by April Myers
Ever since I could read, I have devoured every reading I could. At first, I read anything with words; from cereal boxes to billboards, I took what I could get. I wanted a book, and once I got one, I read it through a hundred times. That moment of finishing a story, article, or the back of the cereal box is a happy moment. I love to get to the end—to find out the point, to get goose bumps from an open ending, or else just get that feeling of accomplishment: One reading down, infinity to go!
So, when I stumbled upon “Too Long; Didn’t Read” (TL;DR), a growing trend on the Internet, I was perplexed and immediately began trying to understand it. I found that people see what they consider a lengthy read and never look back. Writers for the web and print media alike are beginning to pay heed to this trend, like the TLDR subreddit that says it is for people too busy to read the day’s news.
Is our society so bent on convenience and efficiency? Is this simply status quo while I have been blissfully unaware? The answer is: no one really knows. Skimmers and scanners of text have long been abundant, and more research has been done on why people read and what media they use. A Pew report was released in 2012 discussing the rise of e-reading. The report suggests that the widespread availability of the Internet has created a new market for the written word.
People who might have, in the past, claimed reading was for academia, or else claimed to “hate reading” are encouraged to read anyway by the constant presence of the Internet in their pocket, purse, workspace, even in their bathrooms. (See this article on “Smartmirrors” for more on bathroom internet!)
The Chicago Tribune reported in March that most Americans prefer texting—also known as writing—their messages instead of making a phone call or leaving a voicemail. This suggests a shift to reading becoming our primary method of receiving information. When compared with Argentines and Brazilians, Americans spend double the time on their smartphones.
Having researched trends in reading in general, I now better understand the phenomena of TL;DR. Those who would before have spent little to no time on reading are more encouraged to read, but their motivation is low. However, are they busy people with little time for extraneous words?
Bob Bailey wrote about the mechanics of reading in 2002, particularly focusing on optimal line lengths. The study he describes found that:
- Users prefer to read shorter lines, usually 3-4-inch line lengths.
- Users prefer a 3-column format.
Patrick Lynch and Sarah Hortons’ Web Style Guide, 3rd edition also mentions in its seventh chapter that optimal line length exists because longer lines make the eye muscles have to strain more. Shorter lines require less energy and time. Furthermore, columns on a page provide some white (or blank) space amid the text, which gives the reader some proverbial breathing room. Or, as Lynch and Horton put it: “Filling all the white space on a page is like removing all the oxygen from a room—an efficient use of space perhaps, but decidedly difficult to inhabit.”
This seems to illustrate some reasoning behind TL;DR. The time it takes to read is clearly not the only consideration here. Why do readers need white space to “inhabit” at all? Psychology gives us the answer we seek.
This article from the Association for Psychological Science discusses a study conducted in which people who read task instructions in an easy-to-read font assume the task will be easy. Conversely, people reading instructions in a difficult-to-read font assumed the task would be difficult. Most importantly, people who assumed the task would be difficult were less willing to do it. If it is hard to read, we assume it is hard to do. All it takes is for us to perceive the task as hard.
Thus, my perplexity is solved. It’s not that people hate to read. It isn’t really even that they don’t have the time. Simply put, people prefer to do things that are easier. We prefer shorter lines because they are easier to deal with. We like three-column layout because it seems we can handle the information better. It has little to do with speed, and everything to do with comfort.
We writers cannot afford to scorn readers too busy for our precious words. Though they are precious to us, it is up to us to make them accessible to our readers. To combat the trend of TL;DR, we must remember to work to make the user comfortable.