• Katlyn Roberts

How to Keep Online Readers Engaged in Long Articles

Updated: May 15, 2020

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?


(To read the rest of this article, check it out where it was originally published in The Writing Cooperative.)

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