How Do I Keep My Reader's Attention?

Didn’t you hear? Humans have the attention span of a goldfish.

The statement may be a stretch (even though Ted Lasso made us all believe it’s an immutable truth!), but the idea behind it isn’t. The attention span of a human is short.

You may wonder how a person’s short attention span affects your writing. We did some math and made a few hypotheses. Read below to find out more.

How Fast Do I Read?

Let’s begin by establishing some parameters.

On average, adults read 220 to 350 wpm (words per minute). This does not include technical, software reading, which takes far longer (and probably more brain power) to complete. College-age people (19- to 23-years-old) read, on average, 300 to 350 wpm. And high schoolers read 200 to 300 wpm.  

Will This Chapter Ever End?

Most chapters fall between a 1500- and 5000-word count. That’s not to say that some chapters are longer (as can be seen in popular fiction series such as The Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones). But, for the most part, chapters will fall into this range. Especially in nonfiction.

The sweet spot for chapter length will be 3000 to 4000 words.

20 Minutes Is My Limit

Research has concluded that the optimal attention span in adults is 20 minutes. “Optimal” means your audience is engaged at their fullest capacity.

No matter how interesting your topic may be—whether it’s a speech, lecture, or piece of writing—20 minutes appears to be the limit. There will be those outliers who exceed a 20-minute attention span—who have a natural ability to spellbind us with their words—but we’re focusing on average people. Like you and me.

Consider the previous parameters established. If an adult reads 220 wpm, they will start to lose attention (after a 20-minute period) at a 4400-word count. If an adult reads 350 wpm, they will start to lose attention (after a 20-minute period) at a 7000-word count.

Forget Everything Else. Curiosity and Tension Are Your Greatest Allies

Now you’re probably wondering: how do I keep my reader’s attention?

This may relate to previously mentioned research on words read per minute and the attention span of the average human. Emphasize may.

You can research all you want about words read per a minute, the average length of a chapter, the average attention span of a human, etc.—but none of that really matters.

Humans—readers—are curious beings. We pick up a book and want to know what happens to the characters, to uncover the mystery, to learn more about complex ideas. It is our curiosity that encourages us to read a book in the first place.

And it is our curiosity that leads to anticipation. Anticipation keeps us reading. We want to know what happens next. We want to know if our characters will make it out alive, if they heal from their trauma, etc.  We want to know why an author’s ideas matter—more specifically, if they matter to me.

This is how you should establish the length of your chapters. 

Each chapter is dependent on tension. If your chapter is too long, too flat, or doesn’t contain any tension, then your reader will lose focus. They won’t care about flipping to the next page.

If you want to keep your reader hooked, play off their curiosity, play off their anticipation, and build the tension. Be a curious writer to keep your writing curious. And win over the curiosity of your reader.

Finally! The Tension Pays Off

So, how do you build tension in a chapter? And ultimately keep your reader’s attention?

Cliffhanger: End your chapter with a cliffhanger. End with a story that is grim. A situation that demands an explanation or conclusion. And then end the chapter.

This is such a fun—and cruel—way to end a chapter. It’s almost a guarantee that your reader will have to read the next chapter.

Flashback: In a memoir, a flashback advances your story. It provides additional information about your characters—and their motives. A flashback not only clues your reader into better understanding your character, but it can also create tension by introducing old conflict that could impact your character's future.

A twist: A twist can be anything—but it’s something unexpected. A piece of information turns out to be incorrect. Maybe introduce another person who has written on the topic but disagrees with your take. Introduce a twist into your chapter and your reader will be dying to know what you have to say.

Character conflict: A good book has to include character conflict. We are humans. We fight, we argue, we disagree. We have conflict. To build tension throughout a chapter—and throughout your overall book—include character conflict. Even in nonfiction, use stories with character conflict to engage the reader. Conflict isn’t just for fiction. 

The conflict should be serious, a difference of morality or political opinions. In a memoir, conflict can stem from familial abuse, disagreements with a boss, or an explosive argument with a close friend. Your reader will be curious to know if the characters resolve their conflict.

Foreshadowing: An ominous tone encourages readers to keep flipping the page. They need to know that their characters will survive. They need to know that the villain will be defeated. They need to know what will happen when the inevitable conflict occurs.

Foreshadowing is not used solely in fiction—it can be a great device to employ in memoirs as well. For example, you can foreshadow a character’s death within the prologue or introductory chapters of your memoir. Write a few paragraphs about a family member or friend who will soon be leaving. And then conclude with, “I didn’t know that would be the last time I saw [insert character].” Your reader will wonder how that person died. How their death affected the author. It piques your reader’s curiosity and builds the anticipation.

Just remember, chapter length is dependent on tension. Do you have enough tension to keep your reader’s attention? If not, you’ll want to rework your chapter. Because humans—well, maybe we are more like goldfish after all.

Links For Further Research

The 20 Minute Rule for Great Public Speaking--On Attention Spans and Keeping Focus

Course Duration and Its Impact on Learner Attention Span