“Most long-form is bad,” Alex Balk writes in a recent, decidedly short-form post on the Awl. “The problem arises from the ‘long’ part. If you need more than 600 words to say what you need to say you are trying too hard for accolades or you’re getting paid by the word.”
Balk’s 200-word rant reads as bite-size performative outrage. (A commenter rightly calls him out for “just striking a savvy-cynic pose.”)
“Are there some stories so intricate that they actually demand tens of thousands of words to tell them? Sure,” Balk continues. “Maybe six or seven a year.”
Six or seven . . . a year? Longform.org, the arbiter of deeply reported narrative prose, posts links each and every day to an average of two or three very good (and sometimes great) pieces of “new and classic nonfiction” that are all more than 2,000 words in length. (And while we’re on the subject, I agree with Atlantic editor James Bennet’s impressively reasoned point that the term “long-form” is problematic.) For his part, Balk generalizes his aversion in regard to “most long-form”—but the frustrating fact is there’s not nearly enough time to read the lion’s share of important narrative journalism being produced right now.
Just yesterday the Reader published a story Alex Balk would probably hate. “Tl;dr,” he’d sniff, scrolling quickly past the feature’s 12,496 words.
“Can a lawsuit deliver justice after a fatal police shooting,” by longtime staff writer Steve Bogira, is a window into the knotty, absorbing case against Marco Proano, the Chicago cop who killed 19-year-old Niko Husband outside a south-side dance party in the summer of 2011. It has all the ingredients of a captivating courtroom drama: allegations of police misconduct (notably a planted gun), tearful testimony, a well-intentioned civil jury struggling to deliver a just verdict. Steve devoted nearly six months to reporting and writing the piece. He attended the trial, pored over the evidence, talked to the victim’s mother and father, to lawyers, to the jury foreman—each of whom he humanizes in subtle, affecting ways. The result is a highly detailed, dispassionate procedural that somehow manages to be an emotional roller coaster illustrative of some profoundly troubling issues in Chicago’s criminal justice system.
It also happens to be a story about stories: the responding officers’ story of the shooting (the version of events the Independent Police Review Authority accepts), the victim’s friends’ story of what they witnessed during the incident—and the indisputable forensic story apparent in Niko Husband’s bullet-riddled body. Each of those accounts requires space to develop, to shed light on or conflict with the others.
Could Steve’s story have been shorter? Sure. Would it have lost a lot in the trimming? Undoubtedly. Meaningful physical and biographical details of the trial’s key subjects, extended passages of seesawing testimony that position the reader as the 13th juror—that and more may have been compromised in a condensed version.
I shudder to think how the piece would’ve read at a Balk-approved 600 words.
Still, there’s one sensible point Balk makes in his anti-long-form post: “It is unfortunate that society conflates length with depth and quantity with complexity,” he says. Effective, concise writing, after all, is a difficult, admirable craft. (“I didn’t have time to write a short letter,” goes the old adage, “so I wrote a long one instead.”)
No matter the word count, journalism shouldn’t be a pissing contest. That’s the long and the short of it.