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Reading is different for everyone

You might think that most people have reasonably similar mental states, but it would be incredibly disorienting to be in another person’s head.

Shamay Agaron
Shamay Agaron
. 2 min read

I never liked fiction all that much as a kid. I would get bored reading descriptions of characters and scenes, so I mainly focused on the dialogue between characters to get a sense of the plot.

I thought that “getting lost in a book” was just something people said when they really liked the book. It had never even occurred to me that my experience might be atypical.

At some point, I was talking with a friend about a book they read recently. They were describing it as an immersive, cinematic experience. Vivid imagery of the characters and scenes would spontaneously appear in their mind as they read.

Imagination concept | Balloon illustration, Open book, Vector art

I couldn’t believe it - unless I actively tried to imagine a character, reading was not a visual activity for me. Is this why most fiction books were less immersive to me?

It turns out that some people are visual readers while others are not. According to recent surveys, about 20% of regular readers (and 33% of professional writers) experience very vivid visuals as they read, much like watching a movie.

There’s no consensus on why these differences arise. It might just be genetic OR it could the unique reading strategies that a child learns when they first start reading. Either way, having this experience is not inherently better or worse.

You might surprised to learn that there are many fiction writers who aren’t visual readers, yet still manage to depict intricate fictional worlds in their work. Catherine McKenzie gives a firsthand account of her writing process - she first writes out the dialogue and then goes back to add in the descriptive elements.

“I literally turn my character around in a circle (in my mind) and have them describe a few elements in the room and a few things about the person they’re talking to.”

McKenzie also uses a great analogy to describe her experience.

“To answer the person who questioned me closely about my ability to write without visuals, obviously, I do have them. It’s simply not my focus when I write. I have to remember to add them, just like I sometimes have to remember to ask someone how they’re doing in an email after I’ve written straight to the point.”

In closing, here are some questions to think through: Are you a visual reader? What types of books evoke the most visuals for you? How might this influence other aspects of your life, like learning?

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