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Content vs. readers- A fight nobody's winning
I remember watching one of those unavoidable Funny Guys on TV. The subject was reading, and this extremely predictable person leapt to his feet with a large smile and said “Guys don’t read!, Ha, ha, etc.” My instant reaction was “Nor do cockroaches”. I later did an article on the subject called Men don’t read- Maybe that’s why you’re morons? This also referred to the amazing but apparently accepted statistic that something like 80% of college grads never read a book after college.
Correction- This is what happens when you use memory of your own writing. The exact figures from a site called Hot for Words are actually worse, overall and much more pervasive:
1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year. (2010)
Those stats are truly worrying. Not reading, in practice, means you can’t keep up to date with the new ideas which usually surface in books, particularly academically creative books, scientific papers, etc. You would miss a whole range of new issues in your profession, too. Continuing learning, in fact, which is now very common in most academic disciplines, recognizes the requirement for ongoing learning and training in new fields as they emerge.
“Not reading” is also entirely wrong. Obviously, professionals don’t simply vegetate for 40 years. Degrees go stale in the career market after about 5-10 years, and no new training doesn’t look good on resumes. Nor is it practical for anyone on Earth not to upgrade skills with external courses, etc. In practice they will read a lot of materials related to their work and particularly their talents and personal interests in various fields. They will also usually write a significant amount of material.
That isn’t quite the whole story, either. The reality of reading is far more complex. The assumption here is that reading is voluntary, and that people will read for the love of it. That’s the real meaning of the term “reading” in context with people not reading. It just so happens that this view of reading misses just about all the realities of modern reading behaviour.
The conventional view of reading is more than a bit off target:
Much reading is actually compulsory. This culture makes people read, more or less continuously. Thanks to the internet and computers, people do more reading than ever before. A large amount of information has to be read daily.
Quite a lot of the reading is effectively subconscious. You passively look at a news site, for example, and simply pick up basic information. You wouldn’t claim you were reading it, but you are. Skimming is another version of this process- Get facts, move on.
Voluntary reading is actually quality and preference based. Few people read specifically to be bored to death. They read what they want to read, as far as possible.
Many people aren’t good readers. They’re not comfortable when reading. Reading is an ordeal, not a pleasure for them. They read what they must, but don’t expect them to read all day then scurry away with a copy of War and Peace or Spinoza for the voluntary entertainment value.
Most importantly- Reading is a unique physiological and psychological experience.
1.Physiologically- The big optic nerves and processors are dominant features of the brain for most people. These very high value systems have priority over other stimuli. Visual signals are instant. When reading, these big operations are narrowed to text. Some people prefer “books with pictures” because the optic nerves are let out to play occasionally.
2.Psychologically- Reading activates the logic centres. It allows and actually promotes abstraction and imagination, higher brain functions. From which follows a basic situation- If your higher brain isn’t very well trained, reading can be very hard work.
So why would anyone read voluntarily, if they’re being deluged every second with information to sort through? The truth is that any voluntary reading will naturally be subject to the same values as the unavoidable “normal” reading done every day.
The cultural issue- Quality vs. content value
The phrase Content is King has a lot to answer for. What wasn’t generally realized when the internet took over the world was that content would become so bland. A lot of commercial content is actually a type of business writing, combined with very basic advertising copywriting. Gripping reading, it cannot be.
This is also thematically opposed to the idea of voluntary reading. It’s an oddly primitive methodology. The theory is that people will see something and naturally read it. The exact opposite, in fact, is and always has been the case. Somehow a very well-known fact has got totally lost in content values- Sales resistance.
The optic nerves are also good editors, very much in synch with the higher brain in one particular way- They look for and avoid risk. If content looks like a sales pitch, the mind will avoid it. Sales resistance can be triggered by any suspect information, or even the appearance of content, fonts, styles etc.
The mind will also react very negatively to anything it considers a waste of time. Should I spend an hour reading this thing? No. There are other things I want to look at, and this really isn’t all that interesting. The further degree of this is just plain Not interested. Most of the time, that will also be a very accurate assessment.
The culture of content
Internet culture has obviously changed how people read, but it’s also raised the bar to the stars regarding why people read. This huge medium has made people very fussy. That’s actually good news for literacy. Critical capacity and making distinctions about value of reading materials is a core part of literacy.
The trouble is that as usual, the cultural product is a long way behind the culture, even for people with average reading skills. I was reading a professionally written bit of ad copy about a product line I know very well. This was absolutely standard, or better than standard, text. Nothing wrong with it in theory. It was targeted to a very narrow bandwidth of interested possible readers. It wasn’t actually slick, but it did have an air of slickness, even on a rather dry subject.
Interesting, it wasn’t. It couldn’t be. The style and format were perfect, the information was clear and it could never get out of the blocks as a stimulating read. It was basically a business newsletter. There wasn’t much to suggest much more than a situation/solution end product. No stimuli, no extended logic. Harmless enough, and you wouldn’t need therapy after reading it, but could you call it “reading”?
Conflict of interests in content
The Content is King culture is now shooting itself in the foot on a regular basis. It has moved away from providing product to merely providing another bureaucratic process. Like print publishing before it, there’s more emphasis on form than substance. Words will be micromanaged because that’s what people are trained to do, but lousy content value will be totally ignored.
That’s a very serious mistake. There’s now an actual conflict between reader interests and content values. This is the fight nobody’s winning, in all its inglorious uselessness. The value of reading is purely personal. People don’t, and won’t, voluntarily read low value materials. People do physically read, a lot, but they’re being turned off reading by this very high percentage of pure verbiage. It says nothing, and even relatively illiterate people recognize the lack of value. This is an own goal for content producers, and it must be addressed.
Format uber alles?
Content formatting really needs to grow up, fast. The pedantic forms of articles and even blog copy are becoming utterly counterproductive. Setting a range of arbitrary sizes, styles and usage has nothing to do with content values, and that’s what’s torpedoing engagement with readers. People will read long articles, if they feel like it and on topics in which they’re interested. Information values don’t come in shoe sizes. Content should recognize that fact.
The ad copy I referred to above could have been two or three paragraphs as basic information. It was at least 500 words, that One Size Fits All travesty of a size factor. It was padded to death with non-information or tangential information for size, not content. Like a lot of conventional writing, it was more filler than filling to read. It added nothing to the basic facts and no additional values. Actual content value was about 30% of the size of the text. That’s what’s turning people off reading.
The picture of creation of materials for reading is of a production line. Enormous amounts of product are created, regardless of their actual value. The cost of production is equally enormous, so a lot of battery chicken writing is done on the cheap, reducing quality values. You simply can’t get quality at those prices.
Upscale, we have grads writing the way they were trained to write. That’s another qualifier, in the most hideously ironic way. These guys aren’t battery chickens, and some can write well, but they produce basically uniform, undistinguished product. Even good grad writers can’t get a lot of traction in terms of value for readers, if they’re all writing in much the same way. The result is still battery chicken materials, just with fewer typos. People will recognize that, and avoid it. They’ll also miss any good quality stuff simply because it looks like the low-value stuff they loathe, too “standard” to be interesting.
The moral of the story- If you want people to read, write something which has value to readers. Get that right, and you’ll get readers.