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I have given multiple things I have written to a friend of mine, who is something of a writer himself, to get feedback on them from him. One of these was a piece of mystery-style fiction, and the other was an article about gaming. I have noticed multiple times where he will start reading something, and then, after a minute or two, start zipping down the page, apparently not really taking much of anything in.

He has told me that many people will do something similar, where they will maybe read the beginning and ending of paragraphs, but skim / skip over the middle.

  1. Is he correct? Do most people actually do this, or is this more a sign that what I've written has not been good enough to keep his interest from beginning to end?

  2. If he is correct, how does a writer handle this? That is, how do you make sure that your readers will get what you intended out of your writing, even if they are skipping parts of it?

P.S. I hope these tags are on point; I am not 100% sure, as this is my first post here. If there are better ones, please let me know.

  • Welcome to writing.se! Take the tour and visit the help center for additional guidance. Those tags seem alright and this is a decent question. Thanks for participating and happy writing! – linksassin Jun 5 at 4:16
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    Don't give people things to read and then expect immediate feedback! Have a reading group where you circulate it one week and then discuss it the next, or some similar arrangement. – pjc50 Jun 5 at 14:57
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    @MonkeyZeus Will keep that in mind. As you have guessed, these had been cases where I gave him something in person for immediate review. To be fair, he has done the same with me (handed me something in person to look at immediately), so I figured he was ok with that. – Phil Jun 5 at 17:13
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    Depends on what kind of writing it is. If this is "Customer Agreement", the answer is most definitely "Yes". – Alexander Jun 5 at 17:44
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    Some of our highest literature gets treated this way. To take a trivial example, even the highly devout will skim the genealogies of Genesis and plenty have never bothered to read books of the minor prophets. Similarly Dante's Comedy. Similarly Umberto Eco and Thomas Pynchon, to say nothing of genre authors like St. King or GRR Martin. Don't sweat it. You can't write high point to high point and you shouldn't dwell too much on the details of how the readers handle the buildup between them. – lly Jun 6 at 3:38
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Many readers definitely will skim over parts of your writing. In my experience there are three primary reasons for this.

  • Your writing is boring or drags. If a book spends too much time describing seemingly irrelevant details, I think I can predict exactly what is going to happen, or I don't feel invested in the characters in the scene, I'm liable to skim ahead.

  • You have succeeded in creating tension, and the reader can't bear it. Different people have different thresholds for this. I know one person who always skipped to the last sentence. The good news is that these readers will usually go back and read what they missed unless the ending completely destroys their faith in the story.

  • You simply wrote a piece of reasonable length. If your reader is tired but doesn't want to put the book down, they'll start skimming. They might not even realize they're doing it. I definitely remember staying up late reading Harry Potter and realizing I'd turned the page without reading any of the words.

So, some amount of skimming is normal. Beta readers have a greater tendency to skim. Often beta readers want to give feedback in a timely manner. However, beta readers also are more likely to skim if they don't really like the story but feel they need to give feedback anyway. Regular readers won't skim if they don't like the story, they'll put it down.

Once you've made sure your writing is engaging, you can help the people who inevitably still skim in a few ways:

  • Make sure your writing is reasonably clear. Someone reading very quickly will usually understand if they need to go back and re-read parts occasionally, but if they are still confused after the second read they will be frustrated.

  • If you need a reader to notice something to understand a plot point, either put it close to where they need to know it or make sure you spend significant time on it. If the key to the murder mystery is that Fred is left-handed, the detective should mention Fred is left-handed in the description of how he solved the case, not rely on the reader remembering a tiny detail 40 pages ago.

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    I always end up doing the third case when late-night reading, and it pisses me off because there's a 50/50 chance I've missed something important. – Matthew Dave Jun 5 at 9:42
  • Not exactly the same case, but I've gotten to a point where although I've been reading continuously I don't remember a thing from the last few paragraphs and have to go back and re-read them. I wonder how often this happens but I didn't then encounter something that made me question the last few chapters and never went back. Also skipped most of the speeches from Atlas Shrugged because they were gratuitous propaganda that had no impact on the story (Which was otherwise excellent). – Bill K Jun 6 at 16:14
  • The writer can also help the reader by making it clear what can safely be skipped. For instance, Victor Hugo wrote a chapter called "description of the interior of Notre-Dame de Paris". This might be the most interesting part for some readers, so I am not suggesting it should have been removed from the book, but for others it makes it obvious they can safely skip it, and also makes it clear where to start reading again (next chapter). – Marc Glisse Jun 8 at 7:08
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In Technical Writing, it's expected that readers don't want to read what you write. In fact, I used to teach with a book with that on the cover
(see the notepad):

cover of 1st Edition Essentials of Technical Writing by Tebeaux and Dragga -- shows hands typing on a laptop, and a small notepad beside it saying Nobody wants to read what you write

(basically - Tech Writing people only read the bits they NEED for the info they need to make a decision or take action. For fiction, though, things are for pleasure, and while people may read fast, like for a thriller (and miss details/depth), they don't skip bits.)

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    I skip bits in fiction, all the time. I mostly don't skip bits which involve character thought and actions that are related to the plot development. I very regularly skip landscape/setting descriptions or drawn out character angst. It may be that technically what i do is skim rather than skip, I'll dip back in enough to verify that I'm not missing anything important. Description for its own sake bores me to tears because I'm not a very visual reader. If I need to construct a visual image, I can and will, but I don't do it for fun. – Spagirl Jun 5 at 13:16
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    I'm like that with battle-scenes. I skim, stopping more at dialog than anything with who's positioned where and why -- I normally know by the end the main points. :) – April --Un-Slander Monica-- Jun 5 at 17:26
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    "No one wants to read what you write." -- Well, now I want to read this book to find out why! Is this some kind of reverse psychology trick? – Friendly Neighborhood Demon Jun 5 at 18:29
  • @April I often find this avoids me getting confused, as well. – DoctorPenguin Jun 6 at 10:12
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    @FriendlyNeighborhoodDemon: Technical writing is typically read by people who want to solve a problem, not read technical writing. They read because they are stuck and can't figure out the problem by themselves. When was the last time you read a manual not because you had to, but because you sincerely, thoroughly, deeply enjoy reading manuals? – Jörg W Mittag Jun 6 at 12:53
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In my experience, people don't do this for significant part of the writing. It may happen to skip a sentence or two if, either:

  1. the passages are not clear,
  2. the reader is tired,
  3. there is a "wall of text" effect
  4. the narration style is boring, repetitive or dragging

While you can't do anything for point 2, you can somehow fight against 1, 3, and 4.

Of course, your story shouldn't be boring or repetitive. Yet, what one finds boring my be amusing to another. I'm not a fan of flowery descriptions of architectural elements, a friend of mine is. Some stylistic elements may have to be targeted to your audience.

However, we're talking about few sentences each time. I honestly don't know anyone who skips the middle of each paragraph by default, because at that point you're not even reading. It makes much more sense to stop reading altogether.

So, if you are skipping parts consistently, you're doing it to get to the end faster. It seems to me the goal of an annoyed beta-reader, rather than a bored reader.

9

In your particular circumstance: No. That is not normal.

If I am given something to provide feedback, then I will read it all; OR I will read it all until I have seen enough to not bother reading the rest. Then I will provide my advice, and if I didn't finish it I will tell them where I stopped, and why I stopped.

Usually if I stop it is because the same mistake is being made repeatedly and needs to be fixed to make the text readable.

Don't trust the person giving the feedback, especially on story elements or character building; they aren't reading enough to tell you anything useful. Find another test reader, or compare yourself to a published author you like, or check your writing against published advice by professionals. Any of those are better than a half-ass job from somebody that clearly doesn't know how to review writing; or just doesn't enjoy reading, or doesn't want to tell you they don't like your writing.

EDIT to respond to OP's comment; the person I had given this to had also given me things of his for immediate review.

Ah. I'd suggest a modification to your arrangement, if he is willing. Exchange things to review each week, but instead of going over this week's exchange, go over last week's exchange.

Unfortunately, praise may make you feel good, but is not very effective at review. Instead the best reviews are negative.

So I would try to agree that the reviews WILL be all negative, so both of you expect that, but also keep it impersonal and clinically negative. What seemed to stall, what didn't make sense, what seemed unrealistic or contrived (in prose or dialogue), what was confusing on first read. What needs some imagery, or color, or feeling, or sensation. Do some clinical work on his submission without the pressure of him watching you. Refrain from praise, the best thing you can say about a paragraph is "I couldn't find anything wrong with this."

I'd agree up front, you don't make excuses or argue about this or insist you are right. You can ask for clarifications, but take your punches. You don't have to agree with him!

Receive his clinical opinion knowing it is not going to be praise, but 100% critical. Don't get your feelings hurt because he did not enthuse, your handshake agreement is that he won't get enthused, and neither will you!

The problem with praise is giving it can create resentment in the giver if it is not returned in equal measure or frequency, and for many of us, receiving praise feels like we have an obligation to reciprocate even if reciprocation is undeserved; so we lie, or hold back in our criticism, as a favor in return for the praise.

This is less of a problem with clinical criticism; by which I mean the criticism is not insulting, it is just noting where things don't read smoothly, or seem too long, or too abrupt, or otherwise causes cognitive dissonance that breaks reader immersion.

Because unlike praise you don't feel like you are giving somebody something nice. You don't feel like they owe you anything, because it feels like you are giving them bitter medicine.

But in reality, what you are giving him is what he needs most, honest criticism without being brutal or mean, so he can improve his writing.

Once you are done with your reviews, put the writing aside and do something more pleasant. Have lunch or talk about movies or books or TV or something fiction related. Anything so you don't leave on the negative notes; otherwise you will get tired of these meetings.

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    Or it might be that the asker in this case has been asking for immediate feedback while watching the person reading the work. I don't know about you, but under that sort of pressure I have a tendency to read less carefully and I'm not sure judging test readers under these conditions is particularly fair. – DoctorPenguin Jun 6 at 10:35
  • @DoctorPenguin I'll agree with that. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jun 6 at 11:04
  • Something I'd mentioned in a comment to another answer, is that the person I had given this to had also given me things of his for immediate review, so I thought he was ok with that sort of arrangement. But from this exchange, as well as other comments, it looks like that's not a great way to do things, so I will stop doing that with him, and not start with anyone else. – Phil Jun 7 at 16:45
  • @Phil Modified my answer with a suggestion for your reviewing partnership. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jun 7 at 19:24
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In my experience, it depends on what is being read.

Personally, I often skim large parts of technical material. I am often reading for something specific and I skim until I find it. I often then stop completely. So, for non-fiction material I would say skimming is fairly common and for material that is at least partially meant to be a reference skimming should be expected and the document is most useful when written with that in mind using lots of clear headings and typographical methods (such as bolding) to highlight the most important sections.

However, I suspect you are largely talking about fiction. While I know others approach things differently, I almost never skim fiction. If fiction is engrossing, then I want to read it in detail. If fiction is not engrossing, then I will not read it at all. Fiction should be written so that the reader wants to read all of it and ideally so that the reader wishes there had been more.

I know some beta readers in particular will skim, but I do not do this as a beta reader and try to politely ask my beta readers not to. I try to give very detailed feedback which means I pay more attention when I'm a beta reader, not less.

3

I'd rarely skim a fiction since it has some continuity, but articles are different. Article is supposed to provide information, and if the information density is low, I'll start skimming and looking for things that are actually new and interesting.

Especially with the boom of click-baity internet magazines, I often skim a lot of the article. So keep in mind that an article is only worth writing as long as it contains new information, be it a fact or interesting opinion. Dragging out an article about something banal is a waste of times, there's enough of those already.

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