James Bennet doesn’t like long-form

And he’s not the only one.

But I’ll be honest: as far as critics of long-form go, Bennet’s credentials are pretty good. He’s the editor-in-chief of the Atlantic, (one of the great bastions of long-form magazine journalism) and his comments come in a long essay (yes) that’s excerpted from his introduction to a book (quite a long form, I’d say) that compiles The Best American Magazine Writing of 2013 (you get the drift.)

Bennet’s dogs aren’t just in the fight: they are the fight. But don’t worry, he’s only kidding. It’s a bait-and-switch. He’s not really talking about hating long-form-the-concept, as much as hating long-form-the-term. It’s an argument about taxonomy, and his gripe is that, as a piece of terminology, “long-form” looks backwards, not forwards.

Unfortunately his replacements are themselves golden oldies dug out of the ground and dusted off, presumably as a way to boost those producing the best American magazine writing. Some call it “new journalism,” he says. At the heart of it all, he says, we should just accept that really it’s just “magazine journalism.”

Oh, but it’s so much more than that.

Over the last few years, the idea of long-form journalism has started gaining a lot of momentum — so much, in fact, that the word itself now seems imbued with some peculiar form of magic. Some sites carry it as a badge of honor, such as Longform.org and Longreads, while others like Slate or, yes, the Atlantic use length as a dog whistle for the intellectual crowd.

Even President Obama got in on the action. Sort of.

By most definitions, we’re part of this movement at MATTER. Medium, too, encourages longer, more thoughtful writing. But we agree with Bennet: long-form is a terrible name.

Long-form encourages people to focus on the length. They may argue that if a piece isn’t over 2,000 words, it’s not long-form. Others feel that the bar should be even higher: three, five or 8,000 words.

That line of thinking is the worst part of the long-form revolution: a conjurer’s trick that ends up substituting depth for length. 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.

As somebody who came up through newspapers and the web, though, I take issue with Bennet’s admonition that “You might just call it magazine writing.” Magazines are a container, not the thing itself, and the sort of reportage we’re talking about isn’t—nor has it ever been—exclusive to magazines. What the new long-form is all about is trying to find a new path, maybe a web-native form of deep storytelling, or a 21st century sensibility. These are still the earliest days of a future we’re building for ourselves.

At MATTER, we produce pieces that aren’t short. Our latest, about an astonishing new theory on autism, comes in at more than 7,000 words. But our stories are that long because we’re choosing to write about things that take space to tell properly. We’re tackling big, complex ideas; deep, intriguing people; twisting, surprising, unknown things. That’s not “new journalism”, it’s not “magazine journalism”, and it’s not necessarily confined to “long-form” either. The length is a by-product of that storytelling process, not the target. The voice changes, the form changes, the delivery method changes. But the depth, the attempt to get to the heart of the story, that all stays the same.

And that, to us, is what long-form really means. What you decide to call it? That’s up to you. We just call it good writing.

This is adapted from a post written on our old blog in September, 2012.