The Psychology of Reading: What's Going On Inside Your Reader's Head While They're Reading


Posted June 3, 2020

We frequently write about the importance of the audience when writing. That’s because it’s so critical for the writer to have a clear picture of the intended audience in mind – who they are, their background, their goals for reading, and so on. The most impactful writing aligns itself with the reader. It uses their vocabulary and what they know about the subject matter while giving them what they want. Knowing your reader also enables the writer to use the right psychology-based tactics for engaging them.
But what about the under-the-hood processes that affect how readers consume your work? In psychological terms, two elements play a key role in determining how much the reader engages with your work, how well they understand it, and how likely they are to remember it.

1: Interest

Obviously, whether the reader is interested in the material matters. The degree of their interest affects both comprehension and recall of the text. Specifically, a meta-analysis published in The Journal of Education and Practice looked at the impact of interest on reading. One study gave students two texts to read and gauged their interest in each. The students tended to understand, recall, learn, and even generate better inferences from the text they were most interested in.
This is one of those psychological factors that seems obvious when stated – of course a reader is going to pay more attention to and remember something they’re interested in– but it’s amazing how often writers forget this. It’s up to writers to make their work interesting to their readers. The only question is how. Will the material be intrinsically interesting to those invested in the subject matter? Or will it be necessary for the writer to enliven the material and connect it to topics or problems that do interest the reader? Writers who give readers a reason to be interested will automatically make their work more effective.

2: Motivation

Like interest, motivation is another psychological phenomenon that seems obvious but is often overlooked. Without adequate motivation, readers might skim rather than read closely or simply skip the text altogether.
Notably, motivation and interest are not the same thing, and writers must keep this distinction in mind. Interest is a matter of want; motivation is a matter of benefit. Specifically, most readers bring underlying motivational beliefs to the act of reading. These are assumptions or prior beliefs about why reading something will be worth the time and effort … or why it won’t be.
In fact, negative motivational beliefs – anti-motivation, if you will – can erode the effectiveness of any text if the writer doesn’t break down why the reader should care. What’s in it for them? Something like a how-to document that solves a pressing problem is inherently motivating, but for many other business and professional documents, it’s up to the writer to help the reader understand what they’ll get out of the act of reading.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 30 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations. Links: Internal, The Journal of Education and Practice