Thursday, April 28, 2022

May I Have Your Attention, Please?

 A lot has been written about shrinking attention spans. How the internet and text messages have made people unwilling – maybe even unable - to sustain interest in anything lasting more than a few seconds. This may be true. It could also be blaming the victim.


I have said for years that the internet needs editors. Electrons are essentially free, so there are few, if any, restrictions on the length of an article or blog post. In newspapers and magazines, the amount of space is finite and limited. You get a budget for your article and an editor trims it to fit if you run long.


This forces writers to make decisions. How much detail should I provide? How much history? Should I include this section at all? Now too many people don’t seem to care if a story runs thousands of words; it’s not like the internet will fill up.


It’s also common to blame the young for this lack of attention, likely because it’s always fashionable to blame the young for everything. I see it more as a demand to cut to the chase, as there are too many competing demands on their time to spend too much of it wallowing in the thousand words that will still be inadequate to describe a sunset.


I’m not young, but my reading tastes used to embrace beautifully crafted sentences (think Chandler and James Lee Burke). Now that I’ve become exposed to writers like Dashiell Hammett and George V. Higgins, I have much less patience with rhapsodic waxing.


A story or article should never have more words than it needs; this number varies by author and style of writing. That said, I recently read a book by a respected author I like and couldn’t help but try to edit the book in my head. “Here are three sentences when only one was needed.” “Wa-a-ay more backstory than we need on this character.” “He’s riding a horse. We don’t need the entire history of the ranch.”


Conscious of this, I try to keep blog posts between 600 and 800 words. (Interviews often run a little longer.) That’s not because I’m lazy (I am admittedly quite lazy), but an attempt to be considerate of my readers, who have plenty else vying for their attention. It’s actually more work, as I often cut as much as 25% from a piece, which brings to mind Mark Twain’s famous comment, “I’m sorry this letter is so long, but I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.” I take the time, which is one of the reasons I’ve trimmed this blog to once a week. (The first draft of this post was 708 words. The final is 627, and it’s a better post because of it.)


No better writing advice exists than that of Elmore Leonard: leave out the parts people tend to skip. What writers don’t do often enough is wonder why people skip them. The default is to cite the diminished attention span, though it’s just as likely the author included excessive description, over-explained something, or just plain wasn’t all that interesting.


Several years ago The Beloved Spouse™ and I had lunch with The Sole Heir and her then boyfriend, now The Sole Son-in-Law. TSH told a lovely story that flitted from point to point and person to person like a bee collecting pollen. This put me in mind of a story I then told in my own style, which led the boyfriend/SSIL to face TSH and say, “Now that’s how you tell a fucking story.” I have few fonder memories as a storyteller.


Always be sensitive to your audience. Maybe their attention spans are too short. Or maybe they have higher standards for what holds their attention than you’re writing for.

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