We Think in 500 Word Intervals

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

A good story, whether it be a work of fiction or an informative article, should move the reader through each section of text as naturally as possible. This isn’t something you look for, and if it’s done right, it isn’t something that is noticed, but it’s essential to writing that doesn’t put readers to sleep.

There are many pacing tools to encourage readers to read further, from choppy sentences to cliffhangers, but one important tool is writing to the attention span of the reader.

Good authors intuitively understand our attention spans

Have you ever read a novel and thought: “okay, I get it. The sky is pretty and the car is red. Get to the damned story already!” The author spent too long on flowery descriptions of the setting before delving into the story.

If you crack open almost any bestselling novel, you’ll find that there is a change of thought — Micheal La Ronn calls these transitions “seams” — every 500 words or so. Each of these sections between the seams explores what we’re experiencing in the scene and then moves the action forward to the next section.

For example, a chapter might begin with a setting of the scene, describing the environment using the five senses. After 500 words of this, the author might populate the scene, giving us around 500 words to describe the characters, how they enter, why they’re there, etc. Then, we usually get about 500 words describing the core action of the scene.

The author might use dialogue throughout each of these sections, or not. What matters isn’t the format — although it helps to move us along in a manner that isn’t boring — what matters is that we will get bored with the same subject after about 500 words. So switch things up or we’ll put your book down.

One of the most prolific and bestselling authors of all time, James Patterson, takes this concept to a new level by writing short chapters. He doesn’t try to get pretty with his words to entice the reader. He lets the story entice the reader. His books often have more than sixty chapters, with each one clocking in at an average of 600 words. Those 600 words consists of all the elements of a scene: setup, action, dialogue, etc.

Article writing is no different

Unless your subject is multifaceted or especially complicated, like explaining the intricacies of quantum physics, you should change the context of your subject every 500 words or so. If it’s of the same subject, then 400–700 words should be the sweet spot to get your point across and allow the reader to move on with their life.

You can, however, add subsections to your articles that take the reader off into new directions as a means of exploring the subject more thoroughly. In this case, each subsection should be no more than about 500 words, or so.

A change of context keeps your article fresh. It moves the reader along, not because your language is flowery or your sentences engaging, but because you are showing them interesting facets of the same subject.

The most fascinating sunsets are comprised of many colors, but we still see it all as a single thing: a sunset.

For example, in the previous section, I talked about how the 500-word attention span applies to authors of fiction. I explored the subject in that context enough that if I had gone much further, a reader could have become bored — the sky is pretty and the car is red; move on! So I transitioned to a new context: article writing.

The audience matters

The 500-word thought section seems to be ideal for the average adult — which is why the most popular authors, like Michael Crichton, instinctively use it. However, Young Adult books should probably be a mite shorter.

If you’re writing children’s books, consider using pictures to describe all sensory details.

As we age, our attention spans get longer. That doesn’t mean books targeted at an older audience can drone on forever about the scent of wildflowers in the protagonist’s garden, but an older audience typically has more patience for such things — they’re more willing to stop and smell the flowers.

Whether your writing articles or works of fiction, be aware of how long you’ve lingered on any one point. It could cost you readers. For more no-nonsense publishing advice, sign up for my newsletter.

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