Adapting your Writing to Scanning & Skimming

The Washington Post has an interesting article about a tendency of more and more readers to scan and skim text rather than drive steadily through long passages: … story.html

To my credit, I’ve anticipated that. My latest books start with pictures and the chapters are short and centered on one event. Where necessity means a chapter has to be longer, I’m inserting headings to break it up. In many cases, I’m trying to keep chapters around 2,000 words. I’m also looking for ways to make a book’s appearance richer and more varied, including

using bulleted lists
bolding important text.

In that, I’m, of course, imitating the Internet. You can see how that works out in practice by downloading the sample of my latest book here: … d690916827

Alas, that’s assuming you have a Mac, and iPhone or iPad.

The Kindle sample is here, although I had no control over that content. (Boo, hiss Amazon) … B00EOVP15A

This explains the problem that poses for writers.

To start the discussion, I’ll pose some questions:

  1. Do you find yourself having a shorter attention span as you read?

  2. Do you think your readers are experiencing this change?

  3. Are you changing how you write as a result and, if so, how?

Go to it. Adapting to this might mean the difference between a book selling well and only selling so-so.

–Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia

I can’t imagine anything more depressing than writing for people who don’t read.

I was going to say “writing for vic-k?” but then the impossible happened.

“Self,” i said, “vic-k is the ideal person to writer for.”
“Really? Have you lost your mind?”
“You’d know best. But think about it. Has he ever provided anything but helpful encouragement or criticism?”
“Hmm…” self said to self. “I see your point. It is easy to think of him as a bit soft in noodle, but …”
“We would know all about that since our noodle is all over the ceiling.”
“Yes we would. But what better audience than a passionate reader who cares enough to point out things that disturb a reader?”
“Well, other than all the alter egos he does seem to be the perfect candidate.”
“Ahh, but think about that again. You send one copy and you get a myriad of opinions.”
“Self you are a GENIOUS! He’s a one stop test market!”

So yeah. I think Ahab hit it. If you aren’t writing for someone like vic-k then it isn’t something I would wan’t to do.

I don’t have anything to add to the discussion, but… :confused:

I do find myself skimming and scanning. :unamused:

In fact, I did it while reading this thread. :blush:

And, yes. It does make reading dense prose difficult. :imp:

I think it is affecting my writing style, too, but I’ve been working on a screenplay for the last while; the styles are similar. :mrgreen:

To the contrary. After a day chasing — or fleeing from — my own dragons, I recover by reading the (apparently) old-fashioned way about other people and their dragons. Right now, I’m half-way through Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery, which defies sloppy reading.

As does Hermann Hesse:

Take a break — coffee or Jameson, depending on the hour — between carousing around the Internet and sitting down with a good book.

Perhaps I am wrong, and will stumble through golden years making pins by hand, weaving cloaks on that hand-loom in the basement. This may be a giant leap forward, toward ultimate application of writerly admonitions: concrete nouns and specific verbs, eliminate adverbs (and prepositions and adjectives, et al).

However: There is an unexamined — or unreported — determinant here. Skimming has always been done when “torrent of information” is involved. If I’m writing an op-ed piece and want to add what Senator Sludge says about gun control, I’ll have to winnow half a dozen clips to find it; I don’t read them all, I skim, looking for “Sludge” and “guns.”

But note that “torrent of information” was “online.” The salvation of reading, of literature, of culture, of civilization, of the human race, may reside in spending less time online.

As for the questions…

  1. No.
  2. No idea.
  3. Like Ahab and Jaysen, I don’t want to write for people who don’t want to read.



There still may be hope… a coffee shop which not only does not offer wi-fi, it actually bans lap-tops. Imagine, a bunch of students/writers/normal people sitting around reading tangible, palpable magazines and writing on real paper with old-fashioned pencils and pens.

At least, I think of it as hope.

I find it fairly easy to switch from one mode of reading to another, I am not really concerned I will lose the habit or capacity of reading attentively. Let’s face it, a lot of online stuff deserves not much more than scanning and skimming. But if you do encounter a text that deserves attention and slow reading, I think you should be able to do it. I don’t think it’s a real concern. It does require some level of cognitive control, but isn’t that desirable anyway? :slight_smile:

I agree with some posters and with someone quote in the article. It does seem quite possible to train the brain (alliteration alert) to handle both skimming and long reading. It’s a bit like being able to sprint well and do long-distance running.

But we do need to keep in mind that our readers may not be willing to do that or, more likely, be aware that the Internet has made them read differently from their grandmother, when she was their age. Accustomed to the quick feed of web browsing, they may find the five-course meals we’re serving boring and blame us rather than how they have trained their brain.

I have circulating in my mind a little ‘what could I do different’ loop that asks how what I write could be varied. Oddly enough, one reason is because I think that digital reading grabs our attention in fewer dimensions than print reading. Print books have a physicality–that page that doesn’t change and pagination. They’re like being in someone’s home, with clear distinctions about which room is which. Even holding a book is different at the beginning, middle and end.

Digital books, on the other hand, seem like walking down a long, poorly lit hallway reading the signs on the wall. All is the same. There’s no context behind the words. That may be why one recent study, which I could not find again, says that students don’t learn as well with digital books as with printed ones.

This also raises a parenting question. One of my nephews refuses to have an Internet connection at home because he finds the web too addicting. But that has, as a side result, that his kids read books constantly. Since that’s likely to help them in school more than browsing, it’s a good thing.

For those who like deep thought, here’s an article that compares the shift between print and digital to that from oral to literate in ancient Greek society: … tions.aspx

I suspect the Internet poses a different but equally serious dilemma–why learn at all when everything you need to know is (or at least seems to be) available with a quick Google search?

There’s also this, which essentially says that, while our brains come hardwired to learn spoken languages, they don’t come wired for reading in any particular way, so how we first learn to read may shape our brains learn to read and limit us the in the future.

This might be the result:

In other words, all those hyperlinks can be distracting and make us shallow.

–Mike Perry

I thought that I switched reading styles fairly easily as well, but I have been horrified to discover that even when I think I have read something in full on my iPhone, it may turn out that I haven’t. I have a subscription for the print edition of a magazine, and about a year ago I added the digital edition for a nominal extra fee. Recently, I have been reading only the digital version on my iPhone, rather than the paper copy, and I was beginning to think that the magazine’s standards were slipping and that there isn’t as much meaty content in it now as there has been in the past. This weekend, I picked up the most recent paper issue and sat down to read it as I did in the olden days, pre-iPhone. I was amazed to find (a) that it took longer to read each section, (b) that there seemed to be much more in it, and © that the material was so engaging that I actually started reading bits of it out to the assembled family, just as I used to before switching to reading on the iPhone. Closer scrutiny reveals that the two versions are identical in content. The only difference in my perception of the material is caused by my own reading style in the two different media.

On a vaguely related subject, I recently read an interesting article at

The technology may have changed, but the skills haven’t.

When I was growing up, there was a similar focus on ‘speed-reading’. President Kennedy was renowned for it (it was apparently the only way he got through all his daily reading in good time to leave space in his schedule for - well - all his other activities), and there was a popular how-to book, published by Penguin, that laid out the techniques, which many of us, afraid of being swamped by the then-forecast deluge of written information, avidly adopted.

But one day I was ‘speed-reading’ a paperback novel by Hammett, Fleming or Spillane - I forget whom - when I came to the realisation ‘This may not be Eng Lit, but it’s still the product of experience, craft and ingenuity. I’m interested in what the author has written here, not just the thrust of the plot, but also the juxtaposition of individual words and their effect.’

I realised then that the true skill in speed-reading remains judging when to deploy speed-reading skills. And for writers, the implications remain as they always have been: write for the reader you want.

And hugh hits it…

the question is “why are you reading?”

who looks the significant other in the eye, says “other, I want to spend a romantic, meaningful evening with you” then makes reservations at Taco Bell (when we were dirt poor we did, but the idea is there).

The enjoyment of a thing should be allowed to demand our full, undivided attention. Speed reading by its nature is just a rushed and hurried “wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am” read of material. While I make no pretense of ever making a dime off my writing, I hope to God that anything I put out brings the reader into the story like a romantic dinner at a fine restaurant brings the Mrs into the center of my world.

If we start writing for one night stand readers then we immediately cheapen the art of what we are doing.

Again, I read and write because I enjoy it. My opinion is highly biased by my “why”. Those who make a living reading and writing may feel differently.

I tried a similar app and found that, while it did drive me to read faster, I did not like the experience. It made me to read at one speed and I find I like to skim some parts and stop and ponder over others. It was a bit like taking a walk with someone who likes to walk fast when you’d rather slow down and enjoy some parts of your walk. Speed isn’t everything.

I sometimes joke that writing books doesn’t leave me with much time to read for fun. I partly get around that by listening to audiobooks on my iPhone while I walk. If you’ve got a similar interest, you might want to check out:

A number of websites offer free, public domain audiobooks, but their collection has an advantage. You can get a book’s chapters broken up into podcasts, which makes it easy to install on your mobile device and easy to listen to in short segments. I’m listening to Lord Jim right now. The person doing the reading is quite good.

Since you can read in the dark, it’s also great way to prepare for sleep. It’s also a good way to occupy yourself while showering or preparing a meal. For that, I have a now-ancient iPod mini attached to a speaker system.

–Mike Perry, Inkling Books

I can see not offering Wi-Fi, but banning laptops? Screw them. Some of us cannot write without them. Elitism makes it easy to figure out where not to spend my money.

I’ve been reading more on an e-reader — non-backlit Kobo, and mostly, but by no means entirely, books I’ve read before in paper form and like to re-read — and on my Macbook Air — Irving Stone, “The Agony and the Ecstasy”, which I got into as a result of helping a Chinese friend who was commissioned to translate it into Chinese, and who sent me a link to an online version as I needed the full context to answer her questions.

The whole time, I find myself infuriated by the sloppy editing, the hundreds of obvious typos that result from the OCR that should have been edited out. In the e-books on the Kobo, these are paid-for publications by Random House, Harper-Collins et al., reputable print publishers … and yet they issue e-books of their publications full of typos, and not just the burn = bum one recently commented on — one from yesterday was “we || …” for “we’ll …”.

Reading this thread made me think that maybe the people who are employed to edit the books are ‘reading electronically’ and just skimming … reading the books to follow the plot, with their eyes skipping over the typos, as encouraged to do by electronic media, rather than actually reading critically as one does with paper books.

It can be difficult enough to spot all typos on paper; doing so on a computer screen is well nigh impossible in my experience, and I’m a very old-fashioned perfectionist.

Mr X