1. archer88i

    archer88i Banned Contributor

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    What do readers read?

    Discussion in 'Revision and Editing' started by archer88i, Oct 11, 2017.

    People tell me about these great authors who write books so deep that no matter how many times they reread the book they discover something new every time--some new perspective, some alternative interpretation, some facet of a character or of the world that they hadn't noticed before. I always assumed this meant there are just authors out there who are amazing, whose books are basically the damn Bible, and people can just read them over and over and it's some kind of damn fractal. My recent brushes with flesh-and-blood readers, however, are forcing me to question this.

    In a recent scene, a company of women arrives in the middle of a festival, interrupting everything. The first is hunched over and ancient. Behind her are two wolves. Behind those are four women carrying a corpse. There are others behind those; the number winds up being unspecified. When I asked my reader to describe the company, she said, "There were four, and they were all bent over." Asked why they were bent over, she responded that "they were carrying something."

    Naturally, on rereading, I could expect her to uncover mysterious facets of my world that she didn't notice the first time.

    I run into this a lot, and I can no longer conclude that it's just my shitty writing. How common is this? What's the deal? Is everyone like that, or is this just something that happens constantly with friends and family who are reading because they want to do something nice for you but who also really don't want to turn off Netflix for a half hour?
     
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  2. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I'm curious to read the scene, but a lot of people do seem to have a lot of reading comprehension problems. I notice it most often when I write someone a detailed email at work, but I'd expect it to extend to fiction as well.
     
  3. NiallRoach

    NiallRoach Contributor Contributor

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    Most people are just bad at reading comprehension. As much as they may be engrossed in the story, they're not necessarily in depth reading it like they might a critical memo.
    I think that's why it's important to get foreshadowing right; the rule of threes comes into play.
    Introduce, mention, and pay off. Skip the middle stage and you do run the risk of people straight up missing what you're going for.
     
  4. Fiender_

    Fiender_ Active Member

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    I skim all the time. When I start a book, I'll read every word. If i realize early on that a writer likes to describe things that don't seem important to me, I'll be 'conditioned' to skim more later. A few chapters in, if I notice there's a character I don't like, I'll start skimming their dialogue. In a book I read recently, I started skipping entire chapters under one character's POV. I didn't enjoy reading about them and nothing they had done in earlier chapters amounted to anything plot-necessary (and, in this case at least, I finished the book no trouble without having read that character's part of it.)
     
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  5. archer88i

    archer88i Banned Contributor

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    I constantly advise writers to write for the way people read--which is to say, I advise authors to expect skimming. This isn't because of personal experiences with people skimming things, but instead because, when I studied writing in college, I was told again and again by my instructors to expect people to just skim my work.

    ...I suppose that what I'm learning is just how important that really is.

    For anyone reading this thread who hasn't had me in their workshop threads telling them to fuck up their paragraph order, here's the short version as a "priority list" for readers:
    1. Read dialog.
    2. Read the first sentence (or first clause) of each paragraph.
    3. Read the last sentence (or last clause) of each paragraph.
    4. Read the middle of each paragraph.
    5. Read long, unbroken walls of text.
    How far down the priority list any given reader will go depends on how motivated they are, and as @Fiender_ pointed out, a reader's priorities can change as they read. The idea that a reader can just start skipping dialog if it sucks too much is truly frightening, and it's a possibility I never seriously considered. (In spite of the fact that I have warned people not to squander dialog in the past!)

    Now, it looks like I have to come to grips with a possibility that even my best professors never mentioned: to be compelling, the core of the story needs to somehow survive the trip to the reader's mind intact even when the text has not. I suppose this means I should be thankful for readers who report enjoying a scene even though they have no idea what the fuck happened. :|
     
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  6. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Largely off topic:

    My solution for the email problem is often to send an email of the form:

    Short version: (A short summary that states the expectation or need and often will trigger several questions--say, "Our Widget license is due to expire in December. We need to get a new license to keep the server from going down. I need your help with part of that.")

    Long version: (The answer to all the questions)

    I do actually include the "Short version"/"Long version" labels. People reasonably often do read the long version and actually respond correctly rather than ignore the email or email me the questions that are answered in the long version.

    Offhand, I don't see any way that this relates to the issue, though it might. I'm tempted to page through some bestsellers next time I go to the bookstore, to see if there seems to be any short version/long version pattern to the writing. It sounds a little like the old topic sentence/supporting sentence thing, but I don't recall that ever making anyone interested enough to keep reading when they weren't.

    This also reminds me that I totally lost interest in Game of Thrones, except for the Arya parts, and so I read several of the Arya parts without any of the in between, and found that I really didn't need the in between at all.

    I said it was largely off topic.
     
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  7. Mckk

    Mckk Member Supporter Contributor

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    I'm inclined to think people start skimming because of a few possibilities:

    1. They find it a bit dull but wanna find out what happens, so they skim to get to the good bits
    2. They're so engrossed they start reading real fast, which inevitably means they miss details and probably start skimming

    I know I do both of these.

    And a lot of people just have trouble remembering what on earth they read. A friend of mine once read a draft of my work - I'd even sent questions in with the draft so she can pay attention to certain aspects. Guess what? All she could tell me was she liked it. When asked what she liked, she said she could not remember. Yes, it does make me question if such a person really read the book. But it does seem pretty common. I remember another friend always used to proudly proclaim how he could read an entire book in a day, or an essay in 10min, or some ridiculous speed. So one time I asked him to read my essay and the moment he finished (a few minutes later), I asked him a question. It was a genuine question because I wasn't sure about some point I made in the essay. He blinked and looked utterly blank - he could not remember ever reading that part in my essay. And both of these friends are smart people, with university degrees and bilingual.

    Quite honestly, I'm not sure if reading is a skill that can be taken for granted, just because they seem to be literate and able to read signs and menus...
     
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  8. archer88i

    archer88i Banned Contributor

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    @Mckk, I think part of the problem is what you just said: that people "start skimming." I think that assumption is probably a very poor one. It's probably important to recognize that skimming isn't some kind of fallback people go to when necessitated by circumstance, but rather their default. If I had to guess, a big part of why this comes as a surprise to writers is that, by and large, we don't have the same default setting. I took endless literature courses as a student, and I learned to pay attention to what I read--or at least to be sure I got the important stuff. The one time I didn't, it cost me a shitload of points on an essay. :)
     
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  9. Mckk

    Mckk Member Supporter Contributor

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    Maybe. I never considered that skimming might be someone's default, but you're right it could be. I also think half the problem might be that people tend to read fiction before bed - when they're tired, they're looking for something to unwind with. They're not reading in order to focus but to relax, and reading in detail takes energy and effort, which is in direct conflict with the whole idea of "I'm sleepy and can't be bothered anymore. Let's do something to relax, something a little mindless..." Other times people read tend to be on public transport, when you might be interrupted countless times, not least because you need to get off at some point :) I'm not too sure how common it is to get out a book and read solidly for an hour or two in the middle of the day or evening just because. I'm not sure how much reading is truly a hobby to most people. Also, fiction doesn't tend to get taken seriously by most people - I myself have met a few people who says they read, but they'd never "bother" with fiction because fiction is "a waste of time". Their words.
     
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  10. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I find myself thinking that many other forms of media are skimmed--magazines, newspapers, television, anything online. Maybe the skimming or non-skimming habit is influenced by whether a person read a lot of books early in life when their media consumption habits were being formed?
     
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  11. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    It's entirely possible to faithfully read every word, but if your attention isn't actually engaged, you won't remember what you read. How many times do you end up reading a paragraph over and over because you just don't 'get' it, or get what it's saying? I know I do that quite often. Whether it's down to me and my lack of attention, or whether it's down to poor or overly dense writing, I can't say. But I do know that if somebody asked me if I'd read that piece, I would say yes. Remember it, or even understand it? No.

    On the other hand, some things I read and really do remember. Again, whether it's me or not, I don't know. But skimming, for me, is when I start turning pages or skipping paragraphs. That's different from reading every word and not comprehending or remembering.

    If something is important and you want the ordinary, diligent reader to remember it in particular, because it will be important later on, you need to do something to make it stand out. Just mentioning it isn't enough. The mention has to be noticeable to make it memorable. It's got to appear to have significance, even if the actual significance isn't clear until the payoff. In fact, you can skew it so it appears to mean something other than what it does. But it's got to stick with the reader. Otherwise, it's not going to have the impact you want it to. Instead, the readers will be going 'where did THAT come from' or 'who is that guy' or 'when did he notice that happening?'

    If it's important for the reader to remember that your bent women were carrying a corpse, don't just say 'they were carrying a corpse.' Give a line or two of something about the corpse that people will remember. The corpse's blackened, half-decayed hand came loose from the shroud, fell off, and the women simply kicked it aside as they passed, as if it didn't matter. Anything that will make that little passage memorable.
     
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  12. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man or BayView

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    I do think skimming is the default, although the extent of skimming is different for different readers. With myself, I notice that I read every single word when I beta read, but I skim (without meaning to) when reading for pleasure. I often notice completely new things in audiobooks, where every word is read out.

    I definitely skim more when a book (or a particular part of it) isn't gripping me, and I'd assume that's the same for most readers.

    I think the only answer is to write the best book you can. People will still skim and there's nothing you could do about that - I certainly wouldn't mess with sentence order for the purpose of giving key information to skimmers - but you can reduce the odds.
     
  13. Alphonse Capone

    Alphonse Capone Active Member

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    Interesting thread.

    I went off reading fiction books for a few years and only read non-fiction. The non-fiction books I am into are mainly history or science related. This meant that I became a naturally slow reader, I really took the time to read and understand every word and fact. You just couldn't skim these books.

    Then when I got back into fiction at first, I noticed I read the books as slow as non-fiction (previously I was a fast reader) and I found myself really analysing each sentence to make sure I never missed something. It made reading boring so I had to purposely re-learn to read quicker, not worry too much about every sentence. I wouldn't say I now skim but I am somewhere in between skim and analysis every sentence.

    I guess what I am trying to get at is there is a good chance that many details will slip by if they aren't in your face or seem as though they mean something. As the reader won't necessarily know what might mean something later then we as writers need to make sure that scene, section or sentence is memorable. If they can't remember whether everyone or one person was hunched over then does that matter as long they get the important aspects of the scene?

    Beta reading is different and should be considered more like reading for a literature class or even reading non-fiction where every word is analysed for its importance and use.
     
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  14. archer88i

    archer88i Banned Contributor

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    @Alphonse Capone, I disagree re: beta reading. I would rather the beta reader just pretend to be be an ordinary guy who paid 5 bucks at an airport bookstore. That's the guy who I want to captivate, after all.
     
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  15. Alphonse Capone

    Alphonse Capone Active Member

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    Yeah that's fair. I guess that's why it is important to let Betas know what you are looking for as we all have different goals from it.
     
  16. OJB

    OJB A Mean Old Man Contributor

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    This is usually my approach when I critique. I tend to focus more on the what devices and Writing Schemes people are using to portray their idea than the idea itself.
     
  17. G. Anderson

    G. Anderson Active Member

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    It honestly usually takes me about three rereads before I really get the details of the book. I definitely discover new sides to the book when rereading it the first time but they are often emotional or abstract and relating to where I am at that moment and what I've been through / what has changed since last reading the book.

    I had another point I wanted to write but I totally lost it. Sorry. It's just one of those days.
     
  18. GrahamLewis

    GrahamLewis Happy Wanderer Contributor Contest Winner 2022 Contest Winner 2023

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    One way to see if it's your writing or their reading would be to have them read (for the first time, of course) a well-regarded work, and then ask what they recall. BTW, I'll bet very few non-clerical folk read much of the Bible word-for-word. I also suppose the context of a description also makes a lot of difference.

    In my experience, I rarely read every word, even books I am enjoying, and sometimes catch myself going too fast and consciously make myself slow down. Though I suspect that at least sometimes I pick up more than I realize. In a mystery I will sometimes make myself go back and re-read what seems to be an important passage. Often when I read a book a second time, I note turns of phrase or other writing techniques I missed the first time.
     
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  19. Reollun

    Reollun Active Member

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    Reminds of George Martin books. Arya chapters bore me to death and I am always tempted to skip them. Well, to be honest, half of Martin's POV's bore me to death. But, I somehow feel bad skipping chapters or even pages, it is like defiling a book. If I feel like skipping whole chapters, I will simply stop reading the book.
     
    Last edited: Oct 25, 2017
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  20. archer88i

    archer88i Banned Contributor

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    @Reollun, for me it's some kind of weird, inherited, Depression-era instinct. Once I buy the book, I gotta read the whole thing--for basically the same reason I gotta clean my plate at dinner.

    ...With books, though, you get the convenient option of just losing them somewhere. Hard to do with your veggies.
     
  21. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Heh. Arya chapters, and occasionally Tyrion chapters, are the only ones I read. (I did read all of...I think the first two books? Then when I caught a compilation going cheapish for Kindle, I got it to easily read the rest of the Arya chapters.) I was debating whether to watch the series, but I discovered that all the Arya scenes are in tidy YouTube videos, so no need.

    I really want Arya and Tyrion to meet.

    Actually, I'd like to see Arya, Tyrion, Brienne, and the Hound open a large boarding school as a front for an agency of spies and assassins. That Pod person can come along to do the paperwork.
     
  22. raine_d

    raine_d Active Member

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    Of course readers skim to a greater or lesser degree, even when reading something 'deep and meaningful'. It's like noticing things in real life, the brain is simply wired to focus on some of what is going on (immediate interests. threats, patterns) and other things may be subconsciously noted (or simply discounted) because taking it all in is not what we're designed to do. This is why illusionists can 'illusion' and why Agatha Christie could seed clues (that in retrospect seem obvious) in her books but still completely surprise you at the end.

    If it's a book or story which really pulls me in, I probably read even faster to find out what happens next - and like with anything, that means details are lost. Maybe I'll catch them on rereading, but probably not all. Reading deeply, word for word, is more of a conscious effort and there aren't many writers I'll slow down for that much.

    Also, do remember, you as writer can't predict what they as the readers will pick up as important details and therefore remember. They may not have 'cared' as much about the wolves - or the corpse for that matter :rolleyes: - as the women who would be expected to drive the 'and what next?'
     
  23. archer88i

    archer88i Banned Contributor

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    As a writer, that's practically your only job: to control what people are thinking and feeling. You are...

    [​IMG]

    ...The Godfather!
     
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  24. Les Anderson

    Les Anderson New Member

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    I have always maintained, that if a reader can skim over a writer's work, but not lose the jest of the story, the author is not telling the story properly. Typically, wordiness is the culprit, or characters or narrative that who or that do not have a direct bearing on the plot. I suppose this is why I so strongly recommend the beginning or struggling authors write several short stories, limited to,say 1500 words, to learn how to stay completely focused on the plot.
     
  25. GrahamLewis

    GrahamLewis Happy Wanderer Contributor Contest Winner 2022 Contest Winner 2023

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    When I was in law school years ago (yes, forgive me I'm a recovering lawyer) I learned to read every word in my textbooks and in cases, because every word mattered. Sometimes I would even begin by reading the index.

    Not so much in non-work reading (and it's almost all non-work now). I seem to read more for tone and the feeling of the book, and like being carried along. I suppose it's like spending a day at the beach -- there's a hell of a lot going on, but I only see what I focus on. And going back to the original post, I don't think one can evaluate other people's reading habits by asking them to read a piece you have written -- because they are almost certainly reading it as a favor, so probably not applying their usual style.

    I'm not saying that's the best way to read, and as I write more, I know how much work has to go into word and phrase and style and grammar, and I often wonder as I read what I am missing, and sometimes consciously slow down. The upside is that with really good writers I get both -- I can read fast and get pleasure from it, and I can go back and read slowly, and find hidden gems of writing.
     

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