Writing for Shorter Attention Spans

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When I was younger, I would sit and read five book fantasy series with four to eight hundred pages each.  The stories were gripping enough to hold my attention and there wasn’t enough time in the day to read them.  As I’ve grown older and lived in a world so very different from the one I grew up in, I have come to realize something about myself:  I have a much shorter attention span than I used to.

You see, I grew up in the 1980’s and 90’s.  Back then, we had television and videos games, but not nearly at the level in which it pervades society today.  I remember much of my childhood being spent outdoors, running around in the woods and through creeks.  I had good friends who I had sleepovers with and I was involved in activities that were not only physical, but took a long time to do.  Though it had many problems, my childhood was much more like the traditional upbringing that most Americans think about when we look back to our past.

Then I hit my high school years and the computer era consumed my life.  There was a rapid shift from wanting to be outside having fun to slowly merging myself with this incredible piece of technology that could take me to far more interesting and amazing places than my simple community could.  Even the imaginary journeys I followed in my books paled in comparison.  Three dimensional graphical games invaded my life and grabbed my attention, and the things that had defined my childhood fell away.

I’ve spent most of my life in front of a computer screen.  It’s difficult for me to jump into anything else.  So much of my time has been spent on computer generated adventures that imagining myself doing anything in the real world seems foreign to me.  Despite this, I have finally reached the point in my life where the draw of the instant gratification I get from computer activity no longer satisfies as it once did, and I find myself starting to wonder: what now?

This is where we get to the topic of this article.  I am in this slow process of waking up from a computer-generated dream, and as I start to interact more and more with the real world around me, I’m noticing that my ability to focus on things for an extended length of time is seriously diminished.  I see this most often when I’m watching YouTube videos.  I look at a video that is only about fifteen minutes and think I’ll be alright to watch the whole thing, but then I get a few minutes in and I’m impatient for them to get to the point.  I end up leaving the video because it feels like they’re taking far too long to just get to the point.

It’s just as bad when I’m reading.  I try to read the articles of others, but when I start to see that it’s more than just a few paragraphs, I get annoyed and click the back button.  It happened just before I was moved to write this article.  The article wasn’t much longer than the typical length of the articles I write myself, yet I was too impatient to sit through it and absorb what the person was trying to say.  I barely remember the subject of the article because I was too focused on wanting them to just get to the point.

I know that part of it is me and my history.  I have a problem with impatience and for most of my life that flaw has been catered to with technology.  One of the things I need to spend the next phase of my life working on is learning to slow down and let things happen the way they need to.  It doesn’t always have to be right now, and I know I’ll have a lot more peace in my life if I can figure that out.

On the other hand, we as writers also need to start understanding that we live in a world where most people just don’t have the patience to sit through things the way we used to have to.  With so many things on demand, the average person simply doesn’t feel that they should have to wait for anything.  I know most of the time I end up feeling that way, regardless of whether it’s justified or not.  It’s a natural extension of the society we now live in.  And if we want to engage more readers, we must learn to adjust to it.

I know that for myself, the limit is between eight and ten small paragraphs of text before I decide it’s not worth the time to figure out what the person is saying.  I’d like to increase that over time, but for now it’s about as far as I can focus before I get bored and move on.  I think that most people would like to see even fewer paragraphs than that, but it becomes difficult to include enough information for your thoughts to flow correctly if you try to squeeze them into too short an article.  So with that in mind, you’ll note that this article is exactly ten short paragraphs.

What do you think about the shortening attention span of our society?  Do you find that you struggle to get through articles once they reach a certain length, regardless of how interesting you find the topic?  Are there writers that you find engaging, yet you still struggle to read their work because they simply take too long to get to the point?  The reality is that as things continue to move along the path that they do, it’s only going to get worse.  If we want to keep up with it, we need to learn to distill our writing down to meet with our readers’ expectations.  Otherwise, we risk our content falling by the wayside.

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