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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Theory # 10: Readerly Theories: Skimming

It's my theory that a lot of readers skim. Not in the sense of barely glancing at each page to find the end of the umpteenth boring sex scene, but rather not reading every single word--just reading for meaning.

It's how I used to read. Just a few glances per page, and I'd get the gist of the story. But then a couple of things happened: a teacher told me I was 'wrong' to speed-read like that, and I fell in love with words. Now I read every single word.

I can still skim. It feels like shifting into neutral and coasting down a hill. Like the way you have to unfocus your eyes to see those hidden 3-D pictures. It's not as easy as it once was, but sometimes it's the only way to get through a book.

And I swear it must be why readers love so many books that I find nearly unreadable.

I've read two books recently that were so poorly written I described the experience of reading them as being like reading a foreign language that I didn't know very well. The second one got nearly uniformly excellent reviews on Amazon. The premise was interesting, but the writing completely obscured the story. Commas and hyphens were spread through the text like sprinkles on a cupcake and with just about as much regard for placement. Misspellings and word substitutions abounded. Words were just blatantly misused. Sentence structure was a mess, with phrases and clauses tacked on and going nowhere. Plot threads were introduced and dropped. Explanations for events were either non-existent or unbelievable.

I can understand when someone's taste doesn't coincide with mine. But it was always a mystery to me how people could overlook what to me was unreadable writing. I admit to being a bit of a grammar/spelling geek, but I'll ignore the occasional typo, even miss it if I'm involved enough in a story. But some books have more than the occasional typo. And I don't think it can be attributed to knowledge. I'm decent at grammar and spelling, but I'm not an expert. I don't have an English degree. I've never written a book.

The light bulb went on when I read a post on skimming on Kathleen O'Reilly's blog (wonderful writer, by the way). If you skim, you'll miss all those small mistakes that drive me crazy, and even what I think of as big mistakes--like inadequate motivation for actions, or the distance between reader and character caused by 'telling' rather than 'showing'--become invisible.

Of course, you'll also miss when an author puts words together so beautifully you have to read a sentence over again just for the pure enjoyment of it.

I envy the skimmers in a way--they're able to enjoy books that I just can't enjoy. And I am in no way saying, like the teacher who chastised me for speed-reading (it was the 70s--teachers were often Not Very Nice), that readers who skim are wrong or that I'm a 'better' reader because I don't.

But I'll put up with not enjoying books with a perfectly nice story but poor or mediocre writing for the sheer joy of finding a book where it all comes together--characters, plot, and words.

It would break my heart, I think, to only see a Jennifer Crusie book or a Laura Kinsale book as the sum of its plot, to not be able to distinguish between mediocre writing with a good story and excellent writing with a good story.

I know a lot of readers believe that writing skills are all a matter of personal taste, but I never said everyone would agree with my theories.


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