Considering the Reading Audience
We live among the Sesame Street generation. The majority of our readers were raised on fast-paced, shortened bites of information. As children, many readers grew up learning ABC’s and numbers in one to two minute bursts. For this, and our changing culture, kids learn to think in a short-attention-span mindset. This carries into many areas of life, but nowhere is it more evident than reading.
I have a friend who is studying the London Confessional of 1644. The introduction to this 29 chapter document begins with a paragraph that consists of three sentences and 638 words. That’s an average of 212 words per sentence. My! How times have changed. Today’s reader gets lost if a sentence reaches 20 words. The disciplines to follow longer strings of words simply aren’t taught today. Few of the classics of literature would be published today without changing how the information is presented. This is only true because readers have little tolerance for the older writing styles. We want our information quick and fast paced.
Patterns of Words
Agents and publishers not only look at the style of writing, but also how the information is presented. A few years back I listened to an agent explain how he evaluates a manuscript. He takes the first full page and lays a clear sheet on top of it. He then draws a line to represent each sentence. Then the agent looks at the pattern and either decides to read it, or rejects it. His snap judgment is based solely on the pattern of the words.
Is that a fair assessment of the book? No. But it’s the world we live in.
The reason he takes this measure is because he has learned how publishers think. Plus there is a little psychology behind the patterns of words. Some go as far as to count the beats of the syllables claiming that readers unconsciously read in a rhythm. Personally, I don’t buy into this idea. If the topic interests the reader, they will be intrigued regardless of the pattern of syllables.
What I do buy into is the structure of paragraphs and sentences. Let me explain why.
Repetitions and cadence
Have you ever been in a room when someone clicks their pen constantly? Or drums the table? Even a song we like becomes an annoyance if we hear it too many times. There is a worship song that I like – except at the end. He repeats one phrase a dozen times. By the time the singer finishes his repetitions, I’m no longer feeling worshipful, but begin thinking about changing the radio station. Repetitions annoy us. Sometimes we hear repetitive noises and don’t realize it until the annoyance grows to the point where we look around to find the cause. Unconsciously, our annoyance builds until we realize it, look up and say, “Please stop clicking that pen.”
The same can be true in writing. A list of paragraphs with the same number of lines becomes a repetition that we are unconsciously keeping tabs on. It echoes boredom to our minds. The same is true for a two page paragraph. The modern reader looks at it and already has an overwhelmed feeling before reading the first word. The same information looks interesting when broken into two, three, four, and five lined paragraphs. Variety is the spice of reading. Though nothing has changed in regards to the information, a lot has changed in the reader’s perception.
A period catches the reader’s breath, while a paragraph is the reader’s mental break. The average reader can’t keep a train of thought for 200 words, but they can keep track of 10-20 word sentences. Vary the sentence length. Vary the paragraph length.
If you’ve dished out a 20 page sentence, follow up with a short sentence. Readers will appreciate it. And they won’t even know why. The same is true for paragraph length. Find a logical break and vary paragraphs in length and avoid longer ones when possible. An occasional long paragraph is fine, but don’t make your pages look like redundant patterns of information.
It may seem silly, but it’s a fact that readers are more engaged when they don’t see repetitions. This is also why we avoid overusing words or phrases.
A common question writers ask is, “How long should my chapters be?”
This isn’t a cut-and-dry answer. I have to admit, I’m a long chapter writer. This is even more true with my non-fiction work. I like to keep the subjects contained in its own chapter. There are a couple of strategy for chapter lengths that might help you decide.
First, know your audience. This rule is true for nearly everything in writing. If your audience is more analytical, a longer chapter is appropriate. If your audience consists of readers who want to read in short bursts, a short chapter is much better.
James Patterson spearheaded the short chapter book and has become very successful at it. His chapters are very seldom more than four pages. A 350 page novel of his will have more than 100 chapters. This encourages many readers to take on the next chapter since it’s only 3-4 pages. It’s all a mind game with the reader. The goal is always to keep the reader turning pages.
Personally, I don’t care for this method in my books. One good method for planning chapters is to always keep a cliff hanger going. Terry Burns made a good suggestion at a recent conference when he said, “I never end a scene at a chapter break.” Each chapter ends in the middle of a scene. The scene is concluded in the next chapter, but a new scene takes its place and leaves the conclusion hanging until the next chapter. The goal is to keep the reader engaged and willing to start the next chapter.
Whether you choose long or short chapters, the key is to have a good idea of the type of reader your book appeals to. There are no rules, but there are strategies. The best strategy is to know your audience. If you do this, you’ll be a better planner on your book’s layout.
Feel free to share your strategies in the comments link below.
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