My father was a professor and would stay up all night (and sleep all day…) to grade tests.  I often joked he should adopt the throw em’ down the stairs approach, higher grades to those that travel further.

Many fundraising tests have pitted longer vs. shorter with the former winning.   But “always” and “never” are dangerous, I was involved with a test of 1.15million pieces pitting 2 page letter vs. one, yielding no performance difference but higher cost for the two pager.  And if longer is better then why has the average word count in envelope mailers decreased by 124.22% in the last 20 years according to WhosMailingWhat?

We’d be remiss if not also pointing out that length has no bearing on our measures of Readability or Story Quality (or even presence), which are both correlated with response rate.   Short can suck, long can suck.

But for purposes of this post let’s abide by longer tends to be better.  Why?

In literature there is a positive correlation between length and character development, plot and depth which contribute to the immersive quality of great writing.  It stands to reason some of the appeal of that longer fundraising letter is more real estate to further immerse the reader.

But might there be some throw em’ down the stairs mental shortcuts also at play for longer letters?

Longer books on the shortlist for literary awards – Pulitzer, National Book Award – tend to be the winners.  That this relationship exists is odd given that the shortlisting process is a homogenizing one for quality and length.  There ain’t a lot of quick, beach reads in line to be the next great American novel.

Researchers built a model to predict literary winners from the shortlist and found that length was still a significant predictor even when controlling for quality, gender of author and prior awards.

What’s going on?  A couple explanations are germane for our fundraising world.

  •  Bias for picking winners that match prior winners.  It’s called representativeness bias and we’ve got our gold standard or prototype in our head for what a great novel looks like, feels like.   Can a great novel be as long as the Cliff Notes version of War & Peace?
  • Assume extra work for longer and reward it. This is the effort heuristic and apparently Twain’s acknowledgement that he’d have written a shorter letter if he had more time doesn’t hold sway.

That short can beat long, even once, tells us we need to dig deeper than word count.  That quantity is often it’s own quality tells us more matters than the intrinsic combination of words.