How to Write Longform

The concept of TLDR eludes me. The longer a read, the better, is my semi-humble opinion. OF course, I am a firm believer in the economy of words. Your YA book should be 150,000 words of rambling first person exposition. But, as long as it’s engrossing and interesting and has lots of parentheses, please let me read forever.

Of course, most of the internet, to say nothing of this attention span-lacking generation, disagrees completely. If it can’t be digested in the length of a .gif, it is TL. And therefore, DR.

So some places have ‘longform’ articles as sort of a nostalgic holdover, I suppose, the internet-age equivalent of a curiosity shop. Something you can look at and remember when people read, man. Or show to our children and tell them when mommy and daddy were little we used to read long articles all the time, but it’s no use, because the five-year old has a smartphone and is busy using it to move brightly colored gems around.

But I digress. To be sure, I’m firmly in the antiquity camp about a lot of things, but this longform thing is stupid. Because every single one is exactly the same. So here is the DESR guide to writing your very own longform piece (Slate, Vox and the like will love you):

Pick something semi-obscure and semi-important. It can’t be something that everyone knows. Your longform piece on the spirituality of The Force Awakens won’t fly. And it can’t be completely out of the public consciousness, either. Think the movie Dodgeball as a perfect example. Everyone knows dodgeball (the sport), but did they recognize the spiritual transcendence of playing in adult league? You do, so you’re well on your way to the perfect longform article.

shut up

Have some stakes. But again, not too big of stakes. Human-interest stakes. The most integral part of your piece is that people care, and care deeply. Otherwise, prepare to be filed under TLDR. So you must, preferably in sentences that demand tension, to be read breathlessly, communicate that this matters. ‘But DESR,’ you’re saying, ‘then why ever did you say to pick something that doesn’t have big stakes? Why don’t I write about sex trafficking? People care about that.’ To which I say, you’re an idiot. The point of these articles is not for people to read them and go out and effect change in this world, it is to get them to spend time on the website and generate ad dollars. So they need to read the article, care about it, but be able to walk away without it gnawing at their soul. They’ll go volunteer to clean up the earth or feed orphans or some crap, and you can bet they are not surfing the internet from a Tibetan orphanage.

 

Say something that sounds really profound. Again, it shouldn’t actually be profound, but it should sound that way. This is the line that people take away, and feel moved by, because people are idiots. Take the best* piece of longform in modern history, which appeared on Vox: The “I love the Victorian Era So I Decided to Live in it” lady. She concludes thusly:

This is why more people don’t follow their dreams: They know the world is a cruel place for anyone who doesn’t fit into the dominant culture. Most people fear the bullies so much that they knuckle under simply to be left alone. In the process, they crush their own dreams.

Hoooo, boy, that sounds profound. I need to follow my dreams, you think from inside your cubicle as you hope your boss doesn’t notice you’re not working. Except, the person who wrote that is an idiot. But goddamn if it doesn’t sound profound.

Also, Vox has a great description of the longform thing there:

First Person is Vox’s home for compelling, provocative narrative essays

Sound great! It’s another way of saying ‘ramble about semi-important stuff, as long as it sounds profound’.

Patronize the ever-loving shit out of everyone: This is where SB Nation messed up- not in victim-shaming, or total whitewashing of a despicable human being**- but the fact that nearly every paragraph did not come with some sort of caveat about how ‘you might not agree’ or ‘this is not for everyone’. Patronize everyone. This keeps them on the page and entranced with your climb up the lower Withcita County Dodgeball standings, even after Jeremy broke his ankle and Sonja got pregnant with twins, even though her husband just had back surgery and his job fired him without cause. But they’ll be courtside for the championship. Because we all fight together. Not everyone loves Dodgeball. But we do. And isn’t that what dreams really are?

See how easy that was?

DESR

*Worst

**I am being facetious. That was their mistake.

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