Monday, April 28, 2014

Speed Reading or Flim Flam?

How fast do you read? Does it matter? Some would argue that faster reading can actually improve comprehension since reading faster means forced concentration. Others argue that reading faster takes away the flavor of the writing.

So, how fast do you read? You could go to Speed Reading Test Online or use the Staples E-Reader Interactive. Or you could do it manually, but since we're in the computer age, why not let a website handle it for you? Sheesh.

Me? I like reading fast. Most tests I've taken recently clock me around 700 wpm. I've never formally taken a speed reading class, but I picked up some basics:

1) Don't say the words in your brain. Hard as this may be for some people, encoding and decoding only slows you down. 2) Chunk when possible. Read groups of words at one time. 3) Use a guide. Your finger is your friend. I know that sounded bad, but you can use your finger to over come regression, the habit people have of skipping back to what they've read. 

Three simple changes to reading habits can make quite a difference. Or if you love apps, then consider letting one of those help you out. If you don't consider it unusual using a tablet or a phone as a primary e-reader, consider downloading one of these.  Spritz, Velocity, and Balto are all efficient and popular choices. There are others, and like most apps, it's a matter of installing and trying them out, finding what's best for you.

Still, not everyone is a fan of speed reading and speed reading apps. The greatest argument is that speed comes at sacrifice to comprehension. A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science. April 18th, 2014, focuses on the importance of saccades, the rapid eye movement which speed reading seeks to control. This study and others demonstrates we're still learning about the mind and how it processes information. We'll probably see more research on reading apps and comprehension in the next couple years.

So how fast do you read? Isn't it more about adapting to source material and finding the speed and style which feels most comfortable and functional?

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.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Freemiums Are For Suckers...Which Unfortunately Includes Me

It's time to rebel against "freemium" games. I say this while mired in one of the most seductive titles, Clash of Clans.  

For the blissfully ignorant, here is how a "freemium" game works. The gamer downloads a free game and gets suckered in. The further they play, the more difficult it becomes to progress. The more difficult to progress, the more likely a person to invest a few bucks in a "helper" or "bonus."

Need a way to polish off a level in Candy Crush? Ninety nine cents might work. Maybe spend three to five dollars and buy enough helpers "just to be safe." Want to upgrade the town hall in Clash of Clans? Pay five bucks for three hundred green gems, or maybe a hundred dollars for fourteen thousand imaginary stones.

Oh sure, one doesn't have to spend the money. In Clash of Clans you can make a few clicks to start building and upgrading, and then wait two or three days until the upgrade is complete. But where's the fun in clicking a button and waiting days to click more buttons to wait more days?

This is a walk down a carnival midway, playing games which you know are fixed. And yet, you can't help throwing another ball at the stacked milk bottles, or shooting another basketball at an undersized hoop.

However, the carnival game is frowned on, mostly because it's penny ante.

The "freemium" game, on the other hand, is big bucks and big bucks buys respectability. The makers of Clash of Clans sold fifty-one percent of its stake to a Japanese company for 1.5 billion dollars. King, the creator of Candy Crush, filed an IPO on the NYSE for $22 a share. Yowsa, yowsa, yowsa!

And yet, perhaps the "freemium" field isn't as green as one might think. Perhaps there's hope for humanity after all. According to sixty six percent of the people who download these games delete them within a day. And Candy Crush's King? While it may have opened at $22.50 a share, according to Wall Street Journal's "Market Watch," it had the worst trading debut this year, dropping 19% in a day. Another game company, Zynga, is down fifty percent from its opening IPO.

I think I'm going to forsake "freemiums" and just play chess.