Sunday, April 20, 2014

Writing To Be Read

Several authors I know would look at me with disdain if I started preaching the value of speed-reading to them. "Every word I write is sacred. I want a reader to savor each paragraph, each sentence."

Well, good luck with that. People skim. Like it or not. People tend to gloss over parts they find boring and pay attention to things which ignite their imaginations or affirm their beliefs. I know, I know, you're not writing for those folk. They're beneath you. Yeah.

Newspapers have gotten it right for decades. They put the important information up front and work down in what is called a "pyramid formation." In journalism you should be able to cut off the lower paragraphs and not necessarily damage the intent of the writing. Some newspapers are thrilled just to have headlines read, and maybe a sentence or two of a story. Then again, considering the misinformation presented by some news sources, maybe that's the idea.

Fiction writers sense they only have a small window through which to grab a reader by the throat. We talk about a "hook." Those first paragraphs and pages make a difference whether or not a reader continues. Even the most high fallutin' literary writer would agree the opening is important. Too bad we can't make demands on our reader for more self-discipline and attention when they make the same demands on us. And how has web reading affected readers?

I remember a panel with young adult author Tanya Huff in which she argued that while statistics showed young girls read more than boys, she believed (without support) that boys read as much, only their reading occurred online.

Michael S. Rosenwald, writing for the Washington Post, gave it a bit more deliberate consideration. According to the article, "To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia."

A study by the Nielson Norman Group showed that "on the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely."

As an educator watching more and more students sucked into the world of online learning, this figure gives me the shivers.  My friend Jon Zech would have said: "I knew those darned computers would ruin us eventually."

So what's a writer to do? Start developing a form of short hand? Skip everything but the good parts? And who determines those good parts? Readability software? Perhaps an idiot savant who lives in his mother's basements and subsists on pre-chewed pizza? (Okay, I don't know where the heck that one came from.) 

The Chronicle on Higher Education addresses how the new reader approaches academic writing. Author William Germano argues the writer dare not give in. Good luck with that and being published and read.

However, Germano states: " The scholarly book that keeps you awake at night thinking through ideas and possibilities unarticulated in the text is the book worth reading. It may be that the best form a book can take--even an academic book--is as a never-ending story, a kind of radically unfinished scholarly inquiry for which the reader's own intelligence can alone provide the unwritten chapters."

So, are we saying writing matters, or connecting with the reader? "I write for the prettiness of the phrase," Jon Zech would waft. I would scoff. "It's like painting a page with a brush and the prose is magic."

"I write to be read and to hell with it," I would respond. "I just want to tell a story." We were both right, I suppose.


Angie said...

I think it's a matter of knowing who your audience is and how many of them are out there. If a writer wants to be snotty (and I am to a certain extent -- I refuse to dumb down my vocabulary or sentence length to a 6th grade level, which genre writers are encouraged to do) then that's fine, but we have to understand that we're limiting our audience, and when we don't get as many readers as the writer next to us, it's not because the readers are doing it wrong.

You can write however you like, so long as you have some realistic idea of what that means to your audience.

Angie, who also writes to be read

Stewart Sternberg said...

I agree an author should know her audience. Absolutely. However, there is something frightening about how people are reading and whether or not we are dealing with that as authors or just shrugging our shoulders and saying, "catch up or get off."

As an educator, I am more concerned about the figures regarding online reading. With so many students being pushed into online education, it raises serious concerns about the content they are internalizing.

Angie said...

As far as that goes, I don't think the fact that people are reading online is really the root of the problem. People read novels on laptops, e-readers and even phones, and over on the fanfic side, people have been reading 100+K word novels online for many years -- probably decades, plural, by now.

I think it's more the fashion for keeping our online writing short that's the problem. So many web gurus tell us that something like a blog post should be a few hundred words, max, with bullet points and similar to make the material easily skimmable. I don't do that, but a lot of people who write online do, and I think becoming used to reading in few-hundred-word chunks, with easily digestible bullet points, is more the problem than where those short chunks with bullet points are encountered.


Charles Gramlich said...

If reading patterns continue as they are going, the whole idea of a "story" may become extinct.