The Reading Game

How to Win Your Reader’s Attention

Anne Janzer
3 min readMar 23

Black and white photo of two children playing arcade games

Join me in a quick thought experiment about reading and writing.

Imagine that you’re strolling through an old-fashioned arcade with a few tokens in your pocket. At this arcade, each game costs a token, but most dispense tokens as you play and meet goals.

Some games only cost one token to start but don’t pay out much. Others may cost a few tokens to play, but return more tokens if you continue.

Are you with me?

Let’s say the person strolling through the arcade is your reader, and the games are the articles, books, reports, and other content clamoring for their reading attention. The tokens represent their mental capacity or attention available to spend on your writing.

Assume that you lure them over to your writing with a well-crafted headline or fantastic book cover. Here’s how the game works:

The player wins a token whenever any of these things happen:

  • The work tickles their curiosity.
  • The writing satisfies that curiosity.
  • They discover learn something new.
  • The work resonates with their own experience.
  • They encounter a beautiful image or memorable passage.
  • They smile or laugh.
  • They get caught up in a story.

Sounds good, right? Your brilliant work will spew out tokens!

But wait. They will have to pay extra tokens to keep going when certain things happen, such as:

  • They run into an unfamiliar word or acronym that they must decode based on the context (1 token)
  • They run into an unfamiliar word or acronym they cannot figure out by context (2 tokens)
  • They wade through three consecutive sentences with multiple clauses or delayed verbs (1 token)
  • They get lost in a sentence and have to read it twice to make sense of it (2 tokens)
  • They read 300 words about abstract ideas without a single concrete detail (1 token)

Once they run out of tokens, they’re done.

Anne Janzer

Author, Writing Coach, Unapologetic Nonfiction Geek. Writing about Writing Itself (very meta).