Writing for Skimmers?

I ran across this fascinating article by Maryanne Wolf in the Guardian: Skim reading is the new normal and found many interesting points and issues that are worthy of close reflection, not just as readers, but as writers.

My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.

Maryanne Wolf

The article focuses on the reader and the process of reading as being influenced by the inundation of digital content and digital reading devices. But as I skimmed the article – just kidding…I am reading and re-reading it closely – a question began to nag me: Is a similar process going on with the process of writing? In other words, are we as writers being conditioned to write for skimming readers? Beyond being entertaining and challenging forms of creative output, do social media, listicles, flash-fiction, flash essays, Twitterature, and the like point toward a tendency of skimming writers becoming the norm as much as the readers? Is that such a bad thing?

As the author suggests, this tendency toward rewiring our brains’ ‘reading circuit’ is profound. “We should be less concerned with students’ ‘cognitive impatience,’ however, than by what may underlie it: the potential inability of large numbers of students to read with a level of critical analysis sufficient to comprehend the complexity of thought and argument found in more demanding texts, whether in literature and science in college, or in wills, contracts and the deliberately confusing public referendum questions citizens encounter in the voting booth.” Is this kind of reading culture contributing to a rewiring of the ‘writing circuit’ as well? I don’t know the answer to this, but this article makes me think about the author side as well as the reception of these cultural trends.

The rumination on the physicality of the text in this article raises some interesting considerations. The author points out the issue isn’t as simple as framing this argument as a binary print vs. digital output debate, but rather it is more about the need for redundancy in reception. “Karin Littau and Andrew Piper have noted another dimension: physicality. Piper, Littau and Anne Mangen’s group emphasize that the sense of touch in print reading adds an important redundancy to information – a kind of “geometry” to words, and a spatial “thereness” for text.” Imagine, then, if viewers were allowed to touch the artworks in a gallery.

Would they receive and retain messages and information from the artwork in a more profound way if they could touch the work? Would the tactile experience of art encourage deeper understanding of and desire to revisit the work? Is the issue more about physical touch or more about the potential of information from a story or text coming to us via various forms and channels simultaneously? I suspect that folks who study and make interactive texts, games, and virtual or augmented reality environments would have something to say about this.

The concept of the “technology of recurrence” is put forth by the researchers as a way to frame the ability for a technology to allow for revisiting and repeated engagement. As Wolf notes, “The importance of recurrence for both young and older readers involves the ability to go back, to check and evaluate one’s understanding of a text.” As writers and authors then, should we think more about writing for different levels of ‘going back’, especially if we are writing for digital output and platforms?

Clearly, writing for ephemeral content like social media and the like is not meant to be revisited, handled, or permanent. Social media platforms are designed to host content that is short-lived, as oneway ‘feeds’ of information that never stop or slow down. For example, I am unable to search past posts or comments in my Facebook feed or private messages for keywords or phrases. These media channels do not encourage going back, except for those somewhat annoying cutesy ‘year in review’ videos that are automatically generated in my Facebook feed. And what about reader agency here – what if I don’t want to go back? What if my Facebook year in review included painful memories, such as the loss of family, friends or pets, that I was not ready to revisit?

On a cultural level, the issues raised in this article are of urgent consequence. As Wolf notes, “The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.” The potential loss of thoughtful and close reading, and by extension critical thought and reflection, surely has short and long-term ramifications on our collective understanding and ability to communicate and govern.

Lastly, the article suggests that we “need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a ‘bi-literate’ reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums”. How do we cultivate such a brain? Is this a project that takes place over generations, or something we can focus on for near future? How do we as writers situate ourselves in this conversation and address the challenges in readership put forth in this article?

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