What is Your Attention Span?

I came across the study that claims the average person now has a shorter attention span than that of a goldfish. Eight seconds. This means most people tend to lose concentration in less than ten seconds.

As an experiment, I read the above paragraph out loud. It took about 10 seconds to complete.

That means I just lost you.

At least the goldfish will swim around its bowl and come back to the same spot. The average reader will have found something more enticing to read.

Watch people standing in line or in any place where they have to wait. It appears few can go any length of time without checking their phone to see if there is a new update.

If you are curious, you can take an online test regarding your attention span. It’s available here on the Psychology Today site.

What is the Writer to do?

You have an enormous challenge as a writer in this age of unyielding and unending media. You are competing every moment for your words to the the ones that are chosen. The job is to communicate using those words. Whether a novelist with a story or a non-fiction writer exploring an idea, you must somehow grab hold of the reader’s attention and never let it go. You can’t use click-bait headlines once they’ve already found your words to read. You aren’t using video (unless you wrote the script for the film). So what do you do?


Compel – (kəmˈpel – verb) – to force or oblige (someone) to do something. For example, a judge can compel a witness to appear using a summons to court.

A writer can compel a reader by writing something that won’t let their attention be distracted. You aren’t forcing them against their will, instead you are drawing them into your words to participate with them in the experience.


It’s easy to say, “be creative,” but it’s harder to actually do. Christopher Booker has a 700 page book called The Seven Basic Plots. If that is true than how can yours be unique?

This is a struggle. The thousands of proposals, queries, and verbal pitches I’ve heard over the years proves the point. It is why there needs to be a “competition” section in your proposal to help distinguish your project from all the others already on the market.

Yet, do not be dismayed. One idea may not work, but the next might. Read widely. Observe life and culture. Discover what people are needing the most.

At the same time, do not ignore the tried and true. The other day I read a science fiction space opera. It had a great opening with the main hero suffering through his fifth year in a dank prison on board a ship. But as I continued to read I started to recognize some of the common tropes of the genre. The hero was an illegitimate son to a Duke. There was turmoil in the empire with a weak but arrogant emperor. There were secrets kept, political intrigue, a forbidden princess, and hidden wealth. All pieces of a story that I could almost predict how it would end. But I kept reading because the “tried and true” still resonated. It was published by a major publisher and the writer had good skills. Was it “creative”? Not in the sense of a groundbreaking-never-before published idea. But it worked as entertainment.

Carry On

Writing is not an option for you. Especially if you are called to the task. Therefore you must keep striving to improve your craft. Stay ahead of the curve by keeping in touch with your readers and what makes them read.

Today, according to statistics, there will be 2.73 million blog posts written. I’m just glad you stayed with me to finish this one!


14 Responses to What is Your Attention Span?

  1. Brenda Jackson February 13, 2017 at 5:31 am #

    Sometimes I think it’s just a crap-shoot as to what holds a reader’s attention. I read mostly non-fiction. Naturally, I only pick up titles that are of interest to me. Some I read gleefully cover to cover and sometimes I skim a whole lot, thinking “Geez! They could have said it a lot shorter!”. Not that the content wasn’t of interest, but the writer just didn’t nail it. In fact, I just read (mostly skimmed) a book that was so frustrating because I felt the take-home points of the work weren’t driven in deeply because of all the rambling the author did. I don’t know if that author has more than one published work, but I’d be curious to see if another title held my attention.

    I scored middle-of-the-road on the attention span test.

  2. Richard Mabry February 13, 2017 at 6:32 am #

    Wow, Steve. I’d heard a writer has to hook the reader within the first five pages. Other authorities suggest doing it in the first scene. But eight seconds? I’m going to have to rewrite the opening of my current work-in-progress.
    Seriously, I’ve told my wife that this is now a TV generation, and they’ll only read for ten minutes (time for the first commercial). If they’re not hooked by then, they go on to another activity.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Carol Ashby February 13, 2017 at 9:21 am #

      Take heart, Richard. The millennials have arrived. My millennial son almost always has a book with him if he expects any down time, even if it’s only 10-20 min riding somewhere in a car. If we don’t get into a conversation when he first gets in, he dives into the book and doesn’t surface until someone speaks to him or we reach our destination. Once he discovers an author he likes, he wants to read his/her entire output.


  3. Jerusha Agen February 13, 2017 at 7:29 am #

    Great post! Thanks for the helpful tips for how to catch and keep readers’ attention. I hadn’t heard of including a competition section in proposals, as well as comparable titles. Good idea!

  4. Henry Styron February 13, 2017 at 7:43 am #

    Thanks, Steve. Very thought-provoking material for aspiring writers, and I appreciate as always you making the time to do help us out. And I loved the picture of the goldfish.

  5. Katie Powner February 13, 2017 at 8:17 am #

    Looking back at my blog posts over the past year, there are some that held the reader’s attention and garnered many views and comments on the Facebook post where they were linked. Others failed to entice and could hardly get anyone to even click on the post. When I look at the difference between the two, it’s clear that the more personal, specific posts are far more popular than the ones where I merely share “general thoughts” about something.

    This reminds me of the advice you have often given, Steve. That no one can tell your story but you. So maybe the key to holding a reader’s attention for more than eight seconds is … just being yourself!

  6. Carol Ashby February 13, 2017 at 9:00 am #

    Steve, I find my attention span depends strongly on what is trying to hold it. Some mindless waste of electricity on commercial TV can’t hold my attention at all. I don’t want to waste even 8 seconds on it. A good movie or an interesting article in the paper or a magazine: no problem with attention. A truly good book: time seems to stop as I read, and I have to drag my mind away.

    I think we are underestimating the abilities and inclinations of the kind of people who actually read books when we assume they have the attention span of a gnat.

    I do pour full effort into every blog post and my novels so anyone who reads them won’t regret spending precious time on them. Less that my best doesn’t honor God.

    In defense of the people in the checkout who are looking at their phones: maybe they are trying to clear out a task using small blocks of time to free up larger blocks for fun activities like reading a good book.

    (In case you wonder, I always read your posts to the end and find them more than worth the hundreds of seconds I spend.)

    • Katie Powner February 13, 2017 at 9:22 am #

      Carol, I agree that we underestimate the reader’s ability to focus. I think they can and do when they are interested in something. The real problem is that there are so many things out there not worth paying 8 seconds of attention to. And I believe Steve is telling us not to be one of those things!

  7. Jon Guenther February 13, 2017 at 9:13 am #

    You had me at:

    > The other day I read a science fiction space opera.


  8. John Snyder February 13, 2017 at 10:08 am #


    I hear you loud and clear. Actually, I was surprised to learn people’s attention span is even that long. Soon a successful book will have to be written with microwave speed … something like … Once upon a time. The end. – LOL!

  9. Joseph Bentz February 13, 2017 at 10:30 am #

    Your posts are always worth paying attention to, even with my distracted brain!

  10. Maree Dee February 13, 2017 at 10:51 am #

    Thank you for the post. Onward I will march with my writing.

  11. Melissa Henderson February 13, 2017 at 1:25 pm #

    Interesting. I have noticed that when reading a story, the first few sentences need to capture my attention or my mind starts to wander.

  12. Sheri Dean Parmelee February 13, 2017 at 3:57 pm #

    Wow, Steve, 2.73 million is a lot of blogs! That is a huge amount of competition! My family says that I am sometimes like Dory…….pretty fish…

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