s called B matter because it’s B grade, not A matter, which is the focal point of the story.”

The point of course being that if you can be short and snappy, making one point in your article very well, then you should do that, and not worry about adding filler for the sake of it.

In the age of the internet, if people want that background information that might normally fill space in the article, they can find it. As a writer you can afford to stick to the basics.

With Delaney’s advice in mind, we decided to look at some of the lengths of articles, both for Quartz and for other publications, to see whether there is any overlap between the length of the stories and how engaged audiences were.

Quartz article length

For our analysis, we looked at the top ten web articles from Quartz that drove the most engagement between November 1st of last year and May 30th of this year.

We found that of those articles, only two fell in the 600-800 word range, and even these tended to be news stories that required that length of story. The Louis CK apology annotation, for example, only contained around 230 words if you don’t include the text of the comedian’s apology, so there is an economy of words there despite its apparent length. Similarly, we saw the ‘full list of online courses’ article have only 163 words of actual story, followed by what was a very long list of universities.

This chart shows that even explainer stories, which we normally think of as long takes on a topic that people might not understand or be familiar with, can be short and snappy. We see examples of this in the piece on why there are really only two words for tea in the world, or the piece explaining California’s law changes at the beginning of this year, which both contained a lot of information but still clocked in at under 600 words.

That’s not to say that Quartz avoided the lengthy explainers altogether, their piece on the health benefits of squatting was a healthy 1627 words long, and went into real detail about the topic.

So we’ve seen Quartz live by the rules they set themselves, and be successful doing so, but what about other publishers?

How long are the most successful articles of the biggest publishers?

We also looked at stories from fifteen of the biggest English-language publishers in the world for the same time period. This grouping included the likes of NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, and others.

Here we saw an even more dramatic rendering of the point illustrated above. For these stories, it is not necessarily that you can afford to skimp on words to make one good point, but rather that you can afford to go into really exquisite detail in your reporting in order to draw out the finer details. It’s not filler here, it’s background information, essential to the understanding of the story.

We see above that four of these top stories are obituaries, three of which went into very lengthy accounts of their subjects lives, especially the ones from the BBC and The Guardian about Stephen Hawking. Audiences online are patient now, willing to go on that journey that you’re creating if it’s a genuinely compelling story.

There were a couple of exceptions, with one story about the Gerber baby having just 379 words, and a video-only post from CBS that contained no text.

Only one article, an obituary of R. Lee Emery from Fox News, fell in the 600-800 word range mentioned before.

The median length for these stories was some 1248 words, which is significantly longer than we tend to think about in terms of online writing.

Writing long for the web

The lesson here is that you shouldn’t be afraid to go long on your content. Quartz’s ‘avoid the 800 word article’ philosophy may have begun as an exercise in avoiding filler, but the data here shows there is value in going over that word count too.

A surprising number of articles now go deep on the analysis, with only one article in the top ten from the biggest publishers in the English-speaking world falling in the 600-800 word range.

The moral of the story is your audience will reward you for deep insights into a topic that is interesting to them, so if you want to go long on a post that contains a lot of information, then by all means go ahead, just don’t put words on the page for the sake of it.

And yes, this article is over 800 words.

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