Short: good policy, bad metric

We seem to agonize endlessly over how long content should be. Metrics are regularly proposed for the perfect length of a blog post or content marketing piece, and the move towards topic-based writing has tech writers worrying about similar issues. Keeping content short is certainly good policy. No one wants to read more than they have to to accomplish a given goal. So it makes sense to use content length as a metric for content quality, right? Not so much. Short is a great policy, but a lousy metric. Here’s why:  

First, any of the metrics offered for how long/short something like a blog post or article should be are aggregated from many different items across many different sites. But the fact that a certain size is most effective in aggregate does not imply that it is most effective in each individual case. If it did, we would not need socket sets or sets of screwdrivers. We would simply take the average size of all bolts and all screws and come up with one optimal size socket and screwdriver for all applications. But since actual bolts and screws would continue to be of different sizes, for different applications, these optimal sockets and screwdrivers would turn out to be effective in only a few cases. The average of optimal is not itself optimal.

The right size for content depends on the relative triviality or complexity of the subject matter relative to the reader’s current experience. Much of everything is reduced to the trivial, either by design or customer familiarity. The amount of content needed to influence or inform trivial purchases and interactions is correspondingly small. For more complex cases, which also tend to be fewer, but also higher value and more expensive, more content will certainly be wanted and needed. But lump all these cases into one calculation and the vast bulk of trivial cases will drag the average size down into the trivial range.

Secondly, shortness is not the same thing as brevity. A piece of 300 words is short, but if the message could be conveyed effectively in 30, it is not brief, and will seem tedious to the reader. Similarly, for a complex topic, a 30,000 word treatment is not short, but it may be a miracle of brevity that seems to the reader to fly by breathlessly. Brevity — using no more words than are necessary to fully convey an idea — is thus a far better standard than shortness — a limit of X words, in ensuring the effectiveness of content.

Thirdly, the effectiveness of content cannot be measured in short term effects alone. Hit counts are particularly deceptive. The single most popular article on this blog is Three Components of Writing Skill?, a trivial piece I wrote in 2011 in response to a post on Tom Johnson’s site. This post is the steady foundation of my hit count, reliably attracting readers week after week and month after month. Does it have a corresponding influence on my potential customer base? Does it draw customers to my company? Not a bit of it. It attracts a steady stream of people Googling for information on how to write (I can tell this from the analytics). Does it do anything to raise people’s interest in or awareness of Every Page is Page One or bottom-up information architecture — the things I am actually trying to promote on this blog and through my company? I have zero evidence of any such impact. And why would there be? That post has nothing to do with either of these things.

The posts that actually engage people on Every Page is Page One and bottom-up information architecture tend to be long. They are longer because these are complex ideas, and often not familiar to the reader. Consequently, it takes more content to make a useful point. I hope they exhibit brevity, but they are not short.

None of them approach the aggregate hit count of Three Components of Writing Skill? Nor do they spike my daily visitor count like shorter posts do. But they attract long comment chains where thoughtful discussion takes place. They result in people getting in touch with me through my contact form, which sometimes leads to business. They also produce a spike in blog subscriptions, newsletter sign ups, new Twitter followers, and new LinkedIn connection requests. They influence people. They lead to business. They just don’t do it instantly.

But if short is a lousy metric, what guidelines can we use to right-size our content? This is exactly the role that the seven characteristics of Every Page is Page One topics is intended to play.

EPPO topics are self contained

Being self contained can actually make a topic slightly (or even substantially) longer than if was designed to be read in conjunction with other topics. On the other hand, if the reader has to read other topics in order to understand this one, then their reading experience is long, even if the individual topic is short. The brevity of the reader’s reading experience is what matters, not the shortness of the individual unit of content. Making sure a topic is truly self-contained, that it can function independently, contributes to the brevity of the reading experience even if it bumps up the word count.

EPPO topics have a specific and limited purpose

A good EPPO topic serves a specific, limited, and well defined purpose. The first key to brevity is knowing exactly what purpose content is supposed to serve, and setting strict and well defined limits on that purpose. That is how you know exactly what needs to be said and what does not. Yes, it is still possible to be verbose within those limits, but verbosity is often a consequence of not fully defining what you are trying to communicate. Define your purpose and brevity will naturally follow.

EPPO topics conform to type

Generally conforming to a type helps you be brief by reminding you exactly what needs to be said, and preventing you from wandering into areas that are not applicable to the reader’s immediate need. Sometimes you may feel that the type requires you to include more words than strictly necessary, but be careful, the regularity and predictability of a consistent type can help speed the reader’s consumption and comprehension of the text, even if there are a few more words. Again, the brevity and effectiveness of the reading experience are more important than raw word count.

EPPO topics establish their context

Taking time to establish the context of a topic also adds to its word count, so governed by a pure word count metric, we might be tempted to cut out the context setting. But that will also dull the information scent of the content, meaning readers will have more trouble finding it and identifying it as the content they need. This, of course, will make the reading experience less brief. Establishing context if therefore an essential component of brevity, even if it adds to the word count.

EPPO topics assume the reader is qualified

Nothing detracts from the brevity of content like stopping to add an aside describing something some readers may not know. Since some readers may not know about practically anything you mention in a topic, failing to establish and stick to a definition of a qualified reader can make content balloon. Look at any communication that is notable for its brevity and you will find is it making shrewd by definite assumptions about the qualifications of the reader.

EPPO topics stay on one level

Similarly, switching levels in the middle of a topic will destroy brevity and make word counts skyrocket. Yes, some readers may want to pause at some point either to grasp the big picture or to examine some detailed examples. But each will feel these needs at different times, and accommodating them all will balloon the topic. By all means provide links to enable readers to move to a different level, but keep the current topic on one level.

EPPO topics link richly

There are a hundred different temptations and justifications for adding one more piece of information, or a more complete explanation, or another example to a topic. All of them detract from brevity and from impact. This is not because no one needs them, but because every reader needs only some small selection of them, and if they are all included (or if some random set is included) they do far more to slow the reader down and frustrate them with irrelevant asides than they do to help them fill in the gaps that matter to them. Providing links at all such places is a basic courtesy to the reader, but it also has two important effects for the writer. First, it helps keep the reader in your content, as opposed to having them Google themselves off elsewhere. More importantly, perhaps, it is the patch that kills the craving to expand the content. Feel the itch to add: scratch it by adding links rather than by adding content.

While none of the EPPO principles specifically mentions length, therefore, they all work together to help you create content that is as brief as the subject demands, however long or short that may be.

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5 Responses to Short: good policy, bad metric

  1. Larry Kunz 2014/04/08 at 16:43 #

    Using length as a metric is bad policy. That’s so blindingly obvious, it’s a shame it even needs to be said. But since it does need to be said, you said it very, very well. Thanks, Mark.

    • Mark Baker 2014/04/09 at 13:51 #

      Thanks, Larry.

      Unfortunately, the things that should not need to be said seem to be the things we have to say over and over and over…

  2. Mysti Berry 2014/04/10 at 16:48 #

    I love this: “But the fact that a certain size is most effective in aggregate does not imply that it is most effective in each individual case.”

    Isn’t it about *how* you use the metric? If you know that 90% of your developer-oriented content contains many instances of sentences with more than 60 words, while your admin-level content doesn’t, then you might devise a plan to more closely review and analyze why that’s so: look for the patterns of unnhelpful length, and publish guidelines.

    However, to simply say “no sentence should be longer than X” is a bad USE of the length metric.

    Unfortunately, evaluating context puts a cognitive load on the writer (one which we are trying to take *off* the reader). And reuse makes context even more difficult to work with. So, do we add context to our style guides?

    • Mark Baker 2014/04/14 at 21:11 #

      Thanks for the comment, Mysti,

      Absolutely, it is all about how you use the metric. Unfortunately, people too often use metrics as an excuse for not thinking.

      Metrics give you more to think about, not less. They inform professional judgement; they don’t substitute for it.

      Re context and reuse: personally, I think loss of context is too high a price to pay for reuse, and that we should focus on reuse techniques that don’t compromise the context we provide for the user.

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