What is longform anyway?
OVER the last few years, as we’ve come to realise, the idea of longform journalism has started gaining currency — so much that the word itself now seems imbued with some peculiar form of magic. Jim already outlined the way that blogs, often seen as an enemy of depth, are actually some of the greatest champions of longform writing on the web. Some sites carry it as a badge of honour, like Longform.org and Longreads, while others like Slate or The Atlantic use length as a dog whistle for the intellectual crowd.
Even President Obama got in on the action. Sort of.
But what does “longform” actually mean?
Unsurprisingly, the name encourages people to focus on the length. They may argue that if a piece isn’t over 2,000 words, it’s not longform. Others feel that the bar should be even higher: three, five or 8,000 words.
The thing is, that line of thinking is just a conjurer’s trick that ends up substituting depth for length: if word count is your only yardstick, then it becomes really easy to write really bad longform. We’ve all read enough overwrought, overlong pieces to know that length is no measure of quality.
At the same time, there’s the form. A lot of longform writing adopts a particular tone of voice: a sort of detached, flat, word-heavy sound that makes everything sound like a PBS documentary. It’s not a tone I enjoy, it often drains the emotion from stories and ends up sounding ever-so-slightly pompous — like when you hear a great poet read their most vibrant work out loud and they choose to deliver it in a passionless, intellectual monotone.
The way I see it, longform is not about length or form, but actually about a mindset. Both the author and the reader come together with one ambition: to weave a story that sucks everybody right in and doesn’t let go until it’s finished. The best longform is bewitching, captivating and deep — regardless of how long it takes you to get to the end. I’ve read pieces just a few hundred words long that feel more like longform than others that ramble into the thousands.
At MATTER, we’re not producing short pieces: in fact, all of our articles will be at least 5,000 words long. But they’re that long because we’re choosing stories that take that much space to tell properly. We’re tackling big, complex ideas; deep, intriguing people; twisting, surprising, unknown things. The length is a by-product of that storytelling process, not the target.
And that, to us, is what longform really means.
Bobbie, MATTER co-founder