Fast vs Slow Readers

JohnLine

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I was wondering how the speed at which a reader— well reads, affects their experience with a book. For example, when I read for pleasure I read slowly, about the same rate as I would read aloud. I like to do the character voices in my head.

And when I write, I think I tend to write for this kind of reader. I try to craft my stories so they take as long to read as whatever scene would take to actually happen (when I’m showing, not telling.)

But I can see advantages to the alternate. Maybe if you write for fast readers, you throw in extra details and such.

Anyway, I was wondering if you think you write for one type of reader or the other, either consciously or subconsciously. And I’d be particularly interested to read some work of speed reading authors if anyone wants to share?
 

CMBright

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I know you are looking for a serious discussion, but I am remembering Radar O'Riley on M*A*S*H writing a letter home slowly because his mother was a slow reader.

On a more serious note, it doesn't really occur to me to wonder if my potential audience reads quickly or slowly. I would just hope they read and enjoy my work.
 

Thecla

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I read very fast, fast enough for people who don't know me to wonder if I'm retaining information (I am). This isn't because I'm trying to speed read but just because I'm like that. Seems to be a family trait. I do reread books if I'm particularly impressed by their language.

I don't write for any particular reading speed (never thought about it). In contrast to my reading, I write very, very slowly and view writers who write quickly with awe and wonder.
 

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I read very fast, fast enough for people who don't know me to wonder if I'm retaining information (I am). This isn't because I'm trying to speed read but just because I'm like that. Seems to be a family trait.
Same with me (and my kids, so it probably is a family trait).

That said - I love me a writer that makes me slow down and remember to read for the pure love of reading.
 

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Sometimes I'm a fast reader, sometimes I'm a slow reader. Can depend on how my mind is working that day.

I feel like a good story can be appreciated either way, although perhaps a fast reader might gloss over the prose. Conversely, I feel like the faster you read something, the more likely you are to recall subtle things done earlier, where something that stands out can be forgotten over time.

Most of what I write is probably geared more for speed readers, since I tend to run heavier on dialogue (and sometimes internal monologuing when a second character isn't around) while limiting my use of metaphors, similes, and description in general.
 

Fi Webster

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Sometimes I'm a fast reader, sometimes I'm a slow reader. Can depend on how my mind is working that day.

Ditto. Except my reading speed depends on something else: the nature of the beast I'm reading.

I never used to worry one way or the other about how fast I read until I got to medical school, at which time I found myself wanting to inhale books like Parasites of North America overnight.

Since I was paying attention to my reading speed, I noticed I was reading novels too fast. So I made a conscious effort to develop a practice of reading good literature slowly. I pause for breath after paragraphs, read aloud, and stop often to gaze out the window or play with a cat. Ever since that time, I read fiction slowly. For me, if a story isn't worth reading slowly, it's not worth reading at all.

When I was on Usenet News in the 1980s, the book forum I hung out on occasionally attracted boneheads whose sole reason for posting was to ask what were the best courses to take, the best techniques, for "speed reading." (Those infamous Evelyn Wood speed reading courses are still marketed to the gullible.) I used to troll those people by replying, in all seriousness, about the value of reading slowly. I won't go into all the reasons I invoked, but that was a chance to work out in my head why I prefer slow reading.

Decades later, I'm still doing it: fast for information, slow for pleasure.

As for how I expect my readers to read, or writing with that in mind, I couldn't care less. I write both purely informative and purely entertaining stuff, and everything in between. I write for how I read, trusting that if I lose some readers that way, it's all for the best.
 
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I read fiction very fast, and this is very much part of my way of experiencing it; it's easy for me to get into a 'flow' state where I'm absorbing the story on a sensory level, almost like it's playing out as a movie inside my head. I retain a lot of the plot/moments, but the prose itself usually doesn't stand out unless there's something very unusual about it (Pratchett stands out in this regard, because his footnotes would keep me from absorbing in the same way, so I'd focus more on the actual writing. Thus, I remember more of his sentence construction and more quotes from his books than from others).

Non-fiction is a lot slower, but I retain a lot more of the details from it, for sure.
 

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I enjoy fiction so light that I go through a book in an afternoon. I enjoy dense fiction that takes time to savor. I enjoy fiction at every point in between on the reading flow spectrum. As long as the story catched my interest, of course.
 

Chris P

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I wasn't able to read functionally until I was about 8 or 9 years old. As a result (my hypothesis, anyway, based on no further evidence) I read a bit more slowly than other folks. In school when we'd have the reading comprehension tests, I would usually just be finishing the story and getting to the questions when time would be up. I would read at about the pace of someone reading aloud slowly. However, until I got into my late 30 and into my 40s, my retention was amazing. My speed has gone slightly up, and my retention has gone way down in recent years (and doesn't seem to matter if I'm reading on paper or e-reader).

Edit: Seeing that I forgot to address your main question, I focus more on being clear, engaging, and putting together the best work I can. My earlier writing attempts focused on taking the reader for a ride through twists and turns and alleyways between major plot points and action with each detour reinforcing that main points. As I developed as a writer, I slingshotted too far the other way, writing a sparse as possible and aiming for thrill rides. Where I want to get as a writer is in between--my hat is off to those writers who can do this; I just haven't gotten there myself yet. I don't think of it in terms of how fast or slow the reader goes.
 
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Introversion

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Perhaps not the best practice, but: I write for me. I write for the way I read. I tend to read fast, getting the gist rather than a deep understanding. When I’m really involved in a scene, I slurp words. I try to write to accomodate that. Because I’m my first reader, and I need it to work for me.

Later edits can patch the big potholes that beta readers trip over. But I don’t write for them. I write for me.
 

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I can't say it ever crossed my mind that one might write differently for fast readers as opposed to slow readers.

I just write for myself (like you, OP, a slow, do the voices reader), and hope others will eventually get some pleasure from it, whether they read it in an hour or four.
 

dickson

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I don’t think about the speed at which anyone reading my writing might choose to use. When I write fiction, probably half my labor in revision is hunting ways to cut words, if not larger units, in a ceaseless quest for a tighter written style. The result of those labors may be enjoyed (hopes me) at a pace fast or slow, at the reader’s pleasure.

My nonfiction writing has mostly been scientific or technical, often mathematical. Different beast. The prose style for that kind of writing need not have a high polish, but it must be clear. I assume the reader may want to pause and think along the way. It’s possible to do a kind of speed-reading of fairly mathematical writing if one wants to follow the top-level reasoning, but any serious engagement requires close reading. If it’s important, go back for that second (or third) pass.

Then there is the role of equations in mathematical exposition. Including lots of equations generally makes a paper easier to follow, cos’ you get to see more of the steps. It also slows you down, you hope to the point you’re not reading faster than you can think.

Custom, however, places a premium on brevity. (Also known in some circles as elegance.) The originality or conceptual difficulty of mathematical writing has no necessary relationship to its length, or how many equations are strewn about the page. A favorite of mine is the collected works of Andrei Sakharov. (Although I could read scientific Russian at one time, I encountered Sakharov in English, in an earlier part of my career.) I don’t think a one of his papers came to more than ten pages printed, and those with equations, had few. In every instance, however, Sakharov went for the jugular. These were papers to read fast, then, many times over, slowly.

One can multiply examples. The proof of Lemma one, Section 1, Book 1 of the Principia: Newton used two sentences, no equations, to prove a result that underlies everything in calculus. The paper that established the entire field of Raman spectroscopy was a few hundred words, no equations, and is an experimental paper. Maybe the best of all: Max Born received the Physics Nobel for writing a footnote. It was one hell of a footnote, though! Everything in quantum mechanics depends on the Born rule for going from wave function to probability.

All these examples (I had to force myself to stop, I promise not to mention Galois or John Nash) share something. The person who wrote them made it look easy, when of course it was anything but easy to make these discoveries.

I certainly went off-piste, if not off topic for this thread. Let me close with a literary counterpart to the foregoing. Joyce’s Ulysses is justly famous, and fun to read (especially if, like me, you have a relative Joyce mentions along the way). No way would I call it a fast read for me, however. Now, Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Dalloway. I devoured it, almost in a single sitting. Woolf makes it look easy.
 
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JohnLine

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I didn't want to prejudice anyone in my original post with this hypothesis, but since we've gotten enough responses, here goes:

I'm wondering if faster "speed" readers benefit when more conclusions are drawn for them, while slow readers like to draw their own conclusions. My theory being that even if someone reads faster, they can't fundamentally think faster.

So a speed reader might benefit from a line like:

"She was melancholy, dragging her feet as she walked around the lake, uncaring as the chill of the mud seeped into her toes."

While a slow reader might prefer:

"She dragged her feet as she walked around the lake, uncaring as the chill of the mud seeped into her toes."

Anyway, it's just one theory, and I've no real way of testing it. It might turn out just the opposite. Or that speed has no bearing on this sort of thing at all.
 

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I didn't want to prejudice anyone in my original post with this hypothesis, but since we've gotten enough responses, here goes:

I'm wondering if faster "speed" readers benefit when more conclusions are drawn for them, while slow readers like to draw their own conclusions. My theory being that even if someone reads faster, they can't fundamentally think faster.

So a speed reader might benefit from a line like:

"She was melancholy, dragging her feet as she walked around the lake, uncaring as the chill of the mud seeped into her toes."

While a slow reader might prefer:

"She dragged her feet as she walked around the lake, uncaring as the chill of the mud seeped into her toes."

Anyway, it's just one theory, and I've no real way of testing it. It might turn out just the opposite. Or that speed has no bearing on this sort of thing at all.

I might argue the opposite. A speed reader, wanting to get to the bottom line quickly, would probably prefer the terse version over the verbose. I'm not a fan of interjecting more verbiage than necessary to get my point across, but that has little or nothing to do with the speed of reading or writing.
 

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I'm wondering if faster "speed" readers benefit when more conclusions are drawn for them, while slow readers like to draw their own conclusions. My theory being that even if someone reads faster, they can't fundamentally think faster.

So a speed reader might benefit from a line like:

"She was melancholy, dragging her feet as she walked around the lake, uncaring as the chill of the mud seeped into her toes."

While a slow reader might prefer:

"She dragged her feet as she walked around the lake, uncaring as the chill of the mud seeped into her toes."

Anyway, it's just one theory, and I've no real way of testing it. It might turn out just the opposite. Or that speed has no bearing on this sort of thing at all.

I've been trying to work out why this post rubs me the wrong way, and I think it's because while you say fast readers can't fundamentally think faster, what you're actually implying is that they somehow think slower.
 
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dickson

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I've been trying to work out why this post rubs me the wrong way, and I think it's because while you say fast readers can't fundamentally think faster, what you're actually implying is that they somehow think slower.
Alan Turing was said by some who knew him to be a slow thinker. Those same observers also said he was an uncommonly deep one.

The race does not always go to the swiftest.
 

Lea123

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I read faster if I'm looking for specific information. If I read too slowly, my mind wanders. I mean, seriously wanders.

Having said that, I can read 500 pages a day if I'm enjoying a book. I will slow down if it's boring because I have to finish what I've started but at the same time it's soooooo painful to continue as I'm bored stiff.

Like Thecla, people have often commented that I can't possiby have understood or retained things, I most certainly do. In fact, the worst thing for me in school was sharing reading in English class because people would read so slowly outloud that my mind would be off doing its own thing. I'd be told off for reading too far ahead or, when it was my turn, not knowing where my place was to read because I'd already read the page and wasn't paying attention to the person before me.

Do I pay attention to description? Admittedly not enough to appreciate your 2+ paragraphs describing a city street. I get the gist of it and my mind fills in the rest. That's why I spend so much time worrying my own writing doesn't contain enough description because I appreciate not everyone reads like me. I prefer action peppered dialogue. Too much description and I'm bored.

Having said that, books I love I do reread and then I go slower. I suppose knowing what's coming takes off my impatient edge? Who knows. I've read some of Hobb's and Pratchett's books multiple times because every time I do, I spot something else.
 

JohnLine

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I've been trying to work out why this post rubs me the wrong way, and I think it's because while you say fast readers can't fundamentally think faster, what you're actually implying is that they somehow think slower.
Less thoughts per word read, not per minute. Maybe there's other advantages? Like maybe speed reading focuses you more so while you don't have time to mull over the hidden meanings, you'd be less inclined to think about distractions? But I don't know. This is all pure conjecture.

Maybe speed readers would be better at following the flow of a story?

I'm somehow reminded that when I crack open a book. I can just look at the white space and get an idea of the pace of the story, or at least I think I can.
 

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Less thoughts per word read, not per minute. Maybe there's other advantages? Like maybe speed reading focuses you more so while you don't have time to mull over the hidden meanings, you'd be less inclined to think about distractions? But I don't know. This is all pure conjecture.

Maybe speed readers would be better at following the flow of a story?

I'm somehow reminded that when I crack open a book. I can just look at the white space and get an idea of the pace of the story, or at least I think I can.

My short answer? Too many variables. Undefined hypothesis, not enough observation to make a valid one, if you want scientific method.

Readers are individuals. Too many differences in reading levels. Too many reasons for reading. Too many reading styles.

For me, the purpose of reading is enjoyment. Leaving the real world while my eyes are on the page. As long as a book or short story fulfills that purpose, it does not matter to me whether it is airy enough I go through it fast or so dense it takes a while. Other than the longer it takes to work my way through a dense book I enjoy, the shorter the wait time before a favorite author comes out with that next books. Not that I can take that long, reading inherently takes less time than writing.

For me, the purpose of writing is to tell a story and for the enjoyment I find in the process. I write for myself first and enjoy finding others who take pleasure in what I write. I take pride that a short story I wrote was good enough to be published. It doesn't matter that I didn't make a penny or that it was published in a yearly community college anthology.
 
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littleniece

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I've been thinking some more about the speed of reading. I wonder if there's a correlation with the venerated regard for speed in other facets of modern culture, the ubiquitous faster is better syndrome—faster computers, cars, food and news delivery (which is often qualified with a "developing story" tag), etc. Fast, faster, fastest. Good, better, best. 5G, quick turnaround, overnight delivery, one hour photo....

Some readers/writers have described their impatience with descriptive narrative, especially if meticulous, as being lethargic and cumbersome. So I ended up thinking of my daily patterns of transportation. I commute by train, I ride my bike, I walk. On the train the city whisks by in a blur. I know I'm in a big city, lots of buildings, traffic, people. I quickly get from one location to the next, but my overall sense of place amounts to little more than a scan. Cycling is elucidating in comparison, walking revelatory. The slower I go, the more I see, the more detail that emerges, the more engaged my senses, the greater my awareness of the subtle trappings of people's lives and how they might relate to who they are.

I'm learning that my tendency to dwell on the description of a setting or a character portrait can inhibit the flow of my storytelling. "Less Is More" is an art I'm working to develop. A tendency toward the verbose is probably related to my speech, in which even common words can be difficult to articulate. Expressing myself in a complete sentence is very uncomfortable for most people to hear. Writing is my voice, and with it I can speak as eloquently as my vocabulary allows. But as a writer, I also know how that propensity can be its own impediment.

Anyway, somehow or other, I favor prose that invites—insists—on detailed reading of the minutiae. Savoring words and phrases, delighting in novel metaphor and elaborate narrative is a joy. No hurry. At least for now. Wait. Did someone say something about plot or pacing, or something like that? ;)
 
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EmJayEm

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Less thoughts per word read, not per minute. Maybe there's other advantages? Like maybe speed reading focuses you more so while you don't have time to mull over the hidden meanings, you'd be less inclined to think about distractions? But I don't know. This is all pure conjecture.

Maybe speed readers would be better at following the flow of a story?

I'm somehow reminded that when I crack open a book. I can just look at the white space and get an idea of the pace of the story, or at least I think I can.
I think there's a general assumption here that reading quickly necessarily means not paying attention to detail, not thinking while you read, etc. I can only speak for myself becuase everyone's brain works so differently but I read quickly - I always have and it's not something that I sought to do or place a value judgement on - but I also have a good recall for details and formulate theories while reading, think about hidden meanings, evaluate writer's techniques etc. (I even do character voices in my head, but am often told I speak too quickly in life so it doesn't slow me down!) I've never felt the speed at which I read has held me back from this.

In terms of writing for fast/slow readers, I think there's a conflation here between the pace at which someone reads and the pacing of a book. The pace at which you set your story - i.e. using shorter sentences/chapters - will have the same effect of making readers feel that events are moving quickly whether they read your book in one sitting or savour it over a week. It's a choice that should be made based on factors like genre and what serves the story you want to tell. If you're writing a melancholy character study, it should feel slower than a thriller, even if I will end up reading them at about the same pace.
 

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I also have a good recall for details and formulate theories while reading, think about hidden meanings, evaluate writer's techniques etc.
That's a good point, EmJayEm—thank you. I might take an hour to read the same number of pages that you read in fifteen minutes, and we both set the book down having a similar depth of appreciation.
 

JohnLine

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I always have and it's not something that I sought to do or place a value judgement on - but I also have a good recall for details and formulate theories while reading, think about hidden meanings, evaluate writer's techniques etc. (I even do character voices in my head, but am often told I speak too quickly in life so it doesn't slow me down!) I've never felt the speed at which I read has held me back from this.

Excellent! I'd be very interested to learn: What your favorite books are, and what are some popular books (in your favorite genre) that you don't like; and I'd like to read a sample of your writing.

(I am kidding, but only halfway.)

You know, Kindle presumably keeps track of how long it takes each reader to finish a book. So I bet they've quite a bit of data on it. Not that I could actually get at it, because consumer protection is a thing. Oh well.