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No, Attention Spans Are NOT Getting Shorter

12134731775_ac24d908be_bThe internet is making us dumb.

You may have read Nicholas Carr espousing the idea, and I’m sure you’ve seen the research that shows that concentration and comprehension suffers when reading online, and now we have authors suggesting that books should be written for shorter attention spans.

I think that is a terrible idea, but that is the argument Judith Briles made on The Book Designer last week.

The standard how-to and business book tomes of yesterday have become dinosaurian. Blame it on TV … the way we take in information … the Internet. The fact is, attention spans are shrinking. As a writer and author, the probability that your words need to shrink between the covers of your book is high.

When I stepped away from writing and speaking in the healthcare field in mid-2000 exclusively dedicating my time to authors and publishing, two truths bubbled up.

First the need to write visually; and second, to write short … or at least, shorter.

While I don’t doubt that there are more shorter nonfiction works today than were published ten years ago, I don’t believe the change was caused by shortening attention spans. I think what we’re seeing is digital production removing the artificial commercial constraints imposed by the printing industry.

In the olden days books had to fall into certain page counts so they could be fed into the sausage-making machinery and spat out with predictable production costs and price tags.

Now, ebooks let us publish books of any length we like, and POD enables us to print those books. This frees writers from constraints and enables ideas to exist at their natural length and not be stretched to fit the book-length requirement of old.

Rather than having to fit the round hole of yesteryear, books can now be squares, rhomboids, or any other shape. This is not the fault of attention spans but rather the benefit of tech making the industry more efficient.

If you want to write a shorter story, you should do it. Let a story grow to its natural length, and then end it.

But don’t rewrite a story because you think readers have shorter attention spans. That is simply not true.

Are readers more distracted these days? Yes.

Do we flit from social network to news article to video and back to social network? Sure.

Does that impair concentration and comprehension? Absolutely.

But I would not assume that the same problem extends to books.

One needs to write to keep readers interested, yes, but that is not the same thing as writing for a short attention span. If an author can keep a reader interested then the reader will come back to a book each time they put it down. What’s more, if the reader is interested they’ll pick up the next book in the series and continue reading.

Part of the reason I find this premise of a short attention span so ridiculous is that I just finished a 5 book series.

Over the course of a month, I started and finished Larry Niven’s Fleet of World series. I picked up the first book, and when I finished it I moved on to the next and the next and the next. They’re not his best work, and I won’t read them again, but I did read them one-two-three-four-five.

Rather than being short, my attention span for this author and this series lasted over a month. (And that’s not even the first time this attention-deficit blogger has finished a series in one go; I sometimes consume whole series when I discover new authors I like.)

Folks, you’re welcome to write for short attention spans. I think you’re sabotaging yourself, but it is your choice. I would recommend, though, that you write to keep a reader’s interest rather than assume the reader is deficient.

A reader’s attention may be fractured, but I would not assume that it is short.

Allow me to prove my point.

If you made it to this point in the post then you just proved that it is possible to catch and keep a reader’s attention even on the web in these busy times. Chew on that.

If I can keep your attention through a 700 word blog post, do you really think that books need to be written for shorter attention spans?

images by David BlackwellEnokson

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derdide May 11, 2015 um 10:59 am

I’m in full agreement to what you wrote. I don’t believe in shorter attention span, I experiment similar cases to yours – I just re-read Herbert’s Dune series, for the I-don’t-know-how-much-th time with still the same pleasure.
But I truly believe in way harsher competition towards my attention: boredom is less of an issue, I don’t read books out of spite. I have no time left to read not-so-interesting books and I have no time left to read not-so-interesting chapters… But give me something that hooks me up, and I will delightfully ignore the notifications of my smartphone, the RSS updates of my laptop and the season openings on my TV and keep regretting the book to be way too short 🙂

Dan Meadows May 11, 2015 um 11:20 am

One of the first things I did at my first editor gig was tell all the writers working for me to scrap any notions of word counts. If it’s a 400 word story, write that. If it’s a 5,000 word story, write that. It’s up to me to present the work. We paid more for longer pieces but I made it perfectly clear I wouldn’t be paying for unnecessary filler to meet some arbitrary length standard. It made the pagination tougher on me because it was no longer blocky, plug and play. But the end result was much better, judging by the number of reader compliments touting having read each issue cover to cover. I suspect the attention spans are shorter stuff mostly comes from people who’s work isn’t keeping people’s attention, not the other way around.

Brandy May 11, 2015 um 11:48 am

I think is a sign that we are applying the lessons of content marketing to books in indiscriminate ways. Personally, I interact with a book in fundamentally different ways than with, say, a blog post or other forms of digital content (even though I primarily read ebooks.)

fjtorres May 11, 2015 um 12:04 pm

How about looking back at book lengths in the 60’s in the heyday of paperback originals? Lots of 40-50k novels selling side by side with a few 400-600k monsters.
The 70-100k "standard length" is a relatively recent development.

Niels Have May 11, 2015 um 4:14 pm

Spot on! I love that people think they are right, just because they say "the fact is" :).

Tha fact is, that people don’t really change!

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Patricia Lenhart May 11, 2015 um 6:15 pm

I think the Game of Thrones and Outlander series prove that attention spans are long enough if the books are worth it.

Nate Hoffelder May 11, 2015 um 6:17 pm

I think GoT proved that attention spans are long enough to survive even bad books.

Sharon Reamer May 12, 2015 um 4:48 am

And Outlander continues to prove that series can go past their useful length. I’m reading Dorothy Dunnett’s historical Scottish dramas (and this series has got to be the source inspiration for Outlander, btw), and even though the books are long and are not easy, I’m plowing through them at an alarming rate, one after another, totally hooked.

Nate Hoffelder May 12, 2015 um 6:10 am

I’ve read the first book in that series in order to learn why it was made into a tv show. Other than sharing certain memes with GoT, I don’t see it.

Luckily for me I stopped after the first book.

William D. O’Neil May 12, 2015 um 10:12 pm

Although I’ve published fiction, at this point I’m focusing on nonfiction. Naturally this involves reading a lot of nonfiction as part of my research. Some of the books I read are very recent, some decades old. There seems to be a secular trend toward longer and longer books, written often by authors who seem to want to be sure that they display every fact (or purported fact) they know on the subject. It’s often wearying, even though I read very fast. From asking others I know that many long books, even quite good ones, get set aside unfinished because the author has worn out the reader’s interest in the topic, or simply because life intervenes.

I’ve shaped my own work accordingly, including only what I believe is needed for a good understanding of the subject and the points I seek to make. I just sent off a review to an academic journal of a book about German planning for World War I that is 600 pages long. I’ve had experts in the field tell me that they found my 200-page book on the subject much clearer and more engaging.

I firmly believe that a book should be as long as it needs to be, and not a page longer. I actually wrote nearly 300 pages of text for my book, but pared away the things that I felt really did not serve the purpose well.

I believe that fiction follows the same principles. Frank Herbert’s "Dune" is vast, but it never slackens, never gets flabby. His "Dragon in the Sea" is much shorter, and again is just the right length. There’s always a right length.

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