Miscalibrated Internet Receptor Stalks

Short Attention Span Theater: AP Edition

This is a long, drawn-out response I whipped up to x84jdh's post about some new AP style guides asking writers to tighten up their articles.

The question x84jdh poses is:

Why? Because "readers do not have the attention span for most long stories and are in fact turned off when they are too long."

I wonder if this is an effect of moving to largely digital formats? I know I can't be arsed to read anything on a screen much longer than a page or two (unless I'm the one working on it).


Yep, readers of most mass media have short attention spans, and that's nothing new — it's not just a digital-age anomaly. It wasn't that long ago that a good chunk of the newspaper-buying public were barely functionally literate, or barely functionally literate in English, so the stories had to be direct and simple in order to convey the most necessary information as efficiently as possible. That's why the comics pages were so big and brilliant — they were a selling point, and non-English speakers could get much of what was going on.

I took journalism classes back when this new-fangled Internet thing was just finding its feet. Print newspapers were still fairly widespread, and print journalism was still done much like it had been for the past 50 years — we still used micro-tape recorders.

(You can skip to the TL;DR at the bottom now if you want.)


And the research showed most people didn't read entire stories back then. At best the average person scanned the stories, and that's why you needed to put the most salient information in the lead (I always thought of that as the thesis statement), the most important details in the next couple of paragraphs, and save the hairy and related stuff for the end.



In the 1990's most people were busy, there was too much to read in the entire paper as it was, and there were competing forces for their 1990's attention, like the radio and cable news and 2.3 children. Not much has changed, except for the things competing for your attention.


Articles that employ bent or confused structures are also where you're more likely to find bad writing, ideologically-motivated pieces, or poorly-edited articles. The leads are buried and crucial details are either missing, stuck in non-sequiturs so they're glossed over, or found at the bottom of the article where most people aren't arriving at in the first place.

This is why it's important to both know how to employ a good, informative structure (if your goal as a writer is to be informative), and how to recognize one (if your goal as a reader is to be informed).



Another thing we learned was to keep your paragraphs short and tight. There's a mental barrier that's crossed when a paragraph looks like a bite-sized chunk (oh, I can get through that) and when a paragraph looks like a three-course meal (I came here to get the facts, not a novella). Pointed paragraphs rarely cross that barrier.


You can actually trick a reader into reading more by breaking up the graphs and using a direct, active voice that front-loads the most important info for each graph in the first sentence or two.

That's also why so many newspaper paragraphs are only one sentence long.

Breaking up a piece by subheadings also helps the reader reach visible milestones more readily. If a reader sees they have four tight paragraphs before they get to the next subheading and a clear shift in focus that builds on what they've just read, they'll be more likely to plug along than if if they're staring at a waterfall of info dump.



Another reason why this isn't a digital-age issue comes from neurology. The primate brain is just hardwired for a limited amount of attention — about 10 minutes — before it starts to wander and wonder about the surroundings. Unless the reader is focusing direct, intense attention on a particularly engaging task, they have about 10 minutes before their brain starts to get curious about the rest of the world.*


In other words the attention paid to reading a novel you really dig will differ from the attention paid to an article among hundreds of other articles in that paper or on that website that day.

If you really want an informed readership, there are ways around that limited-attention window: Use that inverted pyramid structure, and become a strong enough writer that you give your readers something to re-attract their attention every few paragraphs.



In terms of reader attention, one big issue in the digital age is the limitless column inches available on a very physically-limited format. Whether you're reading on a laptop screen, a tablet, a phone, or a bank of screens, odds are every screen you read on is smaller than a newspaper, and probably smaller than a magazine. Again, there's a weird unconscious mental barrier where all that info confined in this little space doesn't quite compute. It's literally the TARDIS problem — the digital news source is bigger on the inside.


When you pick up a paper, you are holding in your hands the boundaries of that day's articles, but when you log on, you're diving into the oceanic.


So there's a strange sense of limitlessness when dipping into a world of links instead of pages, and for readers, it takes developing readerly discipline and an inner sense of boundaries.

For most readers, however, that limitlessness likely results in many bouncing from link to link and article to article more quickly than they would in a physically printed format, especially if they have limited time. With only so much time to devote to reading online, if the reader is trying to get as much info as possible, bouncing around can give the (false) sense of having read more.


But writers also have to deal with that strange limitlessness. You may have guidelines as an online writer, maybe there are house rules. But you're not necessarily told by an editor how many pixels to keep it under in the same way print writers are given a limited number of words. This can make for wonderful long-form journalism, but it also creates more opportunities to lose the reader's evolution-forged limited attention span.


People have always had short attention spans, limited time to devote to news articles, and a limited capacity for comprehending articles. The press used to take that into account for print news. The AP seems to be reiterating that, and it may be necessary for the digital age.



* The 10-minute attention span with a capacity for intense focus is probably an evolutionary byproduct. Our forebears who didn't look up and around every 10 minutes probably didn't live long enough to become our ancestors. But those who could combine worldly attention with the occasional moments of intense, sustained focus in safer settings were the ones who helped invent tools and ways of finding food and art. John Medina has done quite a bit of neurological research in this area, so you can go to him for more if you want.

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