Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Three Readers

Further in the questions of style: There are three distinct ways of relating to the written word. As writers, our style will be affected by our own reading style and the way our readers take in our work.

A quick overview:

1. The Motor Reader: These readers are still quite closely bound to our roots in oral storytelling. They read by physically modulating the sounds they see on the page. That is, their lips move.

Slowest reading style, but also the most thorough. Not so common today, but a hundred-odd years ago this style was the norm, enough so that those few who read *without* moving their lips were noteworthy.

Motor readers experience books as a form of spoken word. They respond to dialogue that echoes the rhythms of real speech and don't mind long descriptive paragraphs. The fiction of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Sir Walter Scott, Daniel Defoe, Robert Louis Stevenson and L. Frank Baum were all created for an audience of motor readers.

2. The Aural Reader: The majority of modern readers 'hear' the sounds of the printed word in their heads. They read at the speed of the spoken word and experience their fiction as a sort of disembodied 'sound'.

These readers still echo the experience of the spoken word, but it's like the voice in their heads is going really, really fast. Verbal tricks, beautiful words and poetic techniques of meter and rhyme go over a treat. For examples, look at your favorite fiction of the 20th century!

3. The Visual Reader: A minority of readers see the printed page for what it 'is': squidgy black shapes on a pale ground. A quick scan of the shapes of the words assembles itself in their heads. For them, there is no similarity between 'knows' and 'nose'-- the shapes are too different.

This small but growing minority are the fastest group of readers. With a bit of training, a visual reader can learn to take in 'blocks of text', 2-4 lines of text at a time, left side, then right. The pieces assimilate in rough order.

So far, advertising and comics seem to be the only folks catering to this crowd. Advertising, because they know that you're going to look at a print ad for a second or two at most. They *have* to use clever shapes to draw your eye across the words. Comics for a similar reason: graceless clumps of words are a turnoff.

Two 'visual' writers come to mind: Elmore Leonard and James Patterson. Both came out of advertising. Both are aware that readers initially 'look' at a page, and that big blocks of dense black print make the reader's eyes glaze over. The average reader: the working stiff spending a few minutes with a book before bed, on their lunch break, or on an airline flight.

It's no coincidence these two writers love dialogue. Or that they break description up into smaller paragraphs. Or that, when nothing but a big old paragraph will do, they pepper their sentences with exciting, powerful words. You may not want to spend three of your fifteen minute reading-time days forging your way through a boring info-dump, but you'll bravely forge ahead to find out why you saw the words 'hammer' and 'blood'.

So what's a writer to do?

We can't change the ways people read, but we can be conscious of them. Looking at your work from a different reader's perspective can help point out areas need strengthening.

Me, I write visually. My first drafts are a relentless chase from image to image, using words to show the pictures playing in my head.

In a later draft, I scan through looking at the shapes of dialogue and paragraph, making sure nothing is too dense, or too 'wordy'.

Another draft, I actually read the book out loud to myself. Quietly and under my breath, but out loud. *Really* helps prune the dead wood.

Just one more way of trying to tell a better story.


Lana Gramlich said...

The description of the visual reader you've provided brought me back to being trained to speed read in elementary school! I prefer aural reading, but can do the other if I must...

Lisa said...

I think I alternate between aural and visual. It depends on what I'm reading. This is interesting. Something to think about...

cs harris said...

It was a revelation to me when I discovered some people simply rush through a book, reading for plot. No interest in description, or character development, or grace of prose. The Patterson model does seem to be increasingly popular.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm definitely primarily an aural reader and writer. I can do the visual reading but only do so when I find a work in general boring.

Lana Gramlich said...

BTW, if you get a chance, please vote for my drinking story; "My First & Last Experience with Scotch."

Miladysa said...

Very informative post!

I think I am a Motaur reader.

When I write try to put down on paper the film I am experiencing in my head.

Bernita said...

I'm a very fast reader, but I see/hear both the words and the pictures.
Except in non-fiction