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  • Writer's pictureCatie Phares

Attention economics spell serious danger for academic writing

Do you know about the attention economy? It’s the concept that human beings’ attention is a limited resource—and like so many of our planet’s limited resources, it’s being traded, fought over, and rapidly depleted.

When political scientist Herbert Simon first proposed the idea of attention economics, 13% of US households didn’t even have a telephone, let alone a smartphone, and the Internet wouldn’t be publicly available for another 20 years. How prophetic then was Simon’s insight that “information… consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Today, it’s safe to say most of us are flat broke. At any given moment, thousands of powerful forces are aggressively competing for our eyeballs and focus (please remember this the next time you start blaming yourself for feeling scattered, overwhelmed, or unmotivated!) and this ongoing barrage is leaving us burned out and exhausted.

There are several great ways to manage your own attention span for greater well-being and productivity, but my main concern here is your ability to engage others’ attention. 

I’ll be blunt: with the attention wars going the way they are, most academics are in serious trouble. 

Here’s why. 

Thanks to decades of terrible (or nonexistent) advice on the topic, academic writing is largely unreadable—it’s dry, obscure, and laborious to wade through. Yet, even if no one’s expecting a punchy thriller or a funny TikTok when they pick up a journal article, they are implicitly expecting to be engaged now. Their overtaxed brain demands it more than ever before. 

And if readers aren’t at least moderately engaged in what you’re saying? They’ll zone out. Get annoyed. Start looking for flaws (especially with the writing) just to assuage their boredom. If they happen to be a swamped journal editor, they may give up and reject your paper on the spot.

That’s why it’s critical that you tailor your academic writing to this new attention-deprived landscape. The four most important actions you can take in this regard are:

  • Make a great first impression. If you haven’t taken it yet, head over to my Outstanding Introductions masterclass. You’ll learn how to hook readers in, win them over, and keep them reading—with tangible results for your writing. And until April 30, 2024, this class is completely free!

  • Trim, condense, and trim some more. The most practical way to enhance reader engagement is simply to give readers less to read. Check out another recent blog post of mine for a step-by-step guide on how to cut length for enhanced readability. 

  • Write from the heart. This doesn’t mean oversharing or making the paper all about you—it means writing from the genuine feeling that you’re trying to engender in your readers. What made you curious about this topic in the first place? What were you surprised to discover? What left you hopeful or scared for the future? Don’t shy away from all feelings (the myth that research should be as impersonal as possible has long been busted). Feelings are more engaging than data ever could be, so tap into them.

  • Above all, get clear on your values and your personal academic mission. Why do you do what you do? You went into this field for a reason. Come back to that reason when you’re feeling overwhelmed or discouraged by all the noise. I promise you the right people are out there, just waiting for your message to reach them.

The irony is not lost on me that if you’ve made it to the end of this post, you’ve just given me the precious gift of your attention—and I deeply appreciate it!

-Catie Phares


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