The Big Battle: Short Form vs. Long Form

Writers are asked to write a lot of different things. Some write books, others write articles, even more write blogs.

For those of us who are lucky enough to write advertising and marketing copy, we get to play in two sandboxes:

  • Short-form content
  • Long-form content

What’s the difference?

Here is a crash course.

Short form content is quick hit content that typically consists of three basic elements:

  1. A headline
  2. Brief body copy, no more than a few sentences, if that long
  3. A call to action (CTA)

Short-form is designed to be down and dirty, a fast read that gets the job done fast so the reader can instantly take action. Examples include:

  • Onsite banners
  • Google ads
  • Paid search ads
  • Email banners

The biggest mistake marketers make with short form content is trying to cram too much into one message, as if they have to tell everything they know in the opening statement.

But that’s not what short form content is designed to do.

Think of short-form copy as the online equivalent of a highway billboard: you have 3-5 seconds to read it and decide whether to take action. Any longer and the message is lost. Gone with the pasture of cows that just whizzed by.

Short form content is not designed to tell the whole story.

Its main purpose is to offer a taste, just enough to whet the whistle and entice the reader to dig deeper.

It is NOT the entire story. And shouldn’t be.

The rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say, comes in the long form.

Lessons Learned from Steve Martin (Yes, that Steve Martin)

Comedian Steve Martin is an amazing writer. Did you know that? In addition to his own comedy career, he has written material for other comedians, as well as numerous columns for New Yorker magazine. In my opinion, he’s a better writer than comedian, and I love his movies.

If you get a chance, grab a copy of his book Pure Drivel, a collection of his New Yorker columns.

(By the way, I don’t make a dime off his stuff. I just like him.)

Remember the other day when I mentioned that ad copy needs to sound like dialog? That’s great in theory (and 100% true), but how do you do it?

In his essay “Writing is Easy,” Martin answers the nagging question of how to write dialog, a dilemma that has for centuries vexed writers who want to make verbal exchanges sound convincing, the way people talk in real life.

Martin’s answer? “Simply lower your IQ by fifty and start typing!”

Clearly, he’s kidding, but what Martin means in his obviously tongue-buried-deep-inside-his-cheek proposal is: don’t overthink it.

Dialogue that sounds natural comes naturally.

While there is an art and a science to wordplay, one that I have studied for decades and have still not mastered because I don’t think it’s possible, there is a beautiful simplicity to words that seem to spew out on their own, like a casual conversation between friends. Nobody thinks too hard over exact word choices.

Short-form content needs to be down and dirty, but long-form copy rules are different. And the same. Let me explain.

Long-form content is things like this blog. Or CMS copy that is sometimes buried below product content on ecomm sites.

Long-form content is often used to support sales pages, either as more supporting evidence to convince you to buy the product or as an endorsement, often by a celebrity or other well-known, to show you how amazing you’ll be when if you own it.

Obviously, the name “long-form” tells you there will be more words. Duh. But what it doesn’t tell you is how to write them.

Go back for a minute to Freshmen Comp. Yeah, remember that class? Fun times. Remember how it was drilled into your head to break up your essays into the basic five paragraph layout? Intro, three supporting points with the most important coming first, followed by a conclusion to wrap it all up? It was a formula that applied to any topic.

The same basic outline applies to long-form copy.

But wait, there’s more!

Because today’s readers don’t have the patience to read long paragraphs, and because mobile devices often don’t display heavy text very well, it is best to break up long-form content into what appears to be short-form.

Like this.

By making those two words into a separate line, you read them and moved effortlessly onto the next paragraph.

Just like a script.

Or a scene from your favorite TV show.

Even though long copy is not the same as two characters talking, one idea is expressed, and then the next beat is a new thought, which makes it a new paragraph.

So whether you’re writing a short-form email or banner or billboard, or you are elaborating in long-form content, keep it simple and easy to read.

Whichever you write, be sure it’s the right length for what you’re trying to accomplish.

Your readers will thank you. And be more likely to buy what you’re selling.

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One thought on “The Big Battle: Short Form vs. Long Form

  1. Well put. — Short form.

    I learned a lot from this post. I had no idea that there were short and long forms of marketing. I hadn’t realized how much the length of an item is thought about in marketing. — Long form.

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