3 Tips for Writing Long-Form Content

My colleague, Rhetoriq Partner Tim Parker, wrote an article, “The Advantages of Long-Form Content,” that argues that the conventional wisdom that shorter is better when it comes to writing thought leadership articles is wrong.

In his article, Parker points to studies that show:

  • Long-form content gets shared on social media more often than short-form. (The longer the better, in fact, when it comes to sharing.)
  • Long-form content generates more backlinks – people at other sites linking to your content – than short form. (Google likes backlinks, albeit not as much as it once did. But its famous algorithm still uses them as an input to determine search page rankings. The more backlinks, the higher you rank. ‘Nuff said.)
  • Your readers spend more time (obviously) with longer posts and articles. That means they’re spending more time with you, getting to know you and your business. You want that.
  • The longer an article, the more in-depth it is likely to be, which means it will stay relevant – and on the first page of searches – longer. (In other words, longer articles provide a more lasting ROI.)

There are other reasons, all very good, for writing longer articles. (Parker uses more than 1,500 words to define long, and so will I.) But there are three major challenges one faces when writing more than 1,500 words, henceforth to be known as MORTHN:

  1. It’s hard to overcome initial reader resistance; “Sheesh! Who’s got time to read MORTHN?”
  2. It’s difficult to keep the reader’s attention for MORTHN.
  3. You really need to say something meaningful if you’re going to use MORTHN to say it.

Don’t Think of Them as Challenges; Think of Them as Opportunities.

For challenge #1, allow me to refer you to “Three Tips for Writing Great Thought Leadership Ledes.” The lede is what you use at the beginning of an article to grab your reader’s attention by offering him or her something so compelling, so intriguing, that he or she will forget it will take a whole eight minutes to read something MORTHN. (How did I get eight minutes? I pasted a 1500-word article into Read-O-Meter and rounded up to eight.)

For challenge #3, check out “5 Ways to Develop a Stronger Power of a Point of View,” also by Tim Parker, in which you’ll learn how to assess whether what you’re saying is worth MORTHN and how to improve your point of view if it’s not. (Tim’s article is 1,133 words. According to Read-O-Meter, it will take 5 minutes and 36 seconds to read. It’s good; you can spare the time.)

This article focuses on challenge #2: Once you’ve got a powerful point of view, and you’ve captured your reader’s attention with a smashing lede, how do you keep him or her reading for MORTHN?

The key to writing a long article or post is not thinking of it as a long one. If you do, you’ll tense up like you did in school confronting a term paper. Instead, imagine you’re writing three, four, or five shorter posts that will live under one roof, like a happy family.

1. Divide your article into sections. Break up your sections with numbers and bullets.

Here at Rhetoriq HQ, we divide everything we help clients write into a problem statement, at least one example illustrating the problem, a solution, an example showing the solution working, the barriers one might confront implementing the solution, and a conclusion. That’s six sections right there. If you’re writing a MORTHN article, that means each section will be a bit over 250 words.

Isn’t it easier to think of writing six 250-plus word sections than one long article? A few itty-bitty tweets equal 250 words. You can do that in your sleep…as many tweeters do. And, of course, the sections don’t need to be equally long. Indeed, they shouldn’t be. The conclusion, for example, can be short or even non-existent; your wrap-up should be implicit in everything that has preceded it. You may not need the barriers section. The problem statement may not require 250 words. Instead, spend your extra words on the example section (always the most interesting) or the solution (what your average thought leadership reader is really looking for). Or, throw caution to the winds and write way MORTHN – maybe even 2000 or 2500 words! Why limit yourself? You’ve got lots to say!

Along with dividing your article into sections, you can break up your sections – relieving the strain on your readers of slabs of text – with numbers (say, three tips for writing long-form thought leadership content) and bullet points. Use numbers when you have good ones, like three, five, seven, or 10. As I did above, use bullets when the numbers are unattractive, such as two, four, six, eight, or nine.

What makes some numbers sexy and others dull? I have no idea. But you know good numbers from bad ones. It’s encoded in our DNA.

Oh, and each section should have a subhead. Make them all as snappy as you can.

2. Give every section a lede.

If I do say so myself, this is a great tip, and it contains a deep secret for good writing. An article that one keeps reading has more than a catchy lede on top; it has catchy ledes at the beginning of each section.

Say you have a contrarian lede. You’re telling your reader in your problem section that what they think they know is wrong. For example (and, just to be clear, I’m not quoting any specific article): “Counterfeiting is a billion-dollar problem for luxury businesses. Most businesses think the best way to stop it is to crack down on those slimy street vendors selling fake Birkin bags. But it’s more effective to disrupt the counterfeiting supply chain.” Now we come to the example section, and we need a new lede, something like, “In Hong Kong, a sprawling, almost silent computerized factory is embossing the Hermes logos on fake Birkin bags at a rate of 100 bags a minute.” And when you get to the solution section, you’ll need another lede, say, “Alerted by Hermes, local police swarmed the Hong Kong factory. As their boots hit the floor, the big room, for once, was not silent.”

If one thinks more deeply about ledes and what they do, it becomes obvious that the first sentence of every paragraph in every article you write wants to function as a lede. The job of the paragraph’s first sentence is to make the reader want to read the rest. Indeed, every sentence should lead the reader to the sentence that comes after it.

Good writing, like a heat-seeking missile, continually targets and re-acquires the reader’s attention. When you’re in the MORTHN environment, which invites attention-fatigue and provides space for all sorts of potential distractions, your sentence-missiles need to be wicked smart.

3. Close every section with a kicker.

When you’re writing long, imagine you’re moving a herd of cattle across the prairie. To keep those doggies moving, you need to crack the whip. The kicker – the last line of an article – is your whip. But, remember, you’re not writing one article – you’re writing several under one roof. Therefore, each section needs a kicker that will make the reader want and need to move on to the next section.

For example, the following sentence (taken from an article written by a client) concludes the opening problem-statement section: “Before I began investigating, I hoped the lawyer had asked himself five questions that should precede any hidden-asset investigation.” This kicker makes the reader want to know what those five critical questions are. They’re obviously important. An experience hidden-asset investigator is hoping the lawyer had asked himself them. If a reader’s attention is flagging, this kicker prods him or her to keep moving to the next section, the solution, which will lay out those five questions.

As with ledes, every paragraph should have its own kicker to move the reader to the next paragraph and thereby knit the whole article together – another secret to good writing, MORTHN or not.

Let’s Lighten Up, Shall We, Folks?

Those are my three tips for writing long-form thought leadership content, but let me conclude with something that’s less a tip than an appeal:

Those of us who toil in the smoking factories of the thought leadership industrial complex tend to be a grim bunch of Morlocks. We rarely crack a smile. However, thinking and writing about serious, weighty matters doesn’t mean your writing must be heavy.

Recall your best teachers, the ones you liked, and from whom you learned the most. The ones in whose classrooms you did not fall asleep. Weren’t they entertaining? Didn’t they crack the occasional joke? The best thought leadership is educative. It should also be entertaining. Especially when you’re employing MORTHN.

[Reading time for this article of about 1,500 words, including the headline: 7 minutes, 29 seconds.]

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