• Katlyn Roberts

How to Keep Online Readers Engaged in Long Articles

Updated: Aug 5

Check in with your audience and avoid shouting into the void.


According to a study by Microsoft, humans now have an attention span of eight seconds. Eight seconds! Don’t ask me for details on the study, I only skimmed it. And please don’t click away to that study link, I only included it so you’d believe me.


Anyway, if you’ve made it to this second paragraph, congrats! You’re a rare breed. Though you’ll notice that I’ve increased my odds by appealing to writers in my title. Writers tend to be readers by nature and practice. Reading articles from start to finish is like our daily push-up routine. Our attention spans are swole.


Itxy Lopez is editor of The Brave Writer and Book Bound. She left the following comment on a recent article of mine, which is what inspired me to write about this topic.

“I never read stories that are seven minutes or longer, but even if you uploaded one that was twenty minutes long, I’d read it. I’m not even joking. I feel like I’m reading a book when I read your work. It always pulls me in, takes me to a new time and place, and you always share such valuable lessons I know to take with me for a long time.”

I was especially flattered because Itxy’s a genius at writing short, 2–5 minute shots of motivation; stories that help you reflect on your life and boost your mood. She also somehow manages to be completely genuine and vulnerable in the tiny amount of time she allows herself. Mark Twain once joked, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” It takes serious talent to write short stories/articles.


I have a different style. Not better or worse, just different. My average story is a 9-10 minute read. I’ve experimented in the 3–5 min. range, as well as the 15–17 min. range, but 10 seems to be my sweet spot. This can sometimes deter readers from clicking on my stories in the first place because they’ll decide they just don’t have the time to invest. And that’s ok. Those types of readers aren’t my audience. My people are the type of people who are hoping to be swept up.


You may be asking yourself, if Itxy’s tightly-crafted 2-minute pieces are pushing the average reader to their limits, how the hell do I manage to convince people to gift me 10 minutes of their time? 12? 15?


Jesus, be patient. I’m getting there.


1. What’s Your Passion?

Sharing your passion with your audience throws doors wide open. It’s what people are really asking when they ask, “Who are you writing to?”. It kind of throws writers off at first, but once they understand that I’m looking for a more heartfelt conversation, they’re more than willing to talk to me about the thing that drives both their life and their art —


“My audience spends hours every night reading Good Omens and Harry Potter fanfiction. You know. The intellectual queer millennial.”


“I write for the modern anarchist — people who campaign against the establishment from their laptops and live in cute little off-the-grid tiny houses.”


“I market myself to people who want to market themselves. It’s best if they have a healthy appreciation for puppets and dad jokes.”


…I could do a million of these but I’m already giving your attention span a workout.


What I’m saying is that this question has led to some of the deepest, weirdest, most engaging conversations I’ve ever had. Authenticity is rare. People are hungry to invest their time in it.

“Being a nerd, which is to say going too far and caring too much about a subject, is the best way to make friends I know.” Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot

Writers are intensely passionate people but we’re terrified that we might be the only person who cares about what we care about, so we hide behind generic topics and “professional” language. We chop our thought processes down to bite-sized little presentations instead of inviting people in to watch us cook.


On the other end of the spectrum of “unhealthy ways artists handle their inferiority complexes and social anxiety”, we put on shows and pretend there’s no audience at all. I’m using a lot of metaphors here, I know, but we write under pseudonyms and we “write like nobody’s watching”. We get up on stage and do the whole dance with our eyes closed.


I wrote an article a while back about needing to put myself in that mindset just to get over my writer’s block…and then I deleted it. What can I say? Life’s complicated and I’m a multi-layered mess. I was feeling particularly anxious at the time and writing something that basically said, “I’m going to try to imagine you’re not real, ok?” to my audience felt like the only way to settle my nerves down.


Obviously it didn’t work or that article would still be up.


I think we often spend so much energy trying to protect ourselves that we miss an opportunity to open our eyes, step down into the audience, and involve people in the show.


When you have your audience in mind (feel free to think of them as your best friends/interest soulmates), you not only have a better awareness of your own self and your own voice, but you know how to talk to your audience. You know what lingo to use, where they might drift away from the story, and how to recapture their attention. What would capture your attention?


2. Ask questions

You saw this technique in action in Step 1.


The best social advice I ever got was from my grandfather, who told me,


“Be curious about people. Ask them questions and then really listen to their answers. You’re not listening for a way to insert your own story. You’re listening for another question to ask.”


The man never took his own advice, of course. He told the longest stories ever and he constantly interrupted you to do it. People aren’t ever just one thing, are they?


I have a tendency to ramble on myself, but I’ve been trying to get better at going into social situations with this tool because, when I do, it works like a freaking charm. I’ve had entire conversations where all I did was ask questions. What’s interesting is that people don’t always notice. After one such conversation, the person I was talking to said, “I feel like we must’ve met in another life or something”. What they meant was, “I feel like you really saw me. Thank you.”


Obviously, writing isn’t that kind of a conversation. You’re going to have to do a majority of the talking. But that doesn’t mean you can’t stop and ask your readers questions every so often to keep them personally engaged.


So what kinds of questions can you ask?


(I’m going to answer this one for you.)


Whatever you think is important for your reader to consider. Whatever might catch their attention, allow them to reconsider their current beliefs, make them laugh. Whatever you’re genuinely curious to know.


3. Pay attention to where your readers might be getting lost

There’s a famous spiritual pilgrimage in France, Spain, and Portugal called the Camino de Santiago. If you’ve seen the Martin Sheen movie, The Way, (and bawled your eyes out) then you know it. It’s a magical cross-countries, month-long hike that people here see as a rite of passage. I haven’t walked it myself yet, but my brother’s done it twice and he always talks about the shell markers:


The shell markers keep you on the path. For a thousand years or whatever, they were actual shells that could easily be knocked over in a gust of wind, but they’ve since evolved into plaques on pavement and spray paint on walls, boulders, and trees.


Sometimes you won’t see one for hours. You’ll start to worry you’ve lost your way. But I hear they tend to show up again right when you start to question yourself. The sight of one lets you know you’re going in the right direction, that this is where you’re supposed to be, that you’re not alone.






In writing, especially online writing, it’s nice to provide people with these assurances as well. There are a ton of ways you can do this. Here are a few examples:

  • “So what does this mean?”

  • “Let’s take a moment to consider — “

  • “I’m going to pause the story here to present a hypothetical situation.”

  • “If time could have stopped in that moment — ”

  • (Lovingly describe a metaphorical setting, object, person, symbol.)

  • (Acknowledge a discrepancy in the story.)

  • (Acknowledge a potential point of annoyance or discomfort.)

  • (Celebrate a win. This may be my American showing, but wins are super fun.)


Hint: In my experience, the average reading time for every article, no matter how popular, is going to be around 1–3 minutes. That’s just a fact of life, even if thousands of people have read all the way through.


You can wish all those antsy pants well and be content with the fact that they’re probably not your key audience but, if the click-to-read ratio is pretty low, the problem may be somewhere in your beginning. Re-read up to the 3-minute mark and make sure you’ve put all these tools to good use. I’m a big advocate for editing after you publish. On platforms like LinkedIn or Medium, who’s going to stop you?


4. Formatting rules

You probably didn’t even notice this, but I’m pretty careful about my page formatting. Variety is the key when it comes to keeping eyes moving down a page. Here are some rules I’ve picked up from a bunch of online copywriting courses I’ve paid for so you don’t have to. Keep in mind that you don’t have to follow them exactly, I don’t always, but it helps to try to follow them as often as possible:


  • No more than 5–6 lines per paragraph (I’m talking laptop versions, this will look different on mobile)

  • No more than 3–4 paragraphs without a subhead, picture, quote, or list

  • Always use bullets or numbering for lists

  • Headline must pass the “blank-sheet” test (Write your headline on a blank sheet of paper and pass it to a stranger. Will they be able to tell what your article is about?)

  • Link only when it’s useful


Aren’t you glad you kept reading now? Seriously, these are some killer tips. Look at all this raw, robust substance you’re getting for sticking with me. Feel free to copy/paste these into your notes app so you can pull them up whenever you need them. They’ll become habit pretty quick.


5. Gimme candy

I included this one in my article about how to write captivating travel stories, but it applies to all writing, really.


People never, ever read an article all the way through just to say they read an article all the way through. They’re in it to expand their awareness of the world. They’re hoping you’ll arm them with something they can regurgitate at a party, something that’ll make them seem cultured or quirky or at least semi-socially adept.


Author and podcaster Malcolm Gladwell calls this “candy”:

“It’s important to balance the intellectually rigorous or complex parts of your story with “candy,” which are digressions or diversions that give the reader a break from the “meal” of your story. [Candy is] the parts of your story that are easiest to talk about casually and remember. The meal is the stuff they dwell on and take home with them to process.”

I like my candy to be something that a person wouldn’t think to google.


Like the funniest Mark Twain bit of all time in the middle of an article about Egyptian statues.


Or the story of Saint George and the Dragon in a story about what we, as a society, can learn from Covid.


It’s not impossible to capture people’s attention on the internet and keep it. It just requires some extra conversational skills and an authentic belief that your story is worth telling. If you’re like me and you find yourself needing more time to get your point across, remember that you’re never inconveniencing your readers if what they want is a story they can carry around with them for a while.


But I hope that the biggest takeaway you get from this is that the key to maintaining people’s attention is to entertain yourself. For example, I worked really hard to make sure this article came out to exactly 10 minutes because I thought it would be the perfect way to prove my point and I…

have….

succeeded!!!


We did it, everybody! 8 seconds have passed 75 times and you’re still here! We told Microsoft and their stupid study I still haven’t read exactly where they can stick it. Right up their operating systems, is where.

 

(Article originally published in The Writing Cooperative.)

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