Your emails must not be longer than 200 words. Meetings should be 20 minutes long tops. Your LinkedIn posts must fit into one mobile screen if you want people to notice them. We are led to believe our audience and colleagues barely pay attention to what we have to say (simply because we all have an alleged attention problem these days), so our only option is to be brief, be brilliant, and be gone.
Being brilliant is, without a doubt, important, but when it comes to being brief, we seem to be obsessed with the thought that shorter is better. Always. Plenty of tips and guidelines, like the random ones above, define rigid silver bullets for the length of your content. And there are at least two reasons for that. First, what could be easier than counting words? If we can create better content by meeting length criteria, that sounds like the most effective thing to do. But no less important is that many people seem to design their content to maximize its algorithmic-based exposure, and while nobody knows how social-media algorithms are configured, it is not far-fetched to assume that the length of the content is one crucial factor.
But we don’t write for algorithms — we write for humans. And humans are a tiny bit more complex than that.
Recall a nonfiction book you’ve read recently. Surely it was longer than a social post or a magazine article. It probably didn’t fit into a single mobile screen (unless you have bionic vision), and it took you well more than a couple of hours to read. And yet, you’ve read it. Would you say it was brief? Did you find value in reading it cover to cover? So, is brevity really what we should be aiming for?
Asking, “What is the optimal length of a text?” be it an email, a post, or an article, is the wrong question. We have all the attention we need, but only when what we read interests us. We can read an entire book when we care about what we read. If the text means nothing to us, even 200 words are too much. Everybody knows that content must have value. Most people associate this value only with the topic and the key ideas of the content. In practice, the value is often affected by the resolution of the text.
Resolution is all about details. The higher the resolution, the finer the details and the greater their number. When we ask ourselves, “What is the resolution of the text we are about to write?” we need to consider what our audience cares about; what resolution would be helpful for them, what are they about to do with the ideas we share; what will affect their next move. Aiming for a suitable resolution is an essential aspect of making your text complete, but it is a subtle one that is easy to miss or get wrong.
When you share the status of a project with the CEO, she probably doesn’t care about every item in your work plan. It’s not that she doesn’t have the attention for a lengthy report; these details are simply not relevant to the decisions she has to make. Other aspects might be super-relevant, and drilling into the details of these aspects is probably desired. And the same applies when I’m writing an article. Part of designing the text is asking myself what level of resolution I wish to dive into. Take this article, for example: Is presenting the concept of resolution vs. length enough, or should I go into different use cases and their nuances? That is not a trivial question, but I must know what resolution I aim for upfront and use that to guide me in designing the text. If I’m not intentional, the text will be incoherent, confusing, and less engaging.
Defining the resolution is not a tactical issue but a strategic design issue. If our audience cares about the details, a short text will rarely satisfy them. Shorter texts cannot go into finer details and nuances. Setting a word-count limit without considering the expected resolution will make the text practically worthless. And the opposite is also true: if your audience wants to understand the high-level picture, going into details is not just unnecessary — it might be distracting. Too many details will mask the broader picture.
Obviously, the medium you choose plays an important role. You’d probably not write a 5000-word article on Twitter. But this doesn’t make the resolution question any less critical. If anything, it makes it even more so. If your audience cares about the finer details, Twitter is probably not the right platform for your message. If your stakeholders want to know the bits and bytes of your project’s budget, an email is the wrong medium. Neither of these platforms is inherently good or bad. But they could be suitable or utterly ineffective for the resolution you aim for. When we ask ourselves what level of details we want to communicate, we focus on the essence of the content. Picking the right communication platform should come next.
Any piece of content you write will be better when designed upfront. One of the first questions you should ask yourself is what is the effective resolution of the text. Once this is locked, the rest of the design (and the writing itself) will naturally flow from there.