Reading habits are changing, and writers are adapting to keep up.
Thousands of authors worldwide participate in a free program to try to write a novel from start to finish during the month of November. I joined this past fall and wrote a 55,000-word story in slightly less than one month. Then I put it away for two weeks so I could read and edit the manuscript with fresh eyes, and came to realize I needed to add about 15,000 more words of material to flesh out the characters and add depth to the story.
But in the three months since then, the additional material remains elusive. Why? With no deadline to keep me focused, my productivity dropped like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner to the edge of a cliff. My attention span seems to wander far and wide when I don’t have a reason to focus.
It’s not just me. Over the years I have noticed movie and TV producers have shortened scenes and even advertisements to flit rapidly to a different idea or storyline, as if the viewers can’t follow a train of thought for more than half a minute.
In fact, this trend has even come to the attention of Professor Gloria Mark of the University of California at Davis. She recently authored a book entitled, Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, which draws on almost 20 years of study she has conducted on attention spans.
Mark’s work, and an overview of the general problem, were recently discussed in a Newsweek article by Aristos Georgiou, “Our Attention Spans Are Declining, and Technology Is Not Solely to Blame.”
However, at the same time that our attention spans are plummeting, we are seeing an increasing trend for TV viewers to “binge-watch” series on streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Prime TV. A recent study reported by Johns Hopkins Medicine found that binge-watching has been steadily increasing in recent years, especially during the pandemic.
So, while people struggle to focus on a single screen of material for more than a few dozen heartbeats, they will spend about four hours a night watching a string of episodes of a series that they would ordinarily have to see one per week. Is it because commercial TV programming has become so mundane that they flee to alternatives to the usual format? Or, the author asks, is it similar to binge-eating as a response to stress?
I would also note that many TV series these days seem to keep at least four sub-plots running at the same time as the primary story, and the flitting from one short scene to the next also often involves jumping from one sub-storyline to another—sometimes even in different time periods. Many series may preface a scene with an onscreen notice reading, “Five Weeks Earlier” or “Ten Years Later” to give either the backstory or the long-term aftermath of the action in the current scene.
Perhaps this is related to the decline in attention spans. Rather than wait for weekly installments of a series, binge-watchers want to see it all right now, and they want immediate answers as to why such-and-such happens and what happens later down the road. But rather than focus just on the main story, they need to “multi-task” by trying to follow four or five storylines simultaneously because the viewers are used to interruptions. We have grown so accustomed to interruptions of our concentration that we have built-in assumptions that we will be interrupted; when no external interruptions occur, we create our own. (Cue the social media, email, and computer solitaire.)
As an author, I have noticed that I write very short chapters and keep several side plots going at the same time as the main story. I was a print journalist for many years, so I have always tried to write as concisely as possible. As much as I admire JRR Tolkien and find his novels so much deeper and more fulfilling than the movies based on them, I could probably never build a world with thousands of years of historical lore like Middle Earth. Frank Herbert’s universe in Dune would also be a stretch for me. Many of my chapters range from a mere 750 to 1,500 words. Tolkien might use that many words just to recount an abbreviated tale of an ancient heroic elf that lays the background for a single scene in a much longer chapter of current events.
Looking to the future of literature, we also must take into account the increased popularity of audiobooks. According to Statistica.com, the use of audiobooks has grown ten-fold in the past decade. This development will have a significant impact for authors. If people are listening rather than reading our text, we will probably need to write shorter sentences and use less complex language. Writing dialogue may mean using fewer voices or at least identifying speakers at the beginning of paragraphs rather than the middle or end. Using multiple voice actors to differentiate between characters would prove too costly.
The world of writing has changed significantly since I got into journalism decades ago. When I celebrate my 125th birthday, I probably will not even attempt to read the news that day. Whatever medium writers are using to deliver information at that time, I can be fairly certain that it won’t require me to hold a sheet of paper in my hand or gaze onto a desktop computer screen. Maybe I’ll invite some 75-year-old kid to my birthday party who can show me how to use whatever technology is popular among the younger generation.