Writing for 21st-Century Readers

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
Much has been said about the limited attention spans of modern day audiences for every form of show business—be it music, television shows or Hollywood films. It takes an inexperienced author a while to realise that they too are entering the cut-throat world of show business, and that their act—which is their book—needs to perform in a way that grabs and keeps the interest of a fickle mob of readers, who appear to have the attention span of a hyperactive goldfish with attention-deficit-disorder!

I'm currently reading Bored and Brilliant, by Manoush Zamarodi, which argues the case for being bored as a way of increasing creativity and productivity; this means controlling excessive use of social media.

In one chapter, Zamarodi examines what she terms Reading Incomprehension, whereby dozens of readers contacted her to say that they were unable to get through all of a novel or even a magazine article. Even professional journalists admitted problems to her, with their eyes skipping around the page—as if scrolling on Facebook or Twitter—finding it hard to focus on the meaning of the text and looking for a quick pay-off. With a book, this can be a long time in coming.

Before the Web, reading was primarily a linear activity. The Internet has hyperlinks, scrolling screens, photographs, embedded video clips and sometimes an immense amount of information, that's impossible to take in...which encourages nonlinear reading. Our brains haven't adapted to this new way of reading, even if it's supplanted the traditional method, meaning that our comprehension has declined, as has our patience—we move on too quickly. Various scientific studies have been done, that prove readers' recall of a story that they read in printed form is better than those who read it on a Kindle.

This is partly due to the depth at which people read. With a book in your hand, you can pause to think, re-reading a sentence to savour its meaning; it may be a slower process than scanning a page on an electric screen, but it ultimately brings more enjoyment and satisfaction.

All the same, being faced with huge paragraphs can be intimidating. In the last year, I've read a few novels that were originally published in the 1950s and 1960s, where paragraphs were more than one page long; they looked like mountains to climb.

It appears there's a trend towards making the pages of a printed book imitate the appearance of a smartphone or Kindle. Journalist Constance Grady, who writes for the Vox website, recently came across a novel that was structured like a season of a television series, with each chapter being one episode. This is a deliberate marketing ploy by an outfit called Serial Box.

Meet a new kind of book, designed for the age of Peak TV

By coincidence, I recently started to read a highly-praised crime novel by a debut author, which has a modern way of laying out the pages, to include pages of social media postings gossiping about the investigation into a missing child. Close to Home, by Cara Hunter, has police interviews of suspects and witnesses printed in italics, the questions and answers widely spaced, as are newspaper reports on the case, which appear in a separate box. There are very few long paragraphs, with most averaging 4-5 lines. Each page has a lot of white space...making it look easy to tackle—as well as resembling the screen of an electronic reader. The sprawling format means that the paperback version has a few more pages than is usual for a debut crime novel, at 361 pages, and I'm surprised that it still comes in at an 85,219 word count.

I'm only 100 pages into it, so I'm reserving judgement on its effectiveness as a crime story. It's certainly has a modern look in how the printed page is arranged, which presumably came from the publisher's marketing and design departments putting their heads together.

All of these studies and developments in publishing have made me reconsider how I've been arranging my Cornish Detective novels. Although I'm a veteran reader, I've noticed, over the last few years, that I feel a bit weary when I turn a page to see that there are very long paragraphs facing me, so do I really want to inflict such obstacles on my readers? When being taught how to write, as a youngster, the advice was to discuss one topic in a paragraph, and to begin a new paragraph when the topic changed. The same thing applies to when a new speaker starts saying something.

I largely stay true to these rules, but sometimes when my detectives are chewing the fat over, say, on a complicated subject such as money laundering, the paragraphs expand to look enormous. I've sometimes introduced another speaker, just to chop them up! :rolleyes:

What do you think of these new ways of laying out the pages of a novel?

Have you noticed any trends that look like they're aimed at readers with limited attention spans?

Is your own writing affected by worrying that you'll bore your readers with overlong paragraphs, or even lengthy sentences?

I'm not sure about the Close to Home book. I'm nursing a resentment towards social media. Maybe someday I'll write something about the difference between the internets promise and what actually happened.

But anyways...

Yes. I've always thought whitespace has made a difference and of course it makes more of a difference now. It doesn't make us more important or cleverer or better writers if we can write long paragraphs with big words.

I also think it's good to have chapters which have the rhythm of a short story. I think that's always been true. I like O'Henry, with his twists at the end.

The point isn't to be so complicated that readers can't read what you've written. It's not a virtue to be incomprehensible.

While the length of our attention spans is deplorable, communicating as much as you can in as few words as possible has always been a worthwhile goal.

Older pieces of writing do require a different type of attention. If I was an English teacher I'd insist students read something that requires that sort of attention. It would be good for their neural pathways.

But I'm not a teacher. So, not my circus, not my monkeys.

Yes I've noticed trends. Shorter attention spans means shorter books. I don't think people are going to stop reading, I think their reading is going to change. Some people think it's going to move towards interactive types of stories. If you remember Nicole, her husband did some of that.

And ... our attention spans have been shortening for a long while now ... and when I was a kid ... I read a lot of those longwinded books ... and understood them ... and liked them ... so I guess longer books with longer sentences and longer paragraphs will still be read ... if they were ever worth reading.

...and to your last question... yes. Whitespace is good.
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