Short attention span reading and writing

Part of writing effectively is being able to make your point with an economy of words. This is a necessary skill because your audience has a short attention span and won’t wait long.

The internet makes information accessible, but it also makes people impatient. The burden that comes with being able to access vast quantities of information is making time to read all of it.  There is a reason things like Google reader, RSS feeds and any news aggregator are popular. It saves time finding relevant information so time isn’t wasted finding articles to read.

Also, most of the time people don’t finish everything they start reading anyway. Most people aren’t there to admire your wonderful writing style, they are there to gather the most relevant information then move on to the next article.

The popularity of smartphones as a medium for reading information also necessitates short attention span reading. Reading a 20 page epic post on that tiny screen is uncomfortable. Also, people who read on their phones are probably on the go and looking for 10 to 15 minutes to kill. If they don’t finish reading what you write in that span, chances are they won’t get to it later.

There are a lot of great bloggers out there with outstanding reporting skills. They know how to find information, talk to the right people and have a good sense of where the story is, but they fail to cater to the short attention span readership. There are some bloggers out there that could learn a few basic tenets of news writing because it emphasizes brevity and getting to the point quickly, which is critical to keeping short attention span readers interested in what you write.

Here are some of the basics that you could use in organizing your future writing.

Reverse pyramid

When essay writing is taught in american high schools the model is a five paragraph essay with an introduction, three points and then a conclusion. Academic writing, also teaches us to slowly build to our point by providing all the basics and background information and then hit the reader with your point.

Short attention span writing requires you to think the opposite way. You reverse the pyramid and lead with the conclusion or the “news” first and then provide all of the context after that. While many articles are more than five paragraphs, those first few graphs are the most important  because your typical reader will not finish reading what you write.

A common mistake is burying the most relevant and interesting information under a sea of background information. Avoid this by asking yourself “What’s the most relevant information here?” then begin your story from there.

Short is the best
Brevity and simplicity go hand in hand when it comes to short attention span writing. I have two hard and fast rules when it comes to writing style. No more than three sentences per paragraph and if you need more than two commas to write a sentence then find another way to say it.

Big chunks of text are your enemy and should be avoided. It’s intimidating to the short attention span reader to see long paragraph. Three sentences is more than enough to make a single point.

Long sentences with multiple clauses are difficult for the short attention span reader to get through. If you find yourself going crazy with semicolons and long dashes then break it up. One good test is to read a sentence aloud. If you need more than one breath to get through it then it’s probably too long.

Ledes, Nutgraphs and Kickers

Ledes, nutgraphs and kickers are just fancy journalism terms for parts of a story.

Typically, a lede answers the question “What’s the news?” If you want to get one part of your story perfect, it’s this one because it’s the only part that the short attention span reader is guaranteed to get through.

The lede of your story can be as short as two paragraphs or as long as five. The most important part is that a reader should come away knowing the most relevant information right off the bat.

Here is an example of a lede from a game story I wrote:

The opening round of Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs rested on the wind and a prayer on Thursday night.
Fortunately for the Benicia High School boys soccer team, the ball bounced in its favor on a blustery day at Drolette Stadium as the Panthers tied their game against Cordova 1-1 on a stoppage time goal by senior Dante Arias in the second half. They later won 4-2 on penalty kicks after 20 minutes of scoreless overtime.

Your lede usually ends when you deliver the nutgraph, which is the  second paragraph in this story. The nutgraph delivers the less interesting context in one concise chunk. It answers the basic questions of “who, what, when where and how.”

Feature stories are more complex and require longer ledes then a breaking news stories. This lede required six paragraphs with a break in between before you got the gist of what was going on.

It’s been seven years, but Bethel High School coach Jeff Turner never lets any of his players forget about Mike Pennerman. The players break the huddle during practice chanting “Ball for Dawg” in honor of a teammate they have never met.
“That’s part of our past. It’s been a standard for our school since 2004,” Turner said. “The one thing we always do is to tell them how lucky they are and to take advantage of the time they have. It hits real close to home.”
Mike Pennerman was just 16 when he collapsed on the Bethel sideline after a botched extra-point play. He died two days after taking the field with his teammates on the Jaguars football team.


It’s been just four weeks, and the Vallejo High School girls basketball players are still reeling from the Nov. 17 death of Vallejo Officer Jim Capoot.
For Lovina Akauola, the shooting death of Capoot still brings her tears. She still struggles with the loss of her basketball coach, mentor and father figure.
“I try to forget about what happened and act like our coach is still here,” Akauola said. “I didn’t really believe that it was him at first. There are a lot of police officers out there. I didn’t really believe it until it came from one of the campus supervisors.”


Sports is where real life rarely intersects with the game between the lines. But when it comes to death, there isn’t a sport out there that will erase the emotional wounds often left behind. That’s been true in the case of two Vallejo tragedies. While different, they are similar in how the community and athletes reacted to them.

The nutgraph at the end marks the end of the lede and ties together the two subjects that will be explored in this article.

The kicker is a term that simply refers to the end of your story. It’s the last impression a reader will have after reading your story. It’s more useful for a feature story where you know a reader is going to finish it.

The best kickers usually involve a relevant quote or telling detail. Here’s the kicker from the above story.

For the Bethel football team, Pennerman will always have a presence on campus.
“I don’t know if you ever get back to normal. Me personally, (I) don’t want to get back to normal,” Turner said. “We want to have him be apart of us. It hurts forever and that’s not a bad thing. That shows you how important (Mike) is. It shows you how much influence Officer Capoot had.”


Resistance with the big “R”

The one thing that is garaunteed to kill creativity and stop your writing career in it’s tracks is Resistance with the big “R”. The kind of resistance I’m talking about is the preconditioned part of ourselves that really doesn’t like things to be different. It’s the part that craves comfort, wants assurances that things are going to be ok.

Resistance strikes everybody, but more so for the innovators, the creatives, the artists and writers of the world because that is the nature of what they do— making something out of nothing. It’s also scary as hell and anybody that doesn’t tell you so is lying or really just won’t admit it to themselves.

At it’s core, Resistance is the refusal to accept that things change. The problem is that change will happen whether we want it to or not  so we resist by searching for the things that will make us feel like we are on stable ground.

The success and failure of others is one source of Resistance.

I read a story  that tells me the economy is bad, so it becomes a reason that I wait till it gets better before quitting my stable job to pursue something I am passionate about. The problem with that is you could be waiting forever. The economy that looks weak now could get stronger and when it does  those who took a risk during down times usually benefit the most.

The data tells me that that there is no money in a writing career so I should steer clear and do something more stable. Well there isn’t a career out there that is stable forever. The field that looked like a sure bet now is an innovation away from becoming obsolete.

There are many out there refuse to do what they are most passionate about because of some dim night light in our mind that tells them to take the “sure bet,” but when you realize there really is not such thing there is no reason why you shouldn’t pursue the career that you are passionate about.

Resistance is insidious and takes on many forms, but the one sure characteristic is that it gets stronger and stronger the farther you step out of that safe path. Staring at the blank canvas, the empty page tends to bring it out in the artist. The internet suddenly seems so alluring in those moments.

It can also take the former of people that will come out and question your choice. Sometimes it can be family or friends and often the amount of people that question you is proportionate to how radical your idea is.

Self actualized people, the ones that are truly able to make things happen for themselves, are not just aware of Resistance they embrace it. They  think with the end in mind and  follow through with the plan that may not be comfortable or safe, but feels true to them.

Writing is a production business

Writing is different than most professions because it’s one where you are not judged on potential. An author doesn’t get his book published by filling out a resume, he gets it by having a solid manuscript in the hands of an editor.

This isn’t the business of potential it’s the business what do you have to show me. Editors don’t care about your potential as a writer all they care about is what you have written and whether it can sell.

This is different then how much of the world works if you think about it. You don’t work for a company and then get hired. You go through a process and then they hire you based on your potential to perform. An employer is taking it on faith that the person they read about on a resume and talked to during an interview is the one that will be working for them.

Being able to effectively market your book and create a platform for yourself is certainly important.  Unless you are a celebrity or an author with the star power of a J.K. Rawlings or Stephen King establishing yourself to a target audience is important, but you can’t forget the core part of your business— the writing.

Often, people go to get a degree or certification with the idea that it will get them a better job. Getting a Masters in Fine Arts at a university or majoring in Creative Writing will improve your techniques, but unless you want to become a writing teacher that won’t necessarily make you a professional writer.

A query letter doesn’t highlight your degree, it’s selling the promise of a manuscript filled with good writing. Remember, it’s hard to sell something if it hasn’t been finished yet.

I think what scares a lot of people when it comes to pursuing a career in writing  is the uncertainty. There is no guaranteed paycheck or hourly salary until you finish the work and even if you do finish a piece it still might not sell.

That is a risk that writers have to accept. Professional writers are the ones that have a plan for finishing their pieces with the assumption that it is going to find a home somewhere. Even if those rejection letters do come, they take it as a learning experience and do the next one better.

When I was working as a writing tutor in college, students used to brag to me how they could get away with waiting till the last minute to write their term papers. They justified it by telling me “well I got an A in it didn’t I?” I always told those students ‘Well, there’s a reason you’re here seeing me.’

Taking shortcuts you’re writing means the manuscript is coming back to you with a rejection letter. There is no faking hard work and the quality of your writing will always reflect back your attention to detail and skill as a writer.

If there is any profession comparable to fiction writing, it’s farming because your profits are directly tied to the work that you put into it. If you don’t do all the planting and preparations in the fall then you definitely won’t have a good harvest in the spring time. Without those crops then you don’t have a business.

The writer that fails to produce on a consistent basis has a business that will wither on the vine.