If you want to be a good writer, the conventional wisdom goes, be a good reader. Ok, but what if I'm a struggling reader? Does that mean I can't be a good writer? No. It does not. I know, because I'm a terrible reader.

Read more of my thoughts on reading to be a better writer.

The struggle is real

By most standards, I'm a struggling reader. I have mild dyslexia -- confirmed in my early 30s -- which makes the mechanics of reading difficult for me. I read the same line multiple times. I miss entire words. I screw up the letters in a word. The usual stuff. This makes me a super-slow reader, I'm busy making sure I decode each word correctly, which bogs me down and keeps me from comprehending beyond the phrase level.

The two kinds of reading

I'm good at reading for information-gathering -- finding the info I need and capturing it. But I'm terrible at reading for learning. Most people toggle pretty effortlessly between the two. Me, though? The switch is faulty.

The way my brain works on reading doesn't allow me to retain much of what I've consumed. And believe me, I've tried all the tricks all my life. It's not about being distracted or not being interested in the topic (the latter was definitely true in school sometimes). It's about the wiring.

I do better at nonfiction, because it usually follows a logical (often chronological path) and I have some contextual background info that helps, too. But fiction is really hard for me because I don't recall a lot of what happened in previous chapters and there's not a lot of prior knowledge to rely on. Even when I do manage to get through a novel, do not expect me to be able to tell you much about it.

What I can do is skim and scan text to find key words that relate to a query. Yes, that's right. I am a human search engine. You're one, too, but I'm Google and most folks are, say Bing.

The trick that got me through school

I was a good-enough reader through elementary school when the chapters were short and the reading load light. But in junior high I got side-swiped by all the content-area reading. And nobody was sure what was going on. My teachers mostly told me to try harder, as if I was sitting at home every night screwing around instead of trying to do my homework. Lucky for me, my parents saw me working hard with no success and they advocated for me, telling my teachers to get off my back because effort wasn't the issue. Some teachers complied, others didn't. (Looking at you, Ms. Robinson from 8th grade social studies.)

Since nobody at school could help, my Dad got on the case. He figured out that I could look at the questions at the end of every chapter in the textbooks before I started reading and scan the chapter the answers. This trick gave me something to talk about in class. He also made me promise not to skip class and to ask questions -- and taught me how to take great notes to study from instead of long-form text. These two skills were foundational to my career as a journalist.

This was harder in English. When the text was short, he'd give me a question or two to answer before I started so I had something to look for. With longer chapters, he counseled me to read the first few pages and come up with questions or observations based on what I could read.

The moral of the story

These hacks enabled me to get through college rarely finishing a reading assignment. I wasn't on the Dean's List or anything, but after about 8th grade, the goal was to survive and advance, not to earn accolades. Those skills have contributed mightily to my success as a writer. And it's why I know you can be a strong and effective writer even if you suck at reading. Because I'm doing it.

Look, I still feel a little sheepish when somebody asks me what I thought of some terrific book (usually a novel) that I haven't read because it was just too onerous. Or when their response to my acknowledging that I have terrible retention and low reading stamina is to tell me that can't be true (really, that's pretty much what everyone says). But in the last few years, I've tried to make it a learning opportunity for them.

"I know," I confirm. And then I give them a quick explanation of the two kinds of reading and how I'm only good -- but really extraordinarily good -- at one of them.

Are you a writer who struggles with reading? Do you know someone who wants to be a writer but isn't a reader? Let's talk!

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