Six impossible things

Writing and Learning styles

Last Sunday, I was having so much fun going through Mom’s old writing books that I promised a couple more posts on the subject…forgetting that I was going to be out of town until the end of Wiscon. So you’ll have to wait a week for me to talk about the changes in the way folks talk about writing.

In the meantime… Back when I was doing literacy tutoring, one of the training classes they sent us to was about learning styles. They divided them up into three: visual, aural, and kinesthetic (that is, people who learn most easily by seeing an example or reading, people who learn most readily when they are told how to do something, and people who learn best when they actually do it themselves). This has lots of implications for education (our current system is heavily biased toward the first two learning styles), but what I want to talk about is the implications for writers and readers.

Reading is fundamentally a visual experience. Yes, there are audiobooks, but most readers are readers, not listeners…and most books meant for persons over the age of five or six are not written to be read aloud. Nevertheless, there seem to be at least two common types of readers: those who “see” the story as a movie in their heads, and those who “hear” the story in their heads as if someone were reading it. There are also the rare types who “feel” the story as they read it – who lean forward and tense up when the protagonist is running or jumping, and sometimes even fall off the chair if they’ve become too involved in the action.

Ideally, one would like to write stories that appeal to all three types of readers (and however many other categories are out there). The difficulty begins with realizing that this is something one needs to pay attention to. After all, every writer has his or her own learning and reading style, and it is only natural that one begins by writing in whatever way “feels right” to oneself. Reading is also generally a solitary experience, and the way we talk about the things we’ve read seldom gives much of a clue about the differences in how we experience it. “I loved the chase scene in Chapter 9!” may mean “I could visualize the horses galloping through the forest and the branches whipping past” or it may mean “I loved the way the words had the rhythm of hoofbeats and the sentences flowed into one another” or even “I could fell the wind in my hair and I was so into the ride that I kicked the footstool over when they jumped the river.”

If one doesn’t realize (or doesn’t believe) that other people don’t experience “reading a story” the same way one does oneself, one has no reason to suspect that some readers will trip over the clunky sentence fragments in that visually evocative section, or bog down and lose track of the story in a long flow of beautiful but slow-moving prose. I recall one writer friend who was mildly horrified to discover that there were readers who actually cared about “pretty sentences,” rather than about the mental images they produced, and another who was even more horrified to learn that not everyone stops to figure out exactly how to pronounce each and every alien name in an SF novel (because if you don’t know how to pronounce them, how can you tell what the rhythm of the sentence it’s in is supposed to be?)

I think that when any one person reads a story, they translate it from words-on-the-page into whatever their preferred mode of understanding is. In order to write a story, the process goes in reverse, translating the “mental pictures” or the “inner storyteller” into words-on-the-page. (This is one of the reasons why it’s never quite the story in your head.) If one wants to appeal to more than one type of reader, one’s translation into words-on-the-page has to end up with something that each type of reader will be able to “translate” from words-on-the-page into their particular most-valued way of experiencing the book.

Most of the writers I know do this kind of thing more or less by instinct. They lean towards “mental pictures” or “inner storytelling” or “reproducing the physical sensations,” but they’ve found ways of writing that also appeal to other sorts of readers. The writer who is all about mental movies learns to write sentences that are, if not rhythmic and flowing, at least not clunky. The writer who is all about poetic rhythm learns to include some visually evocative phrases. I’ve only known one or two writers who were so far into one mode or other that they had to consciously and deliberately work on acquiring the others in order to get any other styles into their work. Most of the rest of us pick up enough to get by without thinking about it.

“Getting by,” however, is not the ideal. I think an awful lot of writers could benefit from thinking about the reading/writing styles that don’t come naturally to them. Yes, it’s a lot of work to stop and think about the rhythm of the sentences, the word choices, and the flow of the syntax, when what really matters to you is the vivid mental images you’re trying to evoke. Yes, it’s hard to pull back and look at the “big picture” effect that all those lovely sentences add up to. Yes, it feels a bit strange to make yourself physically feel the tensions and the motion in the story. But even if one doesn’t make a regular habit of it, pausing every so often to think about the effects your words-on-the-page will have when they’re filtered through a different style of reading.

  1. Don’t forget that e-motion is also an inherently kinesthetic thing. “She felt afraid’ is, to me, inherently _meaningful_ – from that phrase I can construct the whole experience of afraid-ness, and I can take part in the tension and the beating heart and the pit in the stomach and the way you turn your eyes while unable to move your head and how you tense your muscles to burst forward and how your body gets ready to burst forward, adrenaline pumping…

    but, alas, it doesn’t translate into the same picture for other readers.

    It took me a very long time – as in, into my thirties – to wholly grok that to other people pictures have meaning. To me, they’re nice, and they might be pleasing or disturbing, and they might contain a lo of information I can decode – but they’re not ‘core information’, just a means of acquiring it.

    I did, eventually, understand how much richer a book is when it contains visual information (and does it in a verbally pleasing manner), but creating those details is hard work. I don’t have a mental movie – if a writer is very good I can acquire one, but for my own stuff, my touching points are ‘how the character feels and how they interact with other people’. Physical items only turn up in my imagination when they’re important – until the character needs to climb a tree, all I know is that they’re standing ‘in woodland’ without any details. There’s a general hint of treeishness all around, and that’s enough – I know what it feels like to be in the woods.

    I’ve started to map everything. And I mean, *everything* – every room, every location. Well, I’m not quite as good about it as I would like to be – I’m too impatient – but I am _trying_ to map everything. And every time I do it becomes much easier to determine what’s there, how the protagonist interacts with the environment, how they and other people use the space. But again, it’s about movement and space and people in relation to each other – the visual description, and making it flow, are byproducts of that.

    My efforts to ‘try and describe a mental image’ were, ultimately, doomed from the start.

  2. Do you find that people’s reading style is the same as their writing style? If someone is a visual learner, do they always write visually?

    When I’m reading fiction I enjoy, I…disappear.

    I’m not hungry. I’m not thirsty. I’m unaware of time or exhaustion or even needing to use the bathroom. It’s like I’m not “here”…I’m “there” but my body isn’t kicking over the footstool when they jump the river.

    So which kind would that be? And which kinds do I need to make sure to add to my own writing?

  3. Interesting post! Emotion’s the hardest thing to get across, for me. Most of the physical tags for showing emotion feel so cliched, but if the writer just says, “Thymyx despaired,” then there isn’t enough for the reader to get into poor Thymyx’s feelings.

  4. I’m definitely a visual person. When reading, I always “see” the book like a movie in my head – the same holds true for my writing. There are some things though that are portrayed by a different style of writing, you’re right.

  5. Interesting.

    I’m a visual reader, with a touch of the kinesthetic.

    But I’m totally a kinesthetic writer. (With a touch of the visual. Grin!)

    Who knew the two could be different? I didn’t!

    And now I have a clue as to why certain scenes in my story are challenging for me. If all I’ve got for inspiration is a visual movie, then I feel lost, not certain where to start, what details to zero in on.

    I need the physical/emotional sensations of my POV character to be vivid in my perception. *Then* I know what is important (including visual description) and what to relay to my reader.

    (I do need to work on making my words easier to read aloud. Am working!)

    Thank you! This gives me some ideas of things to try on days when the writing feels like I’m pushing a vast boulder up a cliff-like hill.

  6. It’s odd – but for me, how I read the story depends more on the story itself than on me. Some I read visually, seeing it all unfold before me. Some (probably most) I read aurally, just hearing it all in my head. And some rare few I read kinesthetically (I literally shivered my way through my first reading of The Long Winter, while sitting on a beach in August).

    So how does that translate to my writing? I’m honestly not sure; probably because I’ve never thought about it this way before. Now I’ll have to pay more attention, try to figure that out and then also where I’m lacking.

  7. This was so interesting to me. I am definitely a kinesthetic reader, and it is really nice to have a way to describe how I read. My husband was shocked when he discovered that I don’t have any sort of visual image of the action or hear the character’s voices in my mind. To me, it is definitely about “feeling” the story. I had never thought about the learning styles applying to reading, and I’ve always considered myself a visual learner (since I learn well by reading).

    I will admit, it makes it much harder to remember how things/people are supposed to look. I can only remember those types of details if it becomes relevant to the plot.

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