Why you should make your writing goldfish friendly

GoldfishHarvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn is much quoted on the subject of goldfish (no really – nearly there!) often in the context of writing. Her observation, like it or not, tells us more and more about how we should write our blog posts and even structure our ebooks. It also helps justify why we can write a fairly short book of even a couple of 10s of thousand words and still find an audience. Without further ado, lets get to the goldfish…

The goldfish

Let’s get straight to Nancy’s quote:

The average American attention span in 2013 was about 8 seconds. The average attention span in 2000 was 12 seconds. And then get this kicker – the average attention of a goldfish is 9 seconds.

The key facts here are the reduced attention span – we could debate the reasons, blame twitter / blogs / smartphones but whatever the exact mix of cause and effect the net result is that people don’t spend a lot of time on consuming information unless they want to. This has consequences.

Blog posts

If we think blog posts then you have only 8 seconds to get your casual readers to decide to read your articles. Between the title, the graphic (if you have one) and the first paragraph you need to convince a visitor to click to read the content of your post in a few seconds.

Is this anything new? We already know we need a hook for our writing and in the case of a blog post we should already be tempting the reader in the first paragraph. Maybe we are already focussing on the goldfish?


My book Opening the Creativity Diamond is around 16,000 words. A more conventional printed book could cost several pounds and be much longer, though if you look at the options available at railway stations they are often fairly slim, focussed books. (I don’t mean fiction).

To get interest in your book readers need to know it exists then they have the following sources of information (Q means quick time; S means slow time. a + means something takes longer / will be addressed later):

  • Title (Q)
  • Cover (Q)
  • Price (Q)
  • Your name which might be known to them (not the case for a newbie indie author) (Q)
  • The blurb (Q+)
  • Reviews (S)
  • A sample of the front (on Kindle for example) (S+)

Why should a new reader spend even 8 seconds taking all this in, never mind 30 – 60 seconds it might need to make a buying decision?

This is why you should spend as much time as you can on all you can change on this list. You need the everything to be the best it can be. You need to draw the would-be reader into looking at the slower time items. Nobody said it was easy!


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