Controlling Your Readers’ Speed

On a panel at Westercon last month, M Todd Gallowglass — who is an oral storyteller first and a writer second — spoke about how challenging it is to control the speed at which a reader reads the way he can easily control the speed at which he speaks. In a story, something that is rattled off quickly has a very different effect than something that is delivered slowly and deliberately. So is it possible to duplicate the effect in prose? Well, as it turns out, this is a subject I’ve looked into rather extensively, so I thought I might share what I’ve learned.

I need to start off by apologizing that I can’t give you a bibliography for all this. Please remember that I did all this research trying to improve my own writing. I never dreamed I’d one day be writing about writing. So while some of the recent academic research comes from books I’ve still got on my shelves, much of it I now have no clue how to find again. I do want to assure you that this is research-based, though (with the caveat that such research is ongoing), and if I’m giving you something that is just my gut instinct or the impression I’ve gotten over the years, I’ll identify it as such.

So, perhaps we should start by asking why we would want to control how fast a reader reads. People read at different speeds, after all. Shouldn’t we just let them read at whatever speed they happen to read at?

Well, yes and no. We’re not out to control someone’s absolute reading speed. If Wikipedia is to be believed, the typical reading speed of an ordinary adult is 250 words per minute with 70% comprehension. Some people can double and even triple that. If someone reads faster overall, they will still do so. What we control is their relative reading speed. That means sometimes they’ll read a little faster than their average reading speed. Sometimes they’ll read a little slower. This sets up a rhythm and cadence, like changing the tempo of a song. Perhaps you want to keep their reading speed steady. Perhaps you want to speed them up and slow them down aggressively. That’s up to you as the writer. But you don’t want to be unaware of things that you do that affect reading speed, because you can end up making your prose feel choppy and inconsistent if you’re not at least considering it.

The first thing that affects how fast people read is something that is completely in your control as an author: How you write.

Have you ever run a spell/grammar check and seen that box that tells you the “Flesch Reading Ease” score and the “Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level” of the text? Well, those are simple formulae based on how long your sentences are, and how many big words you use. (For the reading ease score, the higher the percentage, the less-educated the reader needs to be to understand it.  The grade level is approximately what grade a reader has to have successfully completed in the U.S. public education system to be able to read it.) Longer sentences are harder to read. Big words are harder to read. When text is harder to read, readers slow down, even if they can comfortably read at that level.

So, when you need the reader to pick up the pace, write shorter sentences. Use shorter words. Ever notice that action scenes tend to be written this way? The writer wants your pulse up and the pages turning. So they keep it short. They keep it simple.

Using an SAT word — or, especially for those of you who write fantasy that calls rabbits blimpverts for no apparent reason, introducing new vocabulary — necessarily slows the reader down. The famous Heinlein bit of worldbuilding, “The door dilated,” is actually slower reading than one would expect from a three-word sentence, because “dilated” is not an everyday word, nor is it used in an everyday manner. The reader needs to pause to consider. The end result is that they read it more slowly.

There’s another aspect of reading speed that is totally in your control: White space.

Now, this seems self-evident. When there’s more white space on the page, there’s fewer words, so of course people read it faster. But studies indicate that their effective words-per-minute also increases. Fewer words on the page results in readers actually reading faster, not just appearing to.

So, short paragraphs = faster reading.  Long paragraphs = slower reading.

Sample pages from Selby and Espinoza

[Figure 1:  Page 119 in Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr. (left) and Still Water Saints by Alex Espinoza (right). Espinoza’s book has a smaller font and therefore more words per page than Selby’s, but Espinoza’s short paragraphs and the resultant additional white space encourage faster reading.]

Now, here I’m going to digress a bit into things I haven’t actually seen studies to back up, but it does appear to be the case that readers do, in fact, take a short pause when they encounter a comma or a period.  That’s. Why. When. You. Mock. William. Shatner. You. Put. A. Period. After. Every. Word.

I don’t know if this phenomenon works only for subvocalizers or if speed readers would find the same true, but it’s true enough to make the meme play well on the internet. It’s also common to see writers create the effect of someone talking slooooooooooooowllllly by adding extra letters (and often resorting to phonetic spelling to pull it off).

I personally think that this works not because people read the extra letters for the extra amount of time, but because of another phenomenon: Readers slow down when they encounter something jarring.

So, unexpected punctuation (like the period after every word) or unexpected spelling (such as “slooooooooooooowllllly”) are related phenomena. Personally, I suspect this works because an awful lot of reading speed depends on the reader assuming what they’re going to find, and something that breaks that assumption derails the flow. You can create this effect by altering your narrative voice, too. To take an extreme example, consider my default, long-sentenced, big-word-intensive writing style. Yo, mofo! Bitch be buggin! Jarring, isn’t it? That’s not my voice at all. (And it’s also somewhat offensive, which I hope you find jarring for similar reasons.) An extreme case like that would probably, at best, have comic effect, but by suddenly inserting a long sentence where others have all been short, you can get the same effect. Similarly, a clear and concise sentence amid a sea of sentences like I write will stop the reader and hammer home a point. I’ve done that here. Readers tend to read more slowly at the beginning of a book than at the end, probably because they’re training themselves to the author’s voice and style. Violate that, and you’re going to slow them back down.

And, of course, you similarly slow down a reader when you’re doing something unexpected with your prose in general. By that I mean using an inverted paragraph structure, for example. Or deliberately withholding information. (I hate that, by the way.) Or, to go to an extreme, opting to suddenly have all the words on the page come cascading down into a huge pile (looking at you, Nick Mamatas).

But those are just things that you can do as an author. Those of you who have control of how your book is typeset — and as self-publishing becomes more and more common, that number will grow even as we lose control of it in electronic formats — have even more control over reading speed than you think.

Remember what I said above about white space? Yeah, you’ve got total control of that.

When you do a graphic design for a book, you’ve got full control of your font size, your tracking (that’s the space between the letters on a given line), and your leading (that’s the space between lines). Setting your tracking with a little extra white space — but not so much that the word start to break apart — makes the text easier to read, and therefore increasing reading speed. So when you need to slow the reader down a bit, you can decrease the tracking ever so slightly. The same is true of the leading (the space between lines). When a page has an additional line or two on it, and therefore a little less space between lines, the reader instinctively slows down. You don’t want to go too far with either, of course, since readability suffers if things run together or if things get to be spaced too far apart, but a good graphic designer can totally manipulate how quickly the reader gets through different parts of the book (and how much they felt like they enjoyed reading it — something to consider before asking your cousin’s kid to do a cheap-ass layout for you).

Different typesetting choices.

[Figure 2: Different typesetting choices affect reading speed. Spacing between letters (tracking), spacing between lines (leading), line length, and font size make some text easier to read, and therefore read more quickly, and other text harder to read, and therefore read more slowly.]

I also suspect, though I’ve not seen any research to back this up, that fudging the font size a bit smaller would encourage the reader to lean in a bit more and create the impression that you’ve started to whisper to them. Can’t say for sure. If you decide to try it, let me know.

There are other graphic design elements that affect reading ease as well, such as widow and orphan control. (Widows are single lines of a paragraph that fall on a different page or column than the rest of the paragraph. Orphans are when a single word falls on a line by itself at the end of a paragraph.) Again, a good designer knows about this and can help you a lot if you communicate clearly about where it’s important to keep the reader moving quickly and where you want them to slow down and consider more.

This is actually a complicated subject, and the list of reasons why you would want to control reading speed and what effect different writing and typesetting choices have could fill a book. But hopefully this gives you a quick idea of the basics.

And, as always, I’m going to end by saying I’d love to hear from you. What do you find effective for controlling reading speed? It’s a broad topic, and not all of us are masters at it just yet.


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