Efficiency. One of the greatest challenges for amateur workplace writers, who have not yet wrapped their heads around the fact that their colleagues do not read like teachers do. I’ve made the point many times that teachers are obligated to read their students’ documents thoughtfully. And that workplace readers actually read the same way writers do — by skimming and scanning for what they need. I just came across a nice explanation of how people read by Jessica Love at The American Scholar. It should help you understand why efficiency matters and what writers need to do to create efficient messages.
In very basic terms, reading involves our eyes hopping from one point in the text (whether on paper or on screen) to another in a less-than-smooth pattern as shown in the graphic above.
Reading a sentence, our eyes seem to glide across the page, stopping each long, fluid sweep only at the margin. They seem to glide, but in actuality they hop in a volatile way, landing here and here and sometimes here. Psychologists who study reading call these landings “fixations.” Each time we fixate, we are able to take in approximately four letters to the left of our fixation point and some 15 letters to the right. . .
This asymmetry would work differently with writing systems that are not ordered left to right like English.
When our eyes land on a point (fixate), we see a limited amount of text clearly. (The graphic mistakenly shows equal acuity left and right of the fixation point.)
Thus, with each fixation we glean information from about 20 letters. We can’t necessarily identify all 20 letters: the outermost are relegated to our fuzzy peripheral vision. We may learn only that one letter is capitalized or another contains a curve—information that will help us identify that letter on our next fixation but isn’t going to do the trick on this one. Generally, to decode what’s in front of us, we must fixate every eight letters.
Decoding begins quickly, within 60 milliseconds of landing. The shape of the letter string as a whole—not just its constituent letters—assists us in our endeavor, so odd fonts or cApiTAlizAtiOn patterns slow us down. But before we’ve finished, before we consciously know we’ve read the words fonts and capitalization and have added these to the other words swimming around most prominently in memory, we have already started to plan our next fixation.
The lesson here is that your typographic choices influence reading efficiency. Typographer, Raff Herrmann, makes a convincing argument for the onion layer model of legibility. The graphic shows that choices of background color, letter spacing, word spacing, etc. all influence legibility. And that reading prose or copy text (blocks of words and sentences) is the core area of concern with legibility.
When our eyes move while reading, our mind actively predicts what came before and, especially, after the point we just left.
During a hop, known as a saccade, we are unable to perceive any letters at all. . . Given that fixations average 200 to 300 milliseconds, and saccades 20 to 30, we spend about 10 percent of our time blind to what we’re reading. But we have learned to “mask” the saccade, to fill in this brief period of blindness with perceptual information from before and after it. We have tricked ourselves into seeing a smooth flow of sentences when we’re really getting a choppy surge of words and half-words. Some quick math suggests that the absolute fastest any of us can read—and actually read each word—is 500 words per minute. This assumes no backtracking, though nearly 15 percent of our saccades are regressions. It also assumes no comprehension beyond word identification. In practice, most of us read about 250 words per minute.
Read more of Jessica’s post if you’re wondering about “speed” reading.
Skimming in a text formatted as words and sentences — what we might call “dense” prose — results in random skimming.
One might assume that given how smart we are and all the nifty tricks we’ve developed to mask saccades and get our perceptual spans to bulge to the right, we’d at least be decent skimmers. One would think we’d be able to skim somewhat selectively. If we want to skim Walden for survival tips, aren’t we able to do so? Unfortunately not. We’re okay at skimming texts for particular words, at treating “Self-Reliance” like a giant word-find puzzle, only if we know exactly what we’re looking for. We can’t get around having to read something to know what it says, and we have to know what it says to know if it is relevant. But because skimming is essentially sampling, we’re just as likely to skip over the relevant as the irrelevant.
But skimming becomes purposeful scanning when a text is formatted visually — with white space for paragraph breaks, headings with larger or different typefaces, colored boxes, etc. as shown with the graphic at left.
The only thing that prevents skimming from being an entirely random pursuit is that some information becomes legitimately available to us before we read: we know where something is on a page without knowing what it says. Therefore, because the first sentence of a paragraph often gives us clues about what will come next, we might safely skip the rest of a paragraph if the first sentence is about pedometers and we seek the ratio of sugar to water most attractive to hummingbirds. Unsurprisingly, this “topic sentence” method appears to be particularly helpful for skimming webpages, where graphics and bullet points corral the eyes wherever content providers or marketers see fit. I have strong, if anecdotal, evidence that this same technique rarely works with freshman comp papers.
Of course, Jessica ends by alluding to the fact that amateurs writing academic genres like essays often fail to craft the first sentence in a paragraph as an accurate prediction of the message in the remainder of that block of text. Because I assume Jessica’s reading these texts as a teacher, she may be irritated by the inefficiency and may reduce the grade earned because of it, but she is still reading very differently from a client or boss because she is obligated to puzzle through the text in order to help the writer. Her student writers shouldn’t expect that kind of attention or dedication from their workplace readers.
My video tutorials include many techniques for creating an efficient reading experience, including the use of topic sentences to create paragraph unity. But organizing content with simple formatting techniques such as headings and white space is arguably the easiest way for any writer to create more efficient reading experiences. (See the first post listed below.) With an appropriate heading, Jessica wouldn’t be completely dependent on a topic sentence to understand the writer’s purpose or point. That’s because formatting provides visual cues that help the reader scan for the information they need within legible prose.
- The video tutorial on format (proswrite.com)
- Pros know readers are document users (proswrite.com)