Attention …………… Spans
Modern attention spans are short. Many experts say that this problem is only getting worse as distractions multiply and sap our ability to focus.
For writers, this means that it’s increasingly difficult to keep readers engaged. A single hiccup can break the reader’s concentration, forcing him or her to reread a passage—possibly losing the bubble and drifting off to daydream about more enjoyable things.
These hiccups come in many forms. But today I want to concentrate on one kind in particular: needlessly separating related words.
Let’s start with an easy example. Lawyers often write sentences like this:
Plaintiff, in her three-page opposition brief, fails to refute any of Defendant’s causation arguments.
This isn’t horrible by any means, and it won’t derail most readers. But notice the six-word gap between the actor (“Plaintiff”) and her action (“fails”). Every time we force the reader’s brain to connect detached concepts in this way, we steal a bit of momentum and consume a piece of the reader’s precious focus. So why not spare your audience and make the connection yourself? In this example, you might say:
Plaintiff fails to refute any of Defendant’s causation arguments in her opposition brief, which is only three pages long.
Or you could say:
In her three-page opposition brief, Plaintiff fails to refute any of Defendant’s arguments on causation.
Both examples join the actor and the action, making the sentence easier to digest.
Here's a more extreme example:
The Court invalidated the Attorney General’s asserted power, during the COVID-19 pandemic that has reportedly inflicted additional stress on consumers who have fallen behind on their debts, to prevent debt collectors from filing new collection lawsuits.
This sentence has multiple problems, but the most glaring is the 19-word gap between the actor and the action. Most readers will have to reread the sentence, or at least pause to choke it all down. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can improve this sentence greatly just by joining the related words:
The Court invalidated the Attorney General’s asserted power to prevent debt collectors from filing new collection lawsuits during the COVID-19 pandemic that has reportedly inflicted additional stress on consumers who have fallen behind on their debts.
Here’s an example in which the intervening words end up changing the sentence’s meaning:
Plaintiff asserted that Defendant sought to rewrite the contract in her opposition brief.
Here, the phrase “in her opposition brief” is supposed to modify “asserted.” But too many words intervene, and a mess ensues. Not only does this sentence suggest that the contract resides in the plaintiff’s brief, but it also paints the defendant as a wizard who can alter his opponents’ briefs at will. This kind of thing will interrupt the reader’s attention span, tempt the gods of confusion, and maybe even induce a chuckle—none of which you want.
Again, the fix is easy: Just put the verb next to the phrase that modifies it:
Plaintiff asserted in her opposition brief that Defendant seeks to rewrite the contract.
Yes, you’ll encounter situations in which this isn’t the best solution. But as conscientious writers, we should be on the hunt for sentences that burden our readers with extra work. Like pebbles in a backpack, even the small burdens add up.
Have a question or suggestion? E-mail me: TheHeavyPencil@gmail.com
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