Writing in an Age of Multi-Tasking: Should We Bow Down to the Skimmer Mentality?

We laptop users have all done it: browsed websites while watching television.  We’ve texted while watching.  Studied while listening to music.  We’ve texted, browsed, and studied while watching television too.

This is fine.  I have no problem with dividing my attention between multiple casual tasks.

Nonetheless, while I normally disdain any conversation that begins with ‘the problems with today’s world is,’ I still feel shocked when people pay to see a movie and then spend it texting.  I can’t tell you the amount of phone screens I saw illuminated while the Hulk was tearing through Manhattan in my theater last week.

There’s a difference between casually multi-tasking while watching some tv show you’re half-interested in and paying $18 to see a 3D IMAX movie at midnight and spending a good portion of it on your smartphone.  I’m disgusted by the latter.  When I watch or read something that I’m intent on seeing/reading, I give it my full attention.  It deserves my full attention.

Still, I’m a realist.  We live in an age of distraction, and this multitasking mentality will alter how we experience art.  Here are three ways I think we have to deal with this when it comes to writers:

Recognize and Embrace Impatience as a Reality

I remember when I first realized that my multitasking lifestyle was getting in the way of my reading.  I was reading a scene from George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords.  Without being spoilery, one character was approaching a castle and seemed poised to finally reunite with a family member who I knew (from previous chapters) was in that chapter.  Suddenly, the chapter ended before the reunion scene.  The next chapter began inside the castle using nothing but slowly building exposition.  I couldn’t handle it; I had to get to the reunion scene.  I succumbed to skimming.  I had no patience for the slow-build and rushed through the chapter.  Suddenly, I realized my skim had skipped over major, major events (the payoff of the slow-build).  I did the right thing: I went back and re-read.

But think about how many people skim through the ‘slow-build’ writing we labor on so much– The kind of writing that takes real time and effort–just to get to ‘the good stuff.’

I’m certain that this ‘skimming’ mentality is only increasing.  In a world where people text over devoting their attention to a Hulking-out Hulk, there must be a lot of skim-reading.

Does that mean we should ditch all slow-building narratives?  No.  But we can’t rely on it too much.  There needs to be a middle ground between Martin (who writes nothing but slow-building exposition that leads to stunning plot turns) and Dan Brown (who writes entirely for an ADD generation).  In a multi-tasking world, we need to mix it up.

Treat the Page as Your Canvas

This is simple:







(BuT dOn’T bE tOo GiMmIcKy)

Educators are always buzzing about how people have different learning styles.  There are tens of different types of styles they preach about.  Except that, when I’ve dealt with students, I find that most classes are stocked with visual learners (at least 2/3).  Do you have to give in to this and turn the page of a book into something it’s not?  Not necessarily, but I do think that crafting your story with an insight into how it looks on the blank page can be both stimulating for a reader and thematically significant.

Rely on Your Reader to be a Googler

This is where the multitasking mentality can be somewhat of an advance.  Books are knowledge.  They always have been.  But they are no longer the key source of knowledge.  In the past, novels like Robinson Crusoe were so big because they brought people to distant, exotic places when it was unlikely that most people would ever travel to such places in their lifetimes.  Today, we neither need to travel nor read books to go anywhere or learn anything: Google will do it for us, in an instant.

I have to expect that readers of the future (and many in the present) are constantly Googling what they do not know when reading a book.  A few months ago I read Ready Player One, which is entirely informed by 80’s pop culture.  There were many moments where the author felt compelled to describe his references, but more often than not, I was content to Google them myself.  The moments that pulled the narrative down in exposition were unnecessary: I could be the expositor for the details.  I didn’t need the narrator.

I think we need to write with this in mind.  What can we rely on readers to find on their own?  What do we need to explain through exposition?  Knowing that we live in a world where everything can be looked up rather simply is important.

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