How To Write For the 21st Century Reader: 6 Tips to Modernize Your Prose

Publishing isn't the only thing that's being transformed by the digital age. Reading and writing themselves are evolving.

We may not like it, but as writers, we need to be aware that our audience's habits are changing.

Last month I wrote about how to format your blog for easy skimming, and unfortunately, we need to keep the skimmer in mind when writing our books as well. A good percentage of readers buy their novels for screens now, and their habits spill over from Web browsing to novel-reading.

Recently I've been getting some bizarre reviews for my novels, and I'm seeing similar ones on my favorite authors' books. It often seems to me the reviewers have read an entirely different piece of fiction.

But I can now see the reviews probably come from people who skim.

My books—and the ones I like to read—are full of fun one-liners and little ironic treats for people who are paying attention. But all the humor and irony is lost on skimmers who are rushing through, reading only for plot.

Personally, I'm a slow reader who savors every word.  I grew up reading literary fiction and I also read genre fiction with an eye to detail, character, and nuance.

Reading only for plot seems to me like eating the pizza crust and throwing away the toppings. Or maybe watching Seinfeld with the sound off. But I have to accept that people like me are no longer in the majority.

In an April 6th piece in the Washington Post Michael S. Rosenwald wrote:

"Before the Internet, the brain read mostly in linear ways — one page led to the next page, and so on...The Internet is different. With so much information, hyperlinked text, videos alongside words and interactivity everywhere, our brains form shortcuts to deal with it all — scanning, searching for key words, scrolling up and down quickly...Some researchers believe that for many people, this style of reading is beginning to invade when dealing with other mediums as well."

The changes in reading and writing are so profound that Rob Eagar wrote in a piece in Digital Book World  last October that authors no longer exist. 

He said—obviously with a layer of snark:

"There is no such thing as an 'author'.  Instead, there are only people who write stuff that they want other people to buy. Nobody dreams about writing for free, and the few who don’t care if people buy what they write are generally known as 'poets'.  If there’s no such thing as an author, how do we define people who write stuff that they want other people to buy? We call them 'salespeople.'"

Okay, okay, don't bite my head off. I didn't say that, Mr. Eagar did. (I actually write some poetry and admit I'm totally jazzed when somebody offers to publish it for no pay whatsoever.)

But he's making an important point. We probably need to think of copywriting as part of our skill set—as he says:

"Selling your book means writing effective newsletters, blog posts, short stories, free resources, social media posts, word-of-mouth tools, magazine articles, etc." 

This isn't really news. Ruth and I—and most writing bloggers—tell you this stuff all the time. Last month Ruth wrote a comprehensive post on the art of the blurb which is all about using copywriting skills to sell your book.

But Eagar is pushing it one notch further: he's saying we shouldn't think of selling as a burden, but part of the job description. He says writers have to learn to "sell" within the prose itself.

We now need to entice the reader to stay with us. 

Readers now have the content of all world's libraries and bookstores—plus most of the films and TV shows—at their fingertips. Plus instead of investing $15-$30 in a new book, they're probably paying under $5. If it doesn't grip them with every word, they click away.

But the merging of sales techniques with the art of fiction isn't exclusive to the digital age. James Patterson pioneered it in the early 1990s.

Patterson came to writing from a career in advertising. (He was the Don Draper of one of the biggest ad agencies in New York in the 1980s.) He used his copywriting skills to create the unique prose style that has made him the bestselling novelist of the past 14 years. His books have sold more than 300 million copies: more than Stephen King, John Grisham, and Dan Brown combined.

Patterson isn't just a "good storyteller" as he described himself in a recent interview with Joe Berkowitz at Co.Create .

He is a master of white space.

He places words on a page in a way that's enticing and easy to read. He uses short chapters that invite the reader to go for "one more chapter," creating a kind of popcorn for the brain. 

Or as he puts, he "glues people to the page"

I'm not saying we should all copycat Patterson—but there are things we can learn from him that will make our stories more modern and will draw in the contemporary, skimming reader:

1) Shorten chapters. 

An Oyster study reported in the New York Times in December 2013 says people are 25% more likely to finish books with shorter chapters.

We don't all need to write two-and-a-half-page Patterson chapters. Sometimes a scene goes long and that's how it works best. But if a chapter has natural breaks—the ones we generally indicate with a skipped line—consider making each scene a separate chapter.

My editor suggested I do this with my third Camilla mystery, Sherwood, Ltd, and a lot of people have told me they prefer it. I used even shorter chapters with No Place Like Home, and that's my most popular book yet. So I have to admit there's something to this, even though it was hard to break from my habit of 10 page chapters with a multi-purpose, sometimes ironic title that gave an overview of all the scenes.

2) Unbury your dialogue.

Start a paragraph with dialogue instead of action. I learned about this from reading blogs like Writing on the Wall, the blog of  Freelance Editor Lynette Labelle.

As she says, avoiding buried dialogue "isn’t a rule. It’s more like a trick to help keep your story’s pace flowing well. If you look through some of the more recently published novels, you’ll see authors rarely bury their dialogue"

Here's a scene from my original 2005 Babash-Ryan version of my rom-com, The Best Revenge:

Mr. Kahn’s voice got louder.“Why are you working for me? It’s obviously not the money. Eight hundred dollars a month is pocket change for somebody like you. “Is it revenge, Ms. Randall? Wasn’t blacklisting me enough for you? Is that angelic face hiding the soul of a vindictive bitch?” His eyes flashed icy blue.

This last speech had an odd effect on Camilla. She stopped wishing for the floor to swallow her up. Taking a deep breath, she drew on her mother’s most powerful weapons: a steady smile, and a slow, calm voice. “Mr. Kahn, I do not intend to get into a contest of bad manners with you. Bad manners are obviously your field of expertise, not mine."

And here's the more modern version:

“Why are you working for me?" Mr. Kahn’s voice got louder. "It’s obviously not the money. Eight hundred dollars a month is pocket change for somebody like you."

His eyes flashed icy blue

“Is it revenge, Ms. Randall? Wasn’t blacklisting me enough for you? Is that angelic face hiding the soul of a vindictive bitch?”

This last speech had an odd effect on Camilla. She stopped wishing for the floor to swallow her up. Taking a deep breath, she drew on her mother’s most powerful weapons: a steady smile, and a slow, calm voice. 

"Mr. Kahn, I do not intend to get into a contest of bad manners with you. Bad manners are obviously your field of expertise, not mine."

See how the eye is drawn through the scene?

Putting the dialogue up front allows people to see something juicy is coming as they scan the page. Readers generally prefer dialogue to internal thoughts or "business". So we need to put the most important stuff at the beginning of the paragraph. Or, second best, at the end.

3) Break up paragraphs.

Recently I happened on a piece by P. G. Wodehouse from a 1970s issue of The Paris Review. Wodehouse was of the most entertaining writers of all time. But I found it tough going.

I mean, those paragraphs were HUGE. Solid blocks of words. I found myself mentally breaking them down to get to the point.

And I'm an old person. I can only imagine how it is for younger people who have never had to attack those indigestible hunks of text.

4) Don't paint a picture, sketch.

In the age of instant media, descriptive passages are mostly for the author (and our inner poet), not the reader. If you want to get the map of your medieval village or your teen heroine's school set firmly in your mind, by all means write it all down.

Just don't put it in your final draft.

Everybody has an idea what a medieval village and a contemporary high school look like, and if they don't, they can Google it.

But back in the 19th century, before air travel—and films and color photographs—a writer knew many of his readers probably didn't have a clue what an English country house looked like, or the Rocky Mountains, or a spooky old castle.

So Victorian novelists wrote pages and pages of description, like this opening paragraph of Henry James' 1881 novel, Portrait  of a Lady. (No, this isn't the whole paragraph. It's about half. Obviously written in another time.)

"Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not - some people of course never do, - the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf. They lengthened slowly, however, and the scene expressed that sense of leisure still to come which is perhaps the chief source of one's enjoyment of such a scene at such an hour. From five o'clock to eight is on certain occasions a little eternity; but on such an occasion as this the interval could be only an eternity of pleasure. The persons concerned in it were taking their pleasure quietly, and they were not of the sex which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the ceremony I have mentioned."

But these days, hey, most of us have seen Downton Abbey. And even for the people who haven't, pretty much everybody has their own picture of this setting in their own memory banks from a movie or photograph. Describing it in detail will not only bore them, it may even interfere with their own imaginative enjoyment of the story.

As Patterson says, "I think what hooks people into my stories is the pace. I try to leave out the parts people skip."

And these days, people skip a lot.

What you want to share with your reader is the emotions, not the visuals. They can do a lot of the visual work themselves. Let us know how the country house or the medieval village or the spooky old castle makes the characters feel and you've hooked the reader.  

5) Make entertainment your top priority.

"The way it really happened" is almost always NOT the best way to tell your story.

Real life is full of traffic lights, pointless conversations, and long lines at the bank. Entertainment just gives us the good parts.

Realism is overrated. The most entertaining books and films aren't realistic at all. In fact, the most memorable stories go way over the top. One of my favorite movie moments ever is when Harold and Kumar ride the cheetah. 

Is that realistic? Not even a little bit.

Nope. But this is the stuff of some of our most popular entertainment.

In real life, we get stuck in traffic on the way to the burger place and end up eating the stale M & Ms in the glove compartment and going home and watching reruns of Law and Order

In entertainment, we ride cheetahs.

I love this quote from Patterson,

"I don't do realism. Sometimes people will mention that something I've written doesn't seem realistic and I always picture them looking at a Chagall and thinking the same thing. You can say, "I don't like what you do, or I don't like Chagall, or I don't like Picasso" but saying that these things are not realistic is irrelevant." 

Yes, you're going to get snarky reviews from people who think every book needs to be "realistic" (I sure get them—even for my silliest farces), but that kind of review doesn't seem to have hurt Mr. Patterson one bit.

6. Write Shorter Books and Publish More Frequently

Novellas and short informational books are surging in popularity. That's not to say that full-length books are on their way out, but you can fill in with shorter ones. Or you can break that doorstop saga into a trilogy of shorter works.

How short? Book marketing guru Penny Sansevieri says, 

"Ten thousand to seventeen thousand words is generally acceptable. Keep in mind that if you do short, you don't have room for fluff. "

For more on novellas and short works see our great step-by-step post on how to write a novella by Paul Alan Fahey.


Am I personally going to switch from reading Margaret Atwood and Donna Tartt to downloading this week's Patterson? (He does turn them out at record speed.)

Sorry, no. More thoughtful fiction is my comfort zone. I love a nuanced, complex read, and I hope writers will continue to create the works of art I prefer.

Am I going to remove my signature irony, whimsy and humor from my books to accommodate the chronic skimmers? Again, no.

Am I going to start publishing four novellas a year instead of desperately trying to come up with one or two 80,000 worders?

Probably not right away. I'm going to have to learn to write novellas, for one thing. Writing shorter takes different muscles. And I tend to like big plots with lots of intertwining subplots.

But I am working on breaking up paragraphs, unburying dialogue, providing more white space—and I'll keep working on those shorter chapters my editor loves.

What about you, Scriveners? Have you started writing to accommodate the skimmer? How do you feel about adding "salesmanship" to your skill set? Do you write shorter chapters than you used to? Do you have more tips for writing 21st century prose? 


The Best Revenge: normally $2.99, is Only 99c on Amazon this month! Also available at Amazon UKAmazon CAAmazon AU, and Nook

Snarky, delicious 1980s fun. And hey, the New Yorker says the 1980s are THE decade for nostalgia these days.

Perennially down-and-out socialite Camilla Randall is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but she always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way. This first episode of the Camilla Randall mysteries romps through the glitzy 1980s, when 19-year-old Camilla loses everything: her fortune, her gay best friend, and eventually her freedom. When she's falsely accused of a TV star's murder, she discovers she's made of sterner stuff than anyone imaginedherself included.


Amazon’s literary journal Day One is seeking submissions. According to Carmen Johnson, Day One’s editor, the litzine is looking for “fresh and compelling short fiction and poetry by emerging writers.” This includes stories that are less than 20,000 words by authors that have never been published, and poems by poets who have never published before. To submit works, writers/poets can email their work as a word document, along with a brief description and author bio to dayone-submissions

NOWHERE TRAVEL STORIES $15 ENTRY FEE. $1000 prize plus publication. Award-winning literary travel magazine, Nowhere, is teaming up with Outside Magazine for the first Nowhere Spring Travel Writing Contest. Stories can be fiction or nonfiction. Entries should be be between 800-5,000 words and must not have been previously chosen as a winner in another contest. Previously published work is accepted. Deadline June 15

Drue Heinz Literature Prize for a collection of short fiction and/or novellas. Prize of $15,000 and publication by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Author must have been previously published in print journals. Deadline June 30.

The Saturday Evening Post "Celebrate America" fiction contest. $10 ENTRY FEE. The winning story will be published in the Jan/Feb 2015 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, and the author will receive a $500 payment. Five runners-up will each receive a $100 cash payment and will also have their stories published online. Stories must be between 1,500 and 5,000 words in. All stories must be previously unpublished (excluding personal websites and blogs). Deadline July 1.

$800 prize for your unpublished or self-published novel, plus possible representation. Writers' Village International Novel Award. $22 entry fee. The winning author will be assessed by international literary agency A. M. Heath for possible representation. The top eight contestants will receive personal feedback on their novels by the judge, novelist Michelle Spring, Royal Literary Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Entries are welcome worldwide. Deadline June 30th

The Golden Quill Awards: Entry fee $15. Two categories: Short fiction/memoir (1000 words) and Poetry (40 lines max) $750 1st prize, $400 2nd prize in each category. Sponsored by the SLO Nightwriters and the Central Coast Writers Conference. Entries accepted from April 1-June 30th.

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