Is reading changing?

I’m on vacation next week (Yay!) and for reasons I’ve never really understood (perhaps therapy would help), I’m in that clear-my-desk-of-everything-I’ve-been-meaning-to-take-care-of-since-January mode while being suddenly bombarded with contracts, manuscripts, and proposals that I’ve been waiting for roughly since, well, January and which have chosen this week to make an appearance with an “urgent” flag attached to them.  Of course, it’s my blog week as well so, in full pre-vacation madness, I shamelessly stole Jim McCarthy’s idea to ask his Twitter followers to suggest a topic for him when he returned from his travels. Several people helpfully responded to my plea and I very much appreciate their input.

The one idea that jumped out at me was submitted by our client Kevin Grange: “People are increasingly reading in shorter bursts on various e-devices. Should we construct stories differently? Thoughts?”

Partly, I sparked to this one because I’ve been fantasizing about which of my books I’m going to lug a physical copy of and which ones I’m going to add to my Kindle Fire.  (My grasp, as always, exceeds my reach here, folks.  I’m packing books like I’ve been sentenced to solitary confinement in Siberia instead of a week at the beach with my family.)

Despite my initial impulse to deny that my reading habits have changed at all and that, therefore, there’s any need to change the essential structure of storytelling,  Kevin’s question made me realize that I do, indeed, read in shorter bursts when using my Kindle (or any other electronic device).  In part, this is because, I don’t care what anyone says, my eyes get tired more quickly reading a screen.  Mostly, though, it has to do with the fact that Words With Friends, Ruzzle, Facebook, and the whole of the internet is also on my Kindle along with the 300 other titles and manuscripts residing therein.  So, if I hit a dull patch in my book, there’s always something else to take its place.

But does this mean that authors need to write shorter?  Shorter sentences?  Shorter paragraphs?  Shorter chapters?  Shorter books?  And is it already happening?

Thriller writers have known for years that trim chapters ending in cliffhangers build that all-important momentum, leading inexorably to the climactic scene involving a sinister villain, a put-upon hero(ine), and lots of weaponry.   But, does the fact that increasingly we’re ingesting our literature on e-readers mean that even literary fiction and nonfiction are conforming to the dictates of our ever shorter attention spans?

Instinctively, I want to say they are, but I’ve no solid data on the subject.  Basically,  I’m going to keep this in mind as I read and edit and consider new projects.  Meanwhile, I’ll just restate Kevin’s very good question here and ask what you all think.  For the writers out there, are you consciously shortening your stride when writing?  And for the readers, do you find, as I do, that you have less stickwithitness?

6 Responses to Is reading changing?

  1. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    Although I intensely dislike the idea of reading on a screen, I’ve been writing my stuff in short, punchy chapters for years, just because it gives a certain mini-cliffhanger feel to the whole story throughout. If that puts me on the ground floor with a shorter attention span digital audience with tired eyes, so much the better. It’s also a secret weapon of sorts that I refuse to send my stuff in when I get a read-request from an agent in any format but hard copy; I knew when they do pick it up it’ll stay in the air longer because it’s less strain to read than digital, and turning physical pages brings one closer to the narrative. (although I’m not sure why this should be true; back when Beowulf was news people probably preferred narratives that were chanted or sung and thought print was seriously hard work to keep up with) So there we are for what that’s worth!

  2. jeffo says:

    As one who writes ‘long’, I surely hope not.

    I don’t read on an e-reader of any kind, so my habits have not changed a whole lot. However, I will read in sometimes short bursts–while cooking, in commercial breaks if I’m viewing a ‘must watch’ program, sitting in the car waiting for one of my kids after school. It hasn’t changed the sort of books I like to read.

  3. Katie says:

    There is nothing like holding a book in my hands, feeling the crisp of the page turn between my fingers, that whoosh in my ear. Having said that, digital books are more practical for traveling these days with hefty fines for overweight luggage. Not to mention, they’re often cheaper in digital form. If I love it, I’ll buy a copy for my “real” bookshelf.

    Personally, my reading habits haven’t changed; in fact, sometimes I think I read more on my tablet. The brightness of the background keeps my eyes awake longer.

    Now, I have noticed when book chapters are shorter, it makes it seem like the story is moving along faster. Really long chapters, no matter how good they are, can leave a reader feeling like when is this going to end…

  4. Karen says:

    My reading habits haven’t changed much. I think that’s because I tend to use my iPad (my main eReader) solely for eReading, rather than for games or social media. I still do internet-related things on the desktop PC.

    I have noticed that a lot of writers are writing shorter. Novellas rather than novels. I think this is more a return on investment thing than anything else. Authors can make more money by writing shorter.

  5. Kevin Grange says:

    Thank you for considering this question and I have enjoyed reading the responses! I love the idea that a physical book is one of the few places where, like a yoga class, someone can have an hour away from the business of the world and relish silence and their own creative imagination. Therefore, the length of the book, chapters and sentences shouldn’t really matter. And yet, I can’t deny that I see myself and others reading on e-devices and often in shorter bursts—in line at the grocery, at a commercial break and between subway stops.

    I agree with many of Kevin A. Lewis’ reasons for writing shorter, punchy chapters for his readers. In addition, crafting a story with shorter chapters has an additional benefit for me as an author because the chapters don’t seem as daunting to tackle, help keep writers block at bay and, I find, keeps the momentum of the story moving forward.

    I think the trend is towards a shorter construction but, in the end, great writing keeps the readers eye glued to the page, no matter what the device or length. Have a great vacation, Miriam!

  6. Malia Kline says:

    Do I think authors need to write shorter? No, yes and maybe. Shorter sentences? Definitely no. If you want to read short sentences driven not by insight, passion or literary mojo, by rather by SEO keywords, you can always read websites. Shorter paragraphs? No, again. If readers long for succinctness, they can read Twitter feeds. Shorter chapters? Yes. Shorter chapters appeal to today’s truncated attention spans, giving readers more frequent opportunities to rest their eyes, check Facebook, and get Nutella ice cream. Shorter books? Maybe. I was once in a book group where several moms with young children would never vote in favor of a book that was “too thick.” The advent of e-readers has eliminated the barrier of thickness, so maybe they actually make longer books more palatable for some. But, for those who want to get lost in a book, shorter books mean you’ll be found too soon.

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