“I Have Had It With Long-Form Journalism”

So claims James Bennet, editor of The Atlantic. Not actual long-form journalism – just the word:

[I]n the digital age, making a virtue of mere length sends the wrong message to writers as well as readers. For when you don’t have to print words on pages and then bundle the pages together and stick postage stamps on the result, you slip some of the constraints that have enforced excellence (and provided polite excuses for editors to trim fat) since Johannes Gutenberg began printing books. You no longer have to make that agonizing choice of the best example from among three or four—you can freely use them all. More adjectives? Why not? As a writer, I used to complain that my editors would cut out all my great color, just to make the story fit; as an editor, I now realize that, yes, they had to make my stories fit, and, no, that color wasn’t so great. The editors were working to preserve the stuff that would make the story go, to make sure the story earned every incremental word, in service to the reader. Long-form, on the Web, is in danger of meaning “a lot of words.”

This is a particularly ripe moment to rethink our terminology (and I should own up to the fact that I still lapse into using the dreaded term myself) because deeply reported narrative and essayistic journalism is suddenly all the rage. Far from fading away, it shows signs of an energy and imagination not seen since the heyday of New Journalism.

Of course James is right. The word “longform” seems to take one of our pleasures and make it one of our duties. But you can see why it has new luster in our listicled, tweeted age. It’s shorthand for “thoughtful”, for writing that is not just typing, or blogging or tweeting. And there is something newly liberating about that – especially when it is not constrained, as long-form almost always was, by the sharp constraints of print on paper. I would say that about a quarter of my work as an old-style magazine editor was trimming pieces to fit. It was great not to have that distracting obsession any more, as I worked on the latest piece for Deep Dish.

But mere length, as Bobbie Johnson notes, is not a good thing in itself, as any honest reader of the pre-Tina New Yorker would have sometimes told you:

If word count is your only yardstick, then it becomes stupendously easy to write really bad long-form. We’ve all read enough overwrought, overlong pieces to know that length is absolutely no measure of quality.

At the same time, long-form is also attached to a certain form. A lot of this sort of 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 really enjoy, so often draining the emotion from stories and filling it up instead with a sad pomposity. It’s 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, though, long-form is not about length or form, but 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 long-form 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 long-form than others that ramble into the thousands.