Thinking Out Loud

November 10, 2016

Diminishing Attention Spans

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:01 am



When I was in high school, some of my cohorts weren’t interested in reading an entire novel or Shakespeare play and would purchase the Cliff Notes (sold in Canada as Coles Notes) instead. It was cheating to be sure, and sometimes English teachers would arrange test questions in a manner that only those who had read the text in full could answer properly.

save-time-summaryMore recently, when Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath was released, I discovered that similar products were alive and well, sold as Save Time Summaries, New Books in Brief, Instaread Summaries, and others. Seriously, why consume vast amounts reading the book when you can outsource that to someone else?

These attempts at gaining the knowledge of what a particular book contains are in some ways noble when compared to the prevailing attitude of “I didn’t bother” expressed by the acronym TL/DR — Too long, didn’t read. It turns up in a variety of settings.

Person A sends Person B an lengthy email, or a link to an article of substance and simply gets, TL/DR as a reply. Writers will sometimes include their own TL/DR summary in the first (or last) paragraph. (See below.) Reasons might include:

  • Our activities keep us so busy (or too distracted) that we don’t have time for a particular item if it’s over a certain length; or,
  • Exposure to different types of input/stimuli have left us with attention spans so diminished we can’t follow the argument/thread of a longer piece.

You see this in the way books and articles in periodicals are written now; in fact you’re seeing it in the piece you’re presently reading. Pick up an older book — say 60 years or more old — and you might find an entire page consisting of a single paragraph. You might even find several consecutive pages consisting of a single paragraph. (I’m told that some chapters of Paul’s epistles were often a single sentence in the original Greek, no doubt a weaving of dominant and subordinate clauses that the reader of that time would follow easily.)

pull-quoteToday we use paragraph breaks to keep the content flowing; to keep the eyes moving on the page; to force us writers to adopt a greater degree of concision. Our writing is also broken up by more numbered or alphanumeric lists, by bullet points, by sub-headers and by pull quotes. (We use them often at Christianity 201, where the devotions are by definition somewhat longer, and we want to make what would otherwise be an entire page of text more interesting.)

The use of varying rich text elements (changing fonts, bold face, italics, arrows, different types of headers and sub-heads) would probably surprise even an early 20th Century reader, let alone someone from the 18th or 19th Centuries. If the subject matter is cerebral enough, they might wonder why you’ve decorated as though it were written for children.

Again, in a visual-media saturated world, such things are necessary to keep the interest of readers, but if the piece is deemed too long, readers will pass. A coincidence we have three graphic images today? Maybe not.

TL/DR: The writer laments the increasing incidence of readers passing on material deemed too lengthy.


  1. The length of the material doesn’t scare me away if it is well read. But I am not a Millennial, nor was I raised on Sesame Street. However, send me a link to a podcast or a YouTube video and I will probably ignore it.

    Comment by Lorne Anderson — November 10, 2016 @ 10:08 am

    • The length doesn’t scare me. The quality of what is said scares me. Often the entire value of what is said is presented in the first 50 pages or so. I enjoy quality podcasts and youtubes….check out Malcolm Gladwell’s podcasts. I think they are called The Revisionist or something like that. Very well done.

      Comment by Barbie Van Allen — November 10, 2016 @ 10:01 pm

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