Thursday, November 15, 2012

Reluctant Reader

Hi.  My name is Adrienne Kress and I'm a reluctant reader.

I don't know if they had the term when I was growing up, and it took me a while after I'd first heard it to learn that reluctant reader did not necessarily mean someone who found the act of reading difficult, ie: had dyslexia.  Of course those who do find the act of reading difficult can definitely become reluctant readers due to sheer frustration. 

But I discovered that the term also referred to people like me.  People who don't struggle with the act of reading, but do struggle with remembering that reading is a totally awesome way to pass the time. 

This might sound truly odd, seeing as I'm an author and all.  It might also sound truly odd considering how many books I have read over my lifetime.  But I wanted to talk about it to offer a bit of a insight into the mindset of someone like me.  I also thought it might be useful to authors who want to take reluctant readers in mind when writing their work (not that it is necessary to do so, but if you are interested then well, here you go).  Being not only one of those readers, but an author of books who has been told by multiple teachers that her books are popular with reluctant readers, I feel I can offer some decent insight.  As always, if anyone has anything to add to my post, please do feel free to leave a comment.  After all, ultimately this is coming from my personal experience, and I can't necessarily speak to some universal truth.


First of all, what do I mean by reluctant?

I mean someone who would rather relax doing something else.  Whether that be watching TV/Film, playing video games, playing sports, doing music etc.  I mean someone who doesn't think reading and goes, "Ooh yes!  That's what I'd like to be doing right now."  Someone who needs to be reminded every time she picks up a book that she actually really enjoys reading.

And yes, I need to be reminded every time.  I've grown as a reader.  I've worked hard to do so, I now read almost every genre (aside from horror because it scares me).  I am willing to fight my way through a more dense work because I see a value to it, when once I would have just given up.  But still.  I need to be reminded every time.  I don't automatically trust I'll enjoy a book the way I automatically trust I'll enjoy a film.

As such, I wanted to share what does keep me reading, and more importantly what got me reading when I wasn't yet willing to put in the effort.  When I really needed the book to do all the work for me.

And one of the things I've noticed that some are doing to try to engage reluctant readers is to write shorter works with simple words and plot.  For me this is the wrong tactic to take.  This is not not what engages such readers.  As I said above, reluctant readers don't struggle with the act of reading, nor with comprehension.  They just don't think they enjoy it.  But books like Harry Potter have shown us that people of all stripes will pick up long books with complicated stories so long as they are entertained by them.  And that's the key: the books need to be entertaining.

Reluctant readers don't need easy language and story.  That's just as likely to turn off a reluctant reader as anything else (it's condescending and not really that compelling).  What they want is proof that this story will keep them reading.

So what are some elements that help keep us reading:

Short Chapters
- not less complex, but chapters where when you flip ahead you can see an end point.  Short chapters give permission for a reader to pause.  It also gives the reader a sense of accomplishment.  Short chapters can also oddly make you want to read more.  The whole, "Okay I'll just read one more chapter since they are so short anyway. . ." really does work.  I've fallen for that trick many times.  Say what you will about Dan Brown, but one of the things he does brilliantly is use the short chapter technique to perfection.  He also ended each chapter with a cliffhanger, which can get annoying after a while when you realise what he's doing.  But darn it if it didn't get people reading further :) . 

A Story That Moves Forward
- this doesn't have to be action action action, but even in a more character driven piece, things need to happen.  I will say it took me a long time to appreciate literary fiction, and that was because I worked hard to discover what was enjoyable about such fiction.  Now I love it.  But I remember how I felt in the early days.  Story needs to move forward, there needs to be momentum.  The reader wants to keep reading, to see what happens next.

- like Alice says, "What's the use of a book without pictures or conversations?"  Dialogue does several things.  First aesthetically it breaks up the text.  It makes it look less daunting.  White space is very comforting.  Secondly dialogue hints at action. It suggests that this won't be some book that talks about the sunset for five pages nor internal strife for paragraphs on end.  Thirdly, dialogue is in the moment, it's a conversation happening in the now.  Even if written in the past tense, dialogue gives a great sense of immediacy.  It also is the closest part of a book to a screenplay, and considering how popular television and film is, it's not a bad thing to have something in common with those media.

Minimal Description
- it's not that we don't want you to world build, it's that we don't want you to dwell on it.  We get it, we can fill in the blanks.  Some readers have the patience to read every small detail of the world you have so lovingly created.  But we are interested in the story happening now, not the background. This doesn't mean you shouldn't create a well rounded universe, it simply means that for writing for the reluctant reader it isn't necessary to share every single element.  Only add those bits that matter to the story moving forward.

 - not necessary, but I know it worked for me.  When I considered reading, I saw Literature with a capital "L".  It was what was good for me.  It was the choice my parents wanted me to choose to occupy my free time with.  It was quality.  And for that reason I assumed, like other things that were good for me, it was blah.  It didn't taste good like junk food, it didn't entertain like a movie.  It was healthy.  So I assumed it would be boring.  Something I'd have to struggle through.  When I discovered books could be funny, could make me laugh?  That was a big deal.  Ultimately it isn't about the humour specifically (that's just what worked for me), but in writing a book that doesn't take itself too seriously, that doesn't see itself as "important".  That first and foremost wants to include me the reader, that wants to get me excited by the story, as opposed to showing off to the reader how well the story is written.

Those are just a few elements, dealt with on a pretty basic level, that I think bring the reluctant reader in.  They are also elements you will find more of in literature for young people.  Why?  Because books for young people don't rely on the reader putting in an extra effort.  Kids especially will not attempt to get through a book because some reviewer told them it was a seminal work of whatever.  If they aren't entertained, they ain't reading it.  And that isn't an altogether bad attitude I think.  It puts the focus where it belongs, on the book, not the show of reading, not the importance of the author, but on the words there on the page before you.

In any event, I hope this shed some light on the reluctant reader mindset.  I also want to remind you that this is very particular to that one group.  This doesn't mean that there aren't books worth putting in effort for, nor that there aren't readers who love pages and pages of description and slow moving stories with little dialogue.  This isn't me making any kind of value judgment.  I am simply being very blunt in what a certain group of readers think when they read.  Not everyone. 

As always, it's all about to each his own.  In the end, it's about getting people to read and, just as importantly I think, to enjoy reading.  How you do it is up to you! :)

1 comment:

Haneen I. Adam said...

Adrienne Kress Esq.

Your a genius.
do you know that you managed to give me the second biggest shock of 2012?
not of my life, but definitely important (the first one of the year & my life as well is that I discovered I suffer from "Anxiety disorders" and for years now without me knowing)
OMG! I'm a reluctant reader! I had no idea!
Yes I'm a reader, but I need to remind myself that reading is actually a fun thing to do. Short chapters work like magic with me, cause I just have to skip a few pages and see what's left!!! –writing them though…not sure I can manage that. Pride & Prejudice is my favorite romance of all time but Jane Austen just kills me with those TELLING NOT SHOWING SCENES you know what I mean?
What no dialog? I'm dying. Minimal description? ashamed to confess it's true with me too.
If the story is not moving it's insta CRAP to me. And mix humor
with seriousness & you hooked me.
also stories with no true moral are just worthless, and stories that are so easy going, so fluffy and sweet without that deep edge to it are SO not for me. Is this just me or some a characteristic of the RR? I have no idea.
Oh God! there is so much I can add, I just have to crawl in a corner now cause I'm still in shock, and I need to accept this new fact about myself.
Yet..Thank you.