Size Matters (Or Does It?)

How writing short, medium, and long is the best practice

Susan Orlean

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Photo by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash

Last fall, I started a new column of obituaries for The New Yorker. The pieces were supposed to clock in around 1,000 words, or, ideally, a bit shorter. The New Yorker has a famous appetite for long pieces — once, a single story (John Hersey’s report on Hiroshima) took up the entire issue, and over the years there have been countless pieces that hovered around twenty thousand words or more. So there was a delicious irony in embarking on a project that was specifically meant to be short.

Rather than raging against the limitations of the length, I was delighted. We writers have rather mysteriously come to associate the length of a piece with its quality in a way that has become counterproductive. In truth, some pieces do need to be long. They tackle complicated subjects and have huge amounts of information to impart or they have a narrative arc that is long and slow; they need plenty of runway to be successful. To return to the topic of Hersey’s Hiroshima, it is impossible to imagine the piece being a word shorter than it was, and it used its length so effectively that you almost wanted more when you came to the end.

What’s behind our fixation on long pieces? Well, for starters, many of us get paid by the word. It doesn’t take long to realize that the work involved in writing a, say, five thousand word piece is not that much more than the work in writing a twenty-five hundred word piece — and you get paid twice as much. Also, a big piece has presence. It sprawls and spreads and implies by its mass that it’s important. And… it’s actually easier to include all the material you have (resulting in a whopper of a piece) than it is to curate what you include, especially if it means leaving out some material that you really like. The fact that we’re often given less space than we really want means that we reflexively hanker for more, even if the piece doesn’t warrant it. It’s hard to resist.

But long is not always what’s called for. Keeping a reader’s attention for page after page isn’t easy. In addition, readers aren’t asking the writer to do a note dump — that is, they don’t want (or need) to learn every single thing the writer learned. They will respond best to a digested, thoughtfully edited story that is written…

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Susan Orlean

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own Literati.com book club (join me!)