You probably don’t remember when you read David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster,” if you ever read it at all. I was in a summer program at Emerson College in 2008, long before I started taking on freelance writing jobs and long before I became an editor.
Wallace became a really big name in his lifetime, and long-form storytelling was his medium (to say the very least about the behemoth Infinite Jest). Published in Gourmet in August 2004, Wallace’s piece about the Maine Lobster Festival hardly seemed like something I’d be interesting in reading about (since I never liked lobster and vastly prefer New Hampshire). On top of that, I didn’t understand why we were reading it in my 2 pm creative nonfiction workshop. This may make me sound incredibly ignorant, but when I was a high school junior commuting into Boston every day to attend the Young Writers program, I didn’t even know articles could be that long. And it’s maybe the most effective piece of kind-of journalism I’ve read to this day.
It starts out like a completely normal, even vanilla local interest piece, but it isn’t long before Wallace’s colorful descriptions and unique voice weave into parentheticals and witty footnotes throughout the article. Suddenly you’ve been reading for maybe twenty minutes, and you’re left feeling like you just finished a really good piece of creative nonfiction. And you want more.
Image attribution: Richard Wood
What I’ve learned from watching content marketing finds its footing in storytelling is that content creation doesn’t have to be, by any rigid standard, all that different from creative nonfiction. What’s more, it doesn’t have to adhere to snackable blog posts and listicles, no matter how busy you are. For established freelance writers who operate their own websites and maintain active blog presences, long-form content like Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” or The New York Times’ “Tomato Can Blues” can seem not only superfluous, but irrelevant. When you’re a full-time independent contractor with kids and a small business to keep on track generating income, how in the world are you supposed to find time to write anything even half as long as “Consider the Lobster” if you don’t know there’s any tangible ROI to it? You may not even feel like you have enough time to read a Wallace-level piece, let alone plan and write one of your own for free.
Listicles and blog posts are pieces you’ve been producing that your potential future clients can quickly read (see: scan) and decide if they want to take you on. They feel familiar, doable, and maybe even a little non-committal, if we’re really being honest here. They help you stay relevant and show an active portfolio while you work on freelance writing jobs and contracted projects. The issue is that we perceive long-form content as asking too much of our audiences, be it readership or potential employers. If this were true, no ROI would exist for long-form projects, especially those we aren’t getting paid to create. But it isn’t true.
We’ve talked about trusting your audience, but there are other deep dives you can take to prove your value as a content creator in this competitive market. Trying your hand at long-form content is one of them.
I won’t bore you by dissecting the ROI of long-form content creation. But I will give you the SparkNotes, because you’re busy and we’re here to explain why investing in longer storytelling is worthwhile. Please forgive the irony of pitching long-form writing with bulleted pros.
TCS’s Lesley Vos explained, “As technology developed—smartphone screens grew bigger and higher definition, web design elements improved, and publishers adjusted to digital mediums—search engines began prioritizing long-form content. In 2012, serpIQ conducted a study of the average content length of domains on the first page of SERPs. As you can tell, the longer the article, the higher it was ranked.”
When it comes to getting your content peak search traffic, Google actually cares about what it involves; it’s smart enough to see through keyword-stuffing, irrelevant tags, and tons of other desperate marketing tricks. Long-form content worth reading is a page-turning (so to speak) mixture of personal voice, storytelling, and data journalism—with some graphics thrown in too, if you’re more the Wait But Why type of creator.
Facebook has waged war on fake news and clickbait (even though clickbait may be all its fault to begin with). But cheap, aggregated content is about more than headlines. Can you honestly say you’ve finished every listicle you’ve ever opened just because it was short? Addictive junk food will eventually make you sick. Effective storytelling just doesn’t share that setback.
If you’re looking to establish yourself as a thought leader and showcase your expertise to clients, the benefits of long-form that Vos outlines will give you a dopamine hit with every single bullet point. Here’s a quick recap.
Long-form feels more valuable, more professional, and higher quality, and it performs better as long as the story you’re telling is really good. Freelance writing jobs come in all shapes and sizes, and freelancers who produce quality content and are recognized for their expertise tend to get the top tier of assignments. If you’ve ever gotten feedback that your content seems too “surface level” for what they’re looking to invest in, it’s time to consider the lobster.
Pieces like “Tomato Can Blues” don’t just appear overnight via premade WordPress template or casual agreements with artsy friends. How can a full-time freelancer prove their thought leadership, keep clients reading longer, compel clients to their services, and ensure they’re getting the most bang for their buck in creating these posts for their website?
Image attribution: Picography
Every freelancer’s situation is different; some involve managing personal business finances, taking care of children, juggling complicated health matters…the list goes on. In fact, that list may just be the reason so many stick with periodic blog posts and listicles in the first place. When you read enough articles about disappearing attention spans and bite-sized content for clicks, it’s logical to get it in your head that writing anything longer will be a waste of time, effort, and resources—especially when you’re doing it for free on your own site to get more clients.
Don’t feel overwhelmed or overzealous looking at successful long-form content pieces. Research has shown us time and time again that even on our smartphones, we’re willing to invest in good, long-form storytelling. I work an average of twelve hours a day, and I still get completely caught up in The Atlantic’s pieces all the time. Why? It’s simple: They’re great. Their caliber is outstanding—and everyone knows it. What’s more, you don’t have to ONLY write long-form content. Telling a long-form story could ease your publishing cadence so you’ll need to publish less to see results. One long-form article could be more effective than your last 20 listicles combined, which means you can produce fewer of them. Imagine earning back the time you would have spent publishing smaller posts so you can then take on more paying projects while you attract stronger clients.
Introducing a few long-form content pieces to your website will show potential clients you’re not only willing to go the extra mile but that you’ve mastered it. True storytelling and thought leadership are an endeavor, and anyone who can deliver effective, impactful, diverse content at length to various audiences has proven their expertise time and time again. And those are traits that brands will want to invest in and harness for themselves.
The ROI is clear. Now all you need to do is figure out what story you’re going to tell. I think the Maine Lobster Festival, however, has been pretty thoroughly covered.
Featured image attribution: Dennis Redfield