Redefine reading and writing – Musings

The definitions of reading and writing are clear, right? They involve black letters on a white background, either on physical or digital paper. To be a good writer, you need to know how to spell. And to be a reader, you need to be highly educated and rich enough to be able to afford sitting in an armchair in front of a fire for hours on end. Well, I’d argue that for many people these are just not an option. And I think that these ideas about what reading and writing are, rob us of a lot of beautiful, amazing opportunities to share our thoughts and ideas and inform ourselves of those of others. I think we need to redefine reading and writing. 

Why redefine reading and writing?

Let’s start with the plain and simple truth here. I am and always have been an avid reader. Do you know that person who sat down with a book at her own birthday party and looked up hours later to realize everyone had left? That was me. I am blessed with a body and mind designed to do nothing but devour books. And for that, I’m incredibly grateful. But I’m only a minority.

There can be a long list of reasons why letters on paper might not be the best way to communicate with each other. I’m not saying we should get rid of conventional books altogether: I’m a big fan of them! What I’m saying is that there’s no need to see them as the default and scoff at things like audio books and blogs. 

Physical challenges 

A few months ago I talked to an academic client who said “I want to do more research and write more… But my eyes just cannot do that. After a while, it becomes harder to physically focus my eyes on the text. My eyes start hurting. I simply cannot spend a day researching [reading] and writing.” I asked them if they had considered audio books. After all, many of the classic philosophy books are now available in audio. That way, my client could “read” the book without having to strain their eyes. 

They looked shocked. They knew what reading looked like and they knew that that was not possible for them. Now, of course you can listen to podcasts for fun, but to actually use audio to “read” academic theory was an entirely new concept for them. 

Mental challenges

Some of my neurodiverse clients have similar problems, but with their mind instead of their eyes. Their preferred way of reading is to scan. They can’t sit down for hours and read the sentences in order, that’s just not how their minds work. If you’re easily distracted, or your brain works in all ways but linear… Or even if you are not neurodivergent but are looking for something in specific in the text, you will not read a book from beginning to end. You’ll pick and choose. 

Maybe start at the end and work your way back. Or maybe you can only focus your mind if you do something physical simultaneously. Now, all that’s completely fine. Reading doesn’t have to look like a person sitting in a chair. You can read while on the treadmill. You can read ten books at the same time. You can read only the headings (like a newspaper) and skip most of the text. There’s no wrong way to read! And it’s time we stop making people feel that there is. 

Life’s challenges

There’s people with young children, who might pick up a book only to have to put it down five second later when their child wants to show them their new artwork. Or needs a clean diaper. You can tell them that this book is so good that you finished it in one weekend, and they will look at you like you’re crazy. For a lot of people, long stretches of reading and writing time are a luxury they simply cannot afford.

Visual, tactile and auditory thinkers

And there’s people who want to write a book, but they think best when they speak. When they sit down with their word processor, they just sit and stare at a white screen for hours on end. Or they want to read, but they learn or enjoy things better when they can feel or hear it. Books are fine, and of course they can read. But there might be much better ways to reach them and for them to reach their own goals. And that is why purpose is so important.

Align your purpose with your medium

So where does that leave us? Well, I believe that rather than just assuming that if you want to tell a story you need to write a book, or if you want to learn something you need to read one, we should think about what it is that we want and need and what medium is best equipped to provide that. That is what I would call to redefine reading and writing. 

Simply put: what do you want and how do you want it? This question works on different levels. For a “reader” the question might be simple: we all take information in in many different ways every single day. And all you have to do is evaluate without judgment or prejudice which ones are most effective for you at which times. For a “writer”, there’s two levels to consider: the writing process and getting your work to your audience. 

Redefining “writing”

Writing used to involve pen and paper. Then, it was either pen and paper or a typewriter. Then, either pen& paper, a typewriter, or a computer. And now there’s even more options. The writing process comes with its own images. There’s this very romantic idea of a pained writer with ink stains on their hands in a rough-hewn cabin in the woods somewhere, labouring away over a sheet of paper. There is also the more contemporary image: a row of well-dressed hipsters with their mac books in the local Starbucks. But writing does not necessarily need to involve letters on papers from the very start!

Often, we think faster than we can type. We might think better with our eyes closed. Or we might think best when taking a walk or talking to ourselves. If this is the case, then who says you can’t write the first draft of your book by talking into your phone? Or the first draft might be a very elaborate mind map on your wall. The mind map is visual, yes. But it also allows you to write your book out of order. Which is another point: who says your book needs to be written from start to finish? If this chapter isn’t working right now, just write another! 

Anyway, when we redefine reading and writing, and what they can look like, we not only make publishing more accessible, we can also just make it a lot easier for ourselves. 

How will your reader “read” your work?

Who’s your ideal audience? What does this audience want your book for? How does your audience want to use the book? And how can you accommodate them? These are the questions you need to ask yourself when you redefine reading and writing. Though these questions may seem quite obvious, they really aren’t. 

One prime example is self-help books on AD(H)D. These books teach people with ADD and ADHD how they can manage their neurodiverse brains. Very useful indeed! However, people with ADD and ADHD are easily distracted. They have a hard time summoning the discipline and self-motivation required to make self-help books productive in their everyday lives. And they often have a hard time focusing for longer periods of time. 

Now, the books that are written specifically for these people are often written in dry language by psychiatrists. They contain a lot of text, not many visual aids, and no formatting that might help people scan the book rather than read it. In short: these books are designed to be what “a serious book” looks like. And consequently, they are inaccessible precisely to their target audience: people with ADD and ADHD. 

In conclusion

The world is changing. We have many more media available to us than we had even twenty years ago. And there’s an increasing awareness and celebration of diversity. Most people now accept that different people work in different ways. However, when we think of reading and writing, we still have some very persistent and outdated ideas in our heads, that prevent us both as readers and writers from getting our needs met in the most effective and enjoyable way for us. And that is why we REALLY need to sit down and, for ourselves, redefine reading and writing.

What does it look like for you? What should it look like? Which ways of reading and writing work best for you? If you do know the answers to these questions, let me know in the comments below. And if you don’t know and want to find out, you can schedule your first free coaching session by clicking on the button on the bottom of your screen or going here to my scheduling page