No, Attention Spans Are NOT Getting Shorter
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?