Monday, May 17, 2021

Chapter Size and Reading Speed


(This is a follow up to Book And Chapter Sizes)

Do you need chapters, and is chapter size related to reading speed? I think it is! Read on...

Who needs chapters anyway?

Well, there are a few reasons. First of all, they make life easier for a writer. You can timeskip certain events, and the reader won't complain πŸ˜‡ Also, it's easier to keep your work organized.

(It's amazing how some writers can just pump out complete, coherent novels, in one go. Most of us can't.)

But, chapter titles and chapter names have something to offer to the reader as well...

1. A reader won't feel lost. In paperbacks etc. it's easier to find a section back by chapter number or chapter title. Even in this day and age there are still people who do not rely on digital bookmarks. Perhaps they're reading a paperback?

2. Readers get a sense of 'accomplishment' when they finish a chapter. This only works if something happened in that chapter. If nothing happened, then the reader will have the opposite experience, the reading was a bore and he / she might not continue.

3. Readers have a 'goal'... Okay, just one more chapter. Okay, just one, one more chapter. Okay, perhaps just one, one, one, one more chapter, and then I go to sleep. We've all been there.

Reading time

(This bit is just for fun.)

Just as a little thought experiment, browse around a bit and look for the typical reading speed. A typical value is 200 words per minute. 300 is often listed, but there are always distractions, like pouring another tea, answering a phone call, or visiting a blog like this one 😌 Adjust the numbers as seems fit.

Assume someone isn't a well-versed, younger, and / or non-native reader... (I made the following numbers up, except for the 200 wpm, but they are a thought experiment after all.)

  • Well versed reader - 200 wpm
  • Inexperienced younger reader - 100 wpm
  • Non-native inexperienced younger reader - 50 wpm
  • Non-native inexperienced younger reader traveling on an overcrowded bus - 25 wpm
  • My grandma (who doesn't speak English) - 0 wpm πŸ˜‰

So, your well-crafted chapter of 2000 words, which took 4 to 8 hours to write, will be parsed in 10 to 80 minutes.

Let's say the worldwide average commute is around 30 minutes, of which 20 minutes are available for reading, then at 100 wpm the reader would be able to process 20 x 100 = 2000 words. If that's your target crowd, then your chapters shouldn't be much over 2k words.

Speed-reading and attention span

Speed-reading <> reading, it means we 'scan' the page for keywords. The human body is said to be physically unable of reading more than 500 wpm or so. Which effectively means our brains start processing a moving image. It seems our brains are able to interpolate the missing words, phrases, sentences, and some people are better at that than others. We're also likely to lose information when reading above 500 wpm. If that information is important... who knows? Not the person who reads more than 500 wpm πŸ˜‚

Note that when you get older, your brains will get a little slower, and your eyesight will deteriorate, so your reading speed will decrease. Though that might be somewhat compensated by your 'interpolation' skills, at some stage you will slow down.

If your target audience is a grey-haired eminence, who pours over your work for three hours every evening, enjoying a decent glass of port (or something stronger), a chapter or two at 100 wpm would work fine, so even 9000 words chapters wouldn't be a bother.

But the average Tapas reader would take 5 minutes for the suggested 500 words chapter. A typical Tik-Tok customer has an attention span of 16 seconds, so that's at best 200 wpm / 60 x 16 = 53 words 😏

And let's not think of Twitter... Well, okay. 140 characters at an average of 5 letters per word is 28 words, a little less than 10 seconds. Novels are going to be pretty damned short on Twitter 😳

Obviously, that's all subjective and non-scientific. But it gives some food for thought.


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