Can you say much in 500 Words? Essays vs. Blogs

At the book launch party last week for Mindfire, I gave a short talk. Someone asked about the new book, and essays, and I explained how it is my favorite form.

My friend Laura wrote up a good post riffing on this idea:

What I think he was getting at – and this is not confirmed by the time of posting – is that many bloggers write and ramble. They toss their ideas out there online and add to the content overload that we experience every time we log into Facebook or check our stream on Twitter. And the process of writing an essay requires restraint. It requires you to think and process and prove what you want to say before you throw it out there.

And the 500-word limit means you need to get to your point. Fast. It’s a reflection of the 140-character, enlighten us, but make it quick, world that we live in. If you can’t get to your point right away, then you shouldn’t even bother.

She makes some other excellent points, so you should read her full post.

For a long time I believed an essay was rigidly defined as what I was taught in college. I’ve learned since an essay is whatever I as a writer say it is. Form is just a bag to put things in. If you can find people who keep reading what you’re writing, don’t worry much about form. It’s mostly English majors who are struggling to write much themselves who argue much about form. And if you want to be all factual about it, the history of the essay points back to Montaigne, who followed none of the standard instructions English professors (many of whom can’t write their way out of a paper bag) pretend are universal law.

The rub is that good writing must be concise without being shallow. Much of what passes as brevity (twitter, facebook and the web) is definitely short, but also empty. Just because you use few words doesn’t guarantee you have anything interesting to say, nor that you are saying it well.

500 or 1000 words is an intellectual sprint. The challenge of effectively taking on a big topic in such a short space demands thinking, editing, style and courage, all of which I need to practice as a writer. Good blog posts are indistinguishable to me from a good essay. Once the writer has brought me happily into their world, form fades away.

14 Responses to “Can you say much in 500 Words? Essays vs. Blogs”

  1. JIm Mitchem

    Agreed. I don’t even call myself a blogger, as much as a digital essayist. 90% of my blog posts are at or below 500 words. I blame ADD, and the fact that as a copywriter, I’d always been tasked to get to a (compelling) point quickly and tactfully. Even when I ramble, I still tend to do so succinctly. It works for me. And for the people who subscribe. I mean, who has the time to read anyway?

    1. Scott Berkun

      Jim: I think people find time to read compelling writing. Many people complain about how hard it is to find good writing. Volume does not equal quality.

      I believe if I can write a good sentence, and make the reader want to read the next one, I should be able to complete that loop for any length. A blog post, an essay, a book chapter, a book. It’s the same skill applied at different levels of scale.

  2. Greg Linster

    I think most essayists attempt to tackle the question: “what is an essay?” at some point in their writing career. I don’t know how to precisely and tersely define an essay, but I know an essay when I read one.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I’m just hoping it’s not the equivalent of jumping the shark for writers.

  3. Robert Fayle

    The 500 word essay is definitely a skill and one that I didn’t master until 4th year of university. Once I had it though, a friend and i turned it into a game. 60 minutes, a micky of silver tequila, a pack of cigarettes, and music so loud you couldn’t talk. Some of my finest work that year came in those 60 minute sprints as you don’t have time for superfluous arguments.
    I still use a similar technique, minus the tequila and cigarettes, when writing position papers, or summative emails for work. Writing concise informative pieces is a useful skill that is unfortunately one many people have never learned.

  4. B Strand

    In Hamlet, Polonius famously says, “Brevity is the soul of wit, so let me be brief…”

    To which Gertrude responds, importantly, but less famously, “More matter with less art.”

  5. Sean Crawford

    When I was a child, I spake as a child and I essayed as a child. Now that I am a man, I have put school-boy essays behind me…. Some one once said that if the Harry Potter books were taught in school, alongside essays, they would be as hated as essays are.

    In the grown-up world, of course, Harry is good, and I have developed an attention span that allows me to tackle topics that need to be sneaked up on… if they are to be retained for longer than yesterday’s news.

    In my experience, many of my good and concise essays are much longer than a mere 500 words.

    Yes, I could write short. Then again, I could also write for type A personalities, not Bs; for left brain not right brain; for linear-concrete thinkers not random-abstract. How strange- the former are often self-righteous against the latter, but seldom the reverse. Just as sports fans might “diss” Star Wars fans but not the other way around… I think there’s an essay topic here, but it won’t be done in 500 words.

  6. Zel Komadina

    Scott, I can see your point
    Artistry of Poetry
    is blessed one

  7. Kyle Branche

    Great topic, something I’ve been trying to figure out with my own writing style of short stories and encounters based on my experiences as a veteran professional and private bartender in Los Angeles. What category does my work fit in most comfortably? Short Stories, Essays, Memoirs? They seem to fall fairly equally in all three.

    The stories basically take readers on the journeys with me (of which there are many) to a wide variety of interesting gigs and special events that most people are not even aware of happening. 500 words is impossible for my content, I’ve tried it. It reads too much like a roving reporter, quick and out, with a sense of blurb emptiness. Maybe an editor could do better, but not without the stories suffering the removal of too much body, life and color. I value a certain level of detail.

    I find myself more interested in catering to the readers out there who have more than a 60-second attention span, and prefer a little more depth-of-world to immerse themselves in. My pieces range from 1200-3000 words, all due to the varied durations of time that I spent behind the bar and what all was happening around me.

    I’m compiling 40 shorts to put out as Book 1 in a possible series next year titled “Life Behind Bars”. But I still would like to know what category my work falls into more than others. It feels strange to not know, especially if I decide to seek representation!

  8. Ryan

    I think this is interesting. I disagree with the idea that you need to “prove what you want to say before you throw it out there.” Certainly an essay is well reasoned and free of distraction, but the very idea of an essay is to explore something. Essay, to assay, is to critically analyze and consider. Many great essays meander and arrive in a place not even the author had imagined.

    I’m not suggesting that you publish rambling, meaningless or uncomprehensible content on your blog. Rather, I’m suggesting that it is perfectly legitimate and valid to write an essay with no idea where you or it are going. For me, the very act of writing is how I untangle and process what I think or believe. Sometimes I discover things I never considered or thought to be true.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I agree in spirit. But a 1000 word ramble is mostly in need of a second or third revision. Some writers can make there wanderings riveting or compelling or even just entertaining, but most can’t. And it’s concision in the revisions that makes an essay better.



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