Be a Better Reader: Reading Beyond the Headline (Or, Driving Safely on the Internet)


A 5-part series. Sure, there are a number of ways in which any writer you enjoy on the Internet can do their work better. However, there are also ways in which readers can improve how they interact with the content they consume, and in doing so, improve their own experience and the experience of fellow readers. (Obviously, my opinions are my own – this is my blog, after all – and are not endorsed in any way by any outlet past or present for whom I write or have written.)

I was speaking with a writer friend recently, and we were both commenting on how amazing it is that, for all that the Internet has allowed people to have access to more information, reading comprehension skills seem to be sorely lacking. What’s more, for all that people love to “surf” the Internet, they often don’t spend the time actually reading anything. We’ve all become skimmers – which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. Use the Internet however you want and more power to you!

The problems arise when people who haven’t actually read anything feel the need to comment on the things they haven’t read. Rather than contributing to a healthy dialogue, they derail the conversations of people who have read the piece, and start “debates” that have nothing to do with it. Nowhere is this more evident than on Facebook, where posting a comment on an item for which they’ve only seen the preview seems to be a lot of people’s favorite pastime.

It’s become such an epidemic that NPR posted this article about it in April of last year. You’ll be amazed at how many people “commented” on the “story” despite NPR’s obvious fishing.

However, even if people engage with a piece past the headline, many seem to not be engaging too well with the text. A good reader, when they reach a point that’s unclear will ask for clarification before trying to make a point. The outlets for which I’ve written in my career generally have very thoughtful, intelligent readers, and if I haven’t communicated well enough as a writer, they’ll point it out, responding gently to the point I seem to be making while acknowledging that this may not have been what I meant based on the rest of my piece. Then, I clarify accordingly and we have an actual discussion about it. This is great, and I love this kind of engagement!

Then there are other types of readers, who will skim something then make comments like “Why didn’t you address X point?” or point out a fallacy in my argument based on lazy reading. I often find myself defending myself with my own text – No, here it is. I said that right here, or alternately, That isn’t actually what I wrote – here’s this bit again….

I take my job as a writer very seriously, and I’m looking to improve every day. I hate it when I’m not clear, and I actually enjoy getting notes on my work, because I know that my work will end up stronger because of it. However, I do think that readers have a huge responsibility. Communication is a two-way street (or a multi-lane highway), and it’s your responsibility to take other drivers into account, not simply focus on your own driving.

Just because you’re reading a professional website doesn’t mean you’re absolved of your duty to think critically or, you know, actually read the words that are in front of you before you say something about them.

What you can do: If you come across something in a piece of writing that you want to comment on, STOP. Take a breath. Read it again. See if you can repeat the writer’s point in your own words to yourself. If you can, comment. If you can’t, ask for clarification. There’s no need to rush to comment. The Internet will still be there for you when you get back.

Also, before you engage with fellow readers in the comments section. Read the comments, too. Comments sections are for (or should be for) conversation, and you don’t want to butt in on a conversation of which you don’t know the context.  If you were at a party, and you passed by a group of people chatting and just blurted out an opinion based on a stray word you heard, that would kinda be frowned upon. (I know – I’ve been that awkward person who thinks they know what they’re contributing to when they don’t. Trust me.) Likewise, comment sections.

I write, you read. I make a point, you make a point about the point I made. We discuss. We move forward. But we have to be doing that together.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of Be a Better Reader! If you missed Part 1, check it out here!

(This post is supported by Patreon)

2 thoughts on “Be a Better Reader: Reading Beyond the Headline (Or, Driving Safely on the Internet)

  1. Tracy Brighten (@TracyBrighten1) says:

    To let you know Teresa that I read your post from start to finish and enjoyed your article! I applaud your criticism of some online readers who have an appetite for information, but who approach reading like eating a fast food take away. They don’t take time to savour what they’re consuming. Like you, I enjoy feedback on my writing so that I know when it starts a good discussion, and also, as you say, to know where I might improve. Respectful and considered discussion is a positive experience for everyone!

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