Understanding How Readers Read

girl readingWhen I started writing – three, maybe four, years ago – I just wrote. I didn’t really think much about it as I sat there with my laptop, tapping down my stories and making things up.

I was happy with how they turned out. I had a good time, and I made up some really cool characters – most of which are still around in one form or another.

Then, eventually, I joined a writing forum and began to share my work there. I discovered there were a whole load of do’s and don’ts when it comes to writing:

  • DO strive for tension
  • DON’T use passive voice
  • DO use a deep point of view
  • DON’T use adverbs
  • DO show
  • DON’T tell

The list goes on. It turned out there are rules for how to write that I didn’t even know existed. I barely understood what deep point of view was, and it took a lot of explaining before I finally figured out the difference between passive and active voice (and I’m still hard pressed to explain it to someone else).

These “rules” of writing seem to pop up a lot wherever aspiring writers show off their work or ask for advice. I guess that’s fine – or at least understandable. The way I see it, the rules of writing are there to help writers produce better stories.

I’m not going to go into whether rules for how to write are good or bad. That topic comes up often enough on forums and other places, and it rarely leads anywhere. Instead I’ll just go straight to the point I’m trying to make here:

There is a lot of talk about how writers ought to write, but very little about how readers read.

The rules of writing tell me how I should write, but they don’t really tell me why. That’s something I have to figure out on my own. Once I understand why a rule says what it does, the rule becomes more of a guideline, and I’ll begin to understand when and how to break it to the best effect.

Why Writers Should Understand Readers

I think – and this is just a hunch – that understanding how readers read can take my writing a lot further than any rules for how I ought to write. When I understand how words and sentences turns into images and emotions and stories I can take that into account and I believe my writing will be better for it.

If I know how long it takes to form a first impression, I can use that in my descriptions. If I know how words are associated with feelings, I can use that to support the emotions of my characters. If I know how punctuation affects our perception of time, I can use that to create a sense of urgency, or of relaxation.

Makes sense, right?

It’s not something that I see much discussion about among writers though. Sure, I’m really only active in one writer’s community (here on Mythic Scribes), but even elsewhere on the web it seems that it’s a lot more common to talk about rules of writing than it is to talk about understanding reading.

A set of rules is probably a very accessible stepping stone to get you started. Understanding reading is something that comes with time, and which most of us pick up on our own, without much input from others. It’s something of a personal skill and we probably all have our own individual impressions of it.

I do think it’s something that’s important to keep in mind though, and that it’s something that’s worth discussing, even if it can be difficult to articulate and communicate. No matter how well we write, or how original our ideas are, our texts don’t become stories until our readers read them (or do they?). Understanding how readers read makes it easier for us to give them a better story experience.

For Further Thought

  • How do you read? Do you take in every word and every detail, or do you skim over lines and absorb the general gist of what’s written?
  • When you read a word or a sentence, how does it transform into an image or a feeling in your mind?
  • Does your familiarity with a story/writer affect the images you create in your mind? Do you think that a description at the beginning of a book needs to be more detailed than a description of the same thing at the end of the same book?
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5 years ago

I read in the manner that I see to be correct.
As though I am an outside observer, an utterly passive and spectral spectator of the events within the story.

Imagine my shock when I found people claiming that an audience wasn’t a passive observer. To me the only active participants in a created work to me are the creator, co-creators, illustrators/audio tech, and editors.

Anything that I would, must reflect the fact that I hold true; the audience are watchers not participants.

Nils Ödlund
Reply to  Logos&Eidos
5 years ago

I remember that discussion. As I recall, in the end it turned out to be a difference in opinion about what it means to be an active/passive participant in a story more than anything else.

Ron C. Nieto
7 years ago

Amazing post, and a very interesting shift away from the craft of writing and into the understanding of reading. And I think it is a shift that needs to be made.

Rules for writing make very little sense if we don’t see why they exist in the first place. So, think about your reader, what they want, and what will put them off. Then choose which rules you need to adhere to, which ones you can break, and which ones you need to make up on the spot.

It is true, as Sara has commented, that each reader is unique. However, I don’t think the point is to treat all our readers as a general “mass”–I think we need to figure out who we’re writing for.

As a writer (and after some practice), I know who will be interested in my stories, and who will pass on them. Furthermore, I know who I *want* read my stories. Sure, it would be nice if everyone read them, but if I had to choose? I can pinpoint who would enjoy them best, and who would get the most out of them.

I guess you could say I’ve learned to figure out who will “click” with my writing right away.

This doesn’t mean there are no other people reading my stories and enjoying them. They do, and I love it! But that’s part of my “author mode”. When I’m on “wordsmith mode”, I don’t think about them–I think only about the reader who will “get” the message and the style and the characters.

Is this the best way to go about writing? I don’t know. I like to think it’s better to be perfect for one person than to try to please a thousand… because the genuine passion of that one person can get us closer to a thousand more, quicker than my own marketing, strategy or even writing skills would.

In any case, this post has sparked some great thoughts, so thank you for sharing!

Daniel Adorno
7 years ago

Interesting topic. I agree with Sarah in that reading can be a very subjective experience. We see this in just looking at reviews on Amazon of classic works that are “universally” accepted as great. There’s a majority of readers who love the story, characters, plot, etc., but also a minority who hate it for a variety of reasons.

I think with regard to writing there are triggers in the words that readers are looking for, regardless of taste, that will help them enjoy the story more. It’s our job as writers to identify these triggers and include them in our stories. Shawn Coyne has multiple blog posts on this that really dig deep into those triggers on storygrid.com–I highly recommend reading them because he dissects story on a philosophical and practical level like no one I’ve ever read!

Nicholas C. Rossis
7 years ago

I loved the paradigm shift you suggest. I suspect that changing our frame of mind to focus on reading can have a wonderful effect in many cases. At the very least, it gives us another way of looking at our writing. Thanks for sharing 🙂

saeed sabbagh
saeed sabbagh
7 years ago

it depends on the story i and fast reader 3-5 books in week that how my reading become now because i loved reading first before writing

Nils Odlund
7 years ago

Right, I see where you’re coming from, even though I’m not sure I fully agree. I guess it is part of what I’m talking about though: being aware of how readers process the words on the page. Just because I tend to conjure up images in my mind doesn’t necessarily mean everyone else does.
How do I deal with that as a writer?
Do I ignore it and just keep doing what I do, or do I try to accommodate for it in my stories?

Sarah McCabe
7 years ago

I think the most important thing to acknowledge about how readers read is that it’s highly variable between individual readers. Most people who do talk about readers talk about them like they are just a uniform blob. So you get people doling out advice who insist that “readers want A” or “readers don’t like B” and whatnot as if all readers want, like, and dislike the exact same things.

In reality highly varied readers are looking for highly varied reading experiences.

Sarah McCabe
Reply to  Nils Ödlund
7 years ago

I think that is also a highly individual thing. Every reader is a unique person whose brain processes things in unique ways. Words and images strike every person in different ways. Hence all the argument over whether books are good or bad.

For instance, many people talk about reading books and imagining the story as a movie playing in their head. This is an experience I cannot relate to because I don’t see movies of books in my head. I hear voices and other sensory impressions. But I don’t actually conjure up pictures in my mind. And it’s probably because of this that I have no patience for writing that sounds as if it is basically meant to describe a movie in your head. It bores me to death.

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