Writing for readers in the digital age needs a novel approach

[Image courtesy of Martin at Flickr Creative Commons]

Last weekend, my book club chums and I met up for our monthly literary lunch.

It was the perfect setting: an idyllic English garden just outside Cambridge on a glorious summer day, with a bright sun and a gentle breeze. We even had strawberries and cream for dessert.

The book under discussion was Golden Hill by Francis Spufford. If you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend it. Spufford already has a string of non-fiction titles to his name, and his debut novel was received to huge acclaim when it came out last year.

It’s set in New York in 1746, and opens with a stranger arriving in town and causing a stir. No sooner off the ship from England, Richard Smith presents a bill for £1,000 to a trading house, and so begins a process that ends in thwarted love, death and escape. 

I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll say no more. It’s hugely enjoyable, and well worth the time and effort.

And I say that because for many people nowadays, reading is an effort. Not so much the actual process as the sustained attention that’s required to read longer copy.

Golden Hill comes in at 352 pages, which my Kindle app tells me should take 4 hours and 57 minutes. That’s a pretty impressive 70 pages an hour, or a page every 50 seconds. In practice, I suspect everybody at the book club (including me) took longer to finish it. And some hadn’t by the time we met.

Our rule is that no nominated book should be longer than 400 pages. And I’ve noticed that when pitching books, we all regularly use length to push our nomination. (“And it’s only 200 pages!” we say triumphantly, before resting our case.)

If Golden Hill has one fault, it’s the opening page with a seemingly interminable sentence. I discovered I wasn’t alone in experiencing that sinking feeling as I read it, wondering if I could stay the course if this was typical.

Luckily, it wasn’t.

In my view, Spufford and his editor made a mistake in not reworking it, as it gives a false impression of the rest of the novel, at a time when it should be enticing the reader in.

Spanning the divide

The overarching point here is that we’re all attention-challenged in this day and age.

Long opening sentences, long books, long articles, long emails and long reports are now almost universally classified under the TLDR (too long, didn’t read) heading. Facebook walls and Twitter feeds have irreversibly altered our attention span, and WhatsApp and Snapchat have made us all hyperactive. 

So how do you attract your reader’s attention when so many other inputs are vying for it? Is long form dead, to be replaced by bite-sized chunks, spoon-fed to impatient readers? 

I don’t think so. But you do need to meet readers on their own terms: 

  • Have a clear structure, and help the reader through the copy. It’s little wonder that some of the most popular novels are ones with shorter chapters and pared-down paragraphs. They set readers’ expectations, and make the copy more easily digestible. So take a leaf out of their book. 
  • Tell a story, and involve your reader. Did you conjure up that garden I described earlier? You may even have been salivating at the thought of those plump, delicious strawberries smothered in double cream. Maybe you felt that gentle breeze. And maybe you realised I did it on purpose, creating a sensory experience to keep you reading. 
  • Intrigue your audience from the very beginning, as the best novels do. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (1984, George Orwell) “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” (The Crow Road, Iain M Banks) How could you not want to know more?
  • Minimise the number of distractions. Have a clean design with lots of white space so your reader can focus on the copy. If it’s on the web, you may want to limit the number of hyperlinks in your copy, so your audience isn’t tempted to click away. You could even consider putting them at the end of the copy, so they don’t get in the way of the flow. Which is essentially what books do, with endnotes after the body copy. 

The long and the short of it

Remember as well that you can always repackage content (as tweets or infographics, for example) to drive traffic to the longer form. If you sufficiently capture people’s attention with the shorter version, they may very well be tempted to read the longer one.

And if they aren’t, they’ve still had one bite of the cherry. 

So long form isn’t dead, but you do have to adapt your approach to the attention-challenged reader.

Meanwhile, back in our English country garden, as we dabbed cream from our lips and quaffed prosecco, our thoughts turned to the book for September (we choose two months in advance, to allow enough time for reading). 

And the winner? Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. 

It’s an excellent book, and it’ll be a pleasure to re-read it. But it’s also got another great USP: it’s a shade under 100 pages. 

And that was enough to swing the vote.