Friday, August 15, 2014

Writing for Skimmers

So, I might just be the worst reader in the world. In fact, I like to think I am because it gives me a sense of importance. Many times people ask me to read their work and give them feedback, and I tell them, “I will read this as I am, not as I should be.”

Skimmers can often be excellent readers to have—they tend to give more benefit of the doubt, hear what you mean to say over what you actually said, and like to fill in the blanks. They can also be a pain in the ass because they aren’t actually paying all that much attention, they’re the first people to zone out in a lengthy description, and they love making unpredictable assumptions.

While an author has every right in the world to ignore this type of reader in favor of people who are actually, I don’t know, careful, there are a couple of things he can consider when working with the bastards.

1) We always hear the first sentence in a paragraph and often skip the last.

If the information is imperative and people are missing it, put it in the first sentence in the paragraph. That is the only one a skimmer is guaranteed not to skip. Skipping patterns can change sporadically. Sometimes the reader will read the first sentence, ignore the second, read the third, ignore, and so on and so forth. Sometimes she’ll read the first two and then ignore the middle bit. Sometimes she starts skimming due to content rather than placement, and sometimes she will skip whole paragraphs together. But, in any of these cases, the skimmer knows a paragraph break always indicates an important change. It says, “We are now talking about something else.” Even if it’s still very related, there’s a reason the paragraph is there.

So if readers keep missing something important, consider where the info actually is in the paragraph. By moving it front and center—by that I mean, “front”—it’s very unlikely they’ll skip over it. Although, if they actually understand it, however, is a different matter.

This is why a lot of people suggest having short paragraphs. If you have twelve sentences in two paragraphs, a skimmer might read six. (Half of each paragraph, one-fourth the whole thing). If you have twelve sentences in four paragraphs a skimmer is more likely to read eight (the first sentence plus one more, two-thirds the whole thing.) It is unlikely that a person will read only one sentence in a paragraph before feeling confident they’ve gotten enough information, so if there’s only two or three…

On the other hand, there are certain places where a reader is much more likely to skip. One is in the middle of a long paragraph, but then which sentences specifically have to do with content. The most commonly skipped sentence is the very last one because the reader knows something interesting will probably happen in the first sentence of the next paragraph, and so jumps the gun and goes straight to it.

Skimmers don’t always skip the end, but by the end most skimmers think they “got it” by that point and have moved on.

2) We catch on to patterns and concepts quicker, but are more likely to not notice abrupt changes or contractions to our assumptions.

This issue of “getting it” is a big one. This is why smart kids can be such pains in the asses, and often why they look like colossal idiots. Once people get it, they have a hard time listening, and if you’re quick on the uptake, then you have to wait around for others to have it explained to them, which makes you zone out. This is true in reading, although the reader will just skim worse instead of waiting.

For example:

Susie stepped out on stage, her golden dress clung to her curves, rhinestones glinting in the light. Her glossy blonde hair fell over her shoulders, her shoes click-clacking on the floor…

Translation: She’s beautiful. Got it.

The rest of the paragraph continues on to explain the unique ways in which Susie was beautiful, but honestly, we got it from “curves.” I’d probably read the next sentence to make sure that’s what this paragraph will be about, but for the most part, I’m going to gloss over the rest to see if anything weird pops out and be done with it.

Skimmers can be skimmers because they can catch on to your gist very quickly, and often don’t care what the actual image is. Blonde, beautiful, probably an actress, they are great at picking up small bits of information and putting it together fast, so they don’t see a reason to gather any more details after they think they’ve figure it out.

Which means that if the paragraph shifts points, or even goes so far as to contradict its earlier implications, the skimmer is likely not to notice. If you explain for five sentences that she’s beautiful, then point out she has a dagger up her sleeve, there’s a good chance that’s why I have no idea where the dagger came from in the next paragraph.

What does this mean for you? Only if there’s a problem you’re looking to solve. Are readers missing something important? Do they tell you they’re confused about something you’re perfectly clear about? Look at the sentences before it and see if maybe you’re explaining things they would assume, which is a good reason why they might be tuning out.

3) Variation, variation, variation.

The key to drawing a reader’s eye is variation.

One short sentence in a lot of long ones.

One long paragraph in a lot of short ones.

A weird sentence structure.

A weird word choice.

Comedy in the middle of drama.

A weird object.

A weird fixation on an everyday object.

Telling me things I don’t expect to hear.

The key to grabbing the skimmer’s attention is to do something they don’t expect. It still needs to fit, and not be so noticeable to be jar us completely from immersion, but skimmers constantly look for something unusual. This is exactly why I appreciate clever word choice.

4) We learn from nouns, emotionally absorb verbs, logically notice adverbs, and skip over conjunctions, putting emphasis on prepositions.

Okay, quick lesson: The quick, brown fox jumped carelessly onto the author’s keyboard.

Nouns: Person, place or thing. Fox, author, keyboard.

Verbs: It’s what you do. Jumped.

Adjectives: Describes a noun. Quick, brown.

Adverbs: How you do what you do. Carelessly.

Prepositional phrase: Anything you can do to a tree. Onto.

Conjunctions: Pretty much anything else, or, when it doubt, just assume it is. (Yes, that’s the technical definition. Quit asking.)

When writing for the skimmer, remember that your verbs are the most important part of the sentence. That’s the one thing the skimmer is guaranteed to get his information from. Adverbs change the cadence and the point of the sentence. Skimmers are likely to notice them, but if they contradict the skimmer’s assumption, the skimmers are also likely to be jarred. So, an adverb should either enhance the verb in a non-noticeable manner, or be the most important part of the sentence, making sense why it has all the attention drawn to it.

Put most of your atmosphere, tone, and language in the nouns and verbs, because that’s what the skimmer will remember most.

A cat walked down the alley.

A feline crept through the shadows.

If the atmosphere is in the adjectives they will be less likely to notice the nuance, and if it’s in the adverbs, it will sound like you’re insisting it’s true rather than proving it.

5) I have no idea what your characters’ names are.

Characters’ names, things’ names, big words, anything I don’t recognize, I skip over and just keep going. This means that no, I probably won’t remember who Jimmy is sixteen pages later, I have no idea how to pronounce K’aftken out loud (even Ada probably), and if you explain to me what HRM stands for, I still won’t know what HRM stands for a paragraph later.

The good news is I won’t be as tripped up by not knowing things, and I’ll give you ample time to clarify it for me. I am far more likely and willing to figure things out for myself before I’ll admit to being confused. But it also means that you might have to redescribe someone by a characteristic other than just his name, and you might want to refrain from any acronyms if you can help it, and always name your characters something interesting with different first letters.