By IAN YEE
MY former editor, who taught me pretty much everything I now know about journalism, used to tell me to only give a story what it’s worth – nothing more, nothing less.
Forget the word count. Forget the page layout. If you really think your story’s worth 3,000 words (insanely long for a newspaper article – probably five times the length of this one), then go for it.
And if you think a story’s worth, say, 300 words, don’t ever give it more than that just so you can fill up a page, or to make that whiny publicist shut up about how many hoops she had to jump through to get you that “exclusive” interview (which was probably pitched to 15 other journalists).
But the problem now is that most young people seem almost incapable of digesting anything other than bite-sized information. Everything has to come in a nice, hashtagged little package. Facebook even has a function now to help us “express” how we feel through emoticons. How messed up is that? For once, I actually miss those long, emo status updates. At least the people who wrote them bothered enough to put stuff down in words.
So does it really matter how much a journalist thinks a story is worth any more? All over the world, the industry is telling us we have to make our stories shorter. Just last week, a colleague shared a story (on Facebook, ironically) on how long-form articles are passé because of shortening attention spans. At the last industry conference I attended, we were told to focus more on infographics, simply because nobody likes a long read these days.
But here’s one thing you need to know about writers, and this might shock you – we love to write. Like, a LOT.
When we sink our teeth into a nice, tasty topic, we want to chew on it and savour every bite. Wecover every angle, put in every profound quote, insert every shocking statistic and consider every argument from every side. That’s when we know we’ve given the story its worth.
Personally, I love nothing more than producing a nice, meaty story. As a feature writer, there’s nothing better than spending a few days doing research, conducting interviews, considering all the facts and shaping my arguments; and then laying it all out in a long, compelling (at least to me) story that people just won’t be able to resist reading from start to finish. Or at least that’d be the plan.
If it were a personality piece, I’d want to explore every facet of the person, and delve into his/her psyche so my readers get the full picture of what this person is all about. If they wanted anything more facile, they could just Wikipedia it.
There’s actually a website for people who enjoy reading long-form articles called Longreads.com.
You get to pick articles from a variety of news sources around the world based on their word count.
To encourage you to give these stories a try, the site even gives you an approximation of how long it will take for you to read the whole story. For example, an article of 3,750 words will take you around 15 minutes. Not too bad, right?
But we now live in a world where information is consumed in seconds, not minutes; and everything is swallowed and regurgitated instantly as a retweet or a share. We rarely take time to digest anything any more.
And therein lies the beauty of the long-form article – it forces the reader to think; at least that’s what it’s supposed to do. It presents multiple arguments and differing points of view from which the reader can through his/her own critical mind derive a conclusion, rather than just a stream of endless information that gives one a wider yet shallower grasp of things. So we end up as the generation who always has a little something to say about everything, but we rarely do so with any conviction.
Perhaps the problem in Malaysia is we’ve never really learnt how to appreciate a good, long article.
We grow up in an education system where essay writing is all about sticking to some winning formula given to you by a tuition teacher who claims to know someone who knows someone who has the inside scoop on how to get an A. Everything is about writing what you have to according to the parameters set by that magical, mystical formula.
So we end up writing a lot of nothing. And now that the digital age is making us write ever shorter stories, it seems we’re writing less and less of nothing.
Are young people becoming too lazy to digest long stories? Should the art of the long-form article be consigned to the past? Tell us what you think! Tweet @thestar_rage with the hashtag #TellIan (as in “tell Ian”) or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.