Long and Short

The value of different kinds of writing.

Assumed audience: Other writers, and people thinking about writing and publishing.

I was thinking this morning on the relationship between shorter-form and longer-form writing, and the difference in the value they offer to readers and writers.

Longer-form writing is often significantly more valuable, for a couple reasons well-highlighted by this exchange on Twitter:

Despite not looking for short-form writing advice (which is rarely useful), it’s become so trendy to tell people to write shorter pieces that I ran across this advice thrice last week.

As a general, unnuanced, dictum, this strikes me as very bad advice; the opposite of correct.

Dan Luu

I tend to get disproportionately more from long blog posts than I do from short posts, because it’s often surprising which seemingly minor detail(s) end up resonating with me, and those details seem to end up missing when spread across multiple posts.

Laurence Tratt

something that’s taken me a long time to learn is that academic authors (including me) frequently misunderstand what is the actual contribution of their work

John Regehr

if we accept that this observation has some truth to it, then this argues for longer-form writing: as the length of the piece increases, the odds of the authors sort of accidentally reporting on the actually important aspect of their work increases – John Regehr

I agree with basically everything Tratt and Regehr get at there, and agree with a lot of Luu’s original point as well. There’s a reason Mere Orthodoxy — unofficial tagline defending word counts and nuance on the internet since 2005” — is so dear to my heart.

At the same time, I have been deeply appreciating Matt Rickard’s blogging since I ran across his site a few months ago. (Edit: see comments below.) Nearly everything he publishes is just a few hundred words long. None of it has anything like the technical depth of one of Luu’s deep dives or Hillel Wayne’s write-ups. It’s neither better nor worse inherently, though: it is wildly different. Rickard is throwing off summaries and knowledge (more like an old-school late 00s blogger!), Luu and Wayne are writing essays. The difference is mostly breadth vs. depth.

That means that I learn about many more things from Rickard than I do from Luu or Wayne; but I learn much more about each thing from Luu or Wayne.

One takeaway I have: the vast majority of my writing on this site over the past couple years has been in the longer-form mode, save the occasional short book review. Mixing it up to include the throwing-off-knowledge mode pieces and the longer-form deeper dives seems good. I have a lot of things which could be essays (and maybe someday will), but which could also benefit people by being in the world in the meantime. Here’s to trying to publish more like that in the months ahead.

See also: two related recent posts — 

Update, August 12, 2023:

Well: that’s how it was last September. But Rickard’s daily blogging habit ultimately led to a spot where I found his writing much less interesting. When I first came across it, he was covering a lot of things where his experience level was relatively high and my knowledge was relatively low. Over the months which followed, though, he increasingly ended up opining on things where he had much less experience, and the result was that his signal:noise ratio went way down.

A daily blogging habit is hard enough to sustain. It is far harder in the specific mode Rickard adopted: offering a take every day on some part of the tech field. To his credit, Rickard freely admits mistakes he has made along the way — wrong calls, bad predictions, etc. — and I think his writing might still be valuable for some readers. (Put another way: this is not a slam on him!) But I stopped reading, because the relative value of his blog declined substantially over time for me.

The same is notably not true of Hillel Wayne. (And I hope Luu starts writing again at some point!)