Asymmetries in Reading and Writing

Readers and Writers

In writing and reading, we never have a symmetrical relationship. There are asymmetries between the writer and reader, where either one is more dominant in some regard while the other is more dominant in another regard. We tend to be of unequal footing in reading and writing.

The voice of a reader and writer are nothing close to equal; the selection of topics is heavily swayed one way rather than another; how the text is interpreted depends on one of the participants, not both; the authority on matters of knowledge is slanted; and the distribution of effort is likewise unevenly spread. There are many asymmetries, some leaning towards the writer and some leaning towards the reader. Let us consider a few in closer detail.

Asymmetries in Reading and Writing Examined

Both a reader and writer, in virtue of them being a human, have a voice. Both have opinions and ideas they want to express. Though in reading and writing, one voice is more predominant than the other.

The writer has the dominant voice when it comes to books. The words and sentences put forward were chosen by the whims and preferences of the writer, and they have forced upon those who want to read the book or paper the ideas and opinions ruminating within their writing minds. Not many readers can, before the fact of publication, reach out to a writer and have some say in what has been written. The hundreds of books amongst our bookshelves have never had much influence by our voices. We are voiceless viewers of those with voices.

Not only are we voiceless readers, but the reader likewise has no say in the selection of topics. There is yet another asymmetry in topic selection; namely, the writer dictates what topics shall be explored, and in precisely what manner the topic shall be explored. No reader, unless they seek to alter, and thus damage, a book, can shape what topic is to come next when reading; nor can they alter the style in which it is presented. If we find some writer has a borderline unpalatable prose, relying too much on made-up terminology and abstractions, we are left with two simple choices: we either put the book down, or we continue to read the book. But in neither of those choices do we have a say on the writing style, directly so.

So we readers are voiceless in choice of topic, sense of style, and in matters of opinion. But we are not the only ones to endure asymmetries. A writer has their fair share of unevenness to tolerate.

Writers have no choice but to rely on the interpretative skills of a reader, and to rely on feedback, subsistence, and appreciation from readers. 

When a writer puts forth a piece of work, there always concerns about public reception. Writers try to write as clearly as possible, usually; only so no misconceptions or miscommunications are had. Unfortunately, most works are misunderstood in some way or another due to misinterpretation, despite best efforts. That is because writers must experience an asymmetry of interpretation. 

Take as example the works of Hume or Kant. Both are notable philosophers who have many copies of their works circulating amongst academics and the general public alike. Much debate and discussion has been had over their works, in both ordinary public life and less than ordinary academic life. Many have relied on Kant for their justification of morality, whereas others have relied on Hume for their justifications against morality. Some have even said Kant has made many contributions to the field of cognitive science. Yet not once has either Hume or Kant been involved in the conversations or debates regarding their work. They are entirely subject to the interpretations of the masses. 

And the same is true for modern day writers who are alive still. No writer can engage with more than 100,000 people in an in-depth discussion on how to interpret their works, and so authors who sell many books cannot control how their work is interpreted. That can very well lead to situations where someone interprets an author’s work in such a radically different light that the author becomes horrified or entirely dumbfounded; author’s can at times be entirely unaware of some of the possible, weirder interpretations for their work. 

All of that is due to the asymmetry in interpretation. Readers have much more power over the author when it comes to how a work is interpreted. 

Not only do readers have more power of interpretation, but praise and appreciation are likewise in the hands of the readers. Whether a book becomes publicly accepted, whether a book receives great praise, or whether a book gets remembered over the years depends entirely on the readers.

Some books are disliked and so never reach more than 100 readers; other books are loved so much that they reach 10,000 readers. How many readers are reached depends on whether readers like the book or not; no marketer can continuously sell a disliked book, in most cases.

Likewise, in the minds of readers, books pass along memes. They pass and replicate their ideas through readers. And in doing so they continue to exist; books leach off the existence of readers. Without, however, readers willing to read the book, those ideas die and become disposed of. Put otherwise, the lifespan of a book is contingent upon the minds’ of the readers. A book continues to exist as long as readers continue to pick it up and read.

Hence, there is an asymmetry in the level of appreciation and recognition a book receives; because those depend more on the reader than the writer.

Furthermore, writers often rely on readers and publishers for revenue and income. Though such an asymmetry is beyond the book itself, nonetheless, money has influence on writers. Which means, readers and publishers have sway over writers, in an asymmetrical fashion, that forces them to therefore consider the needs, wants, and interests of publishers and readers.

Because writers cannot, in most cases, generate money by simply writing whatever they want, they must consider what gap in the market they are to fill; they are to consider why a specific consumer profile would consume their works. A dent in their creative freedom is made by the asymmetry of money supply; and so, despite money being outside the book itself, the impact of the asymmetry is felt within the book itself.

But it should be said, such an asymmetry disappears with influence. The more influence a writer has, or the more financially independent a writer is, the less power a reader or publisher has in influencing how they present a topic. A professor emeritus is more likely to be able to publish a book so abstract and dense that even colleagues can hardly grasp the content therein; no associate professor or author of little influence can simply publish an abstract work of that sort and expect the book to perform well. 

Thus, there is on average an asymmetry between reader and writer when it comes to money, but that asymmetry can vanish at times as well.

The last asymmetries worth mentioning regard effort. Effort is not even distributed amongst readers and writers. Though more effort is put by one side in one domain than another side in another domain, to be sure. 

Let’s explain further. A reader must put far more effort to comprehend what is being said within and throughout the book. To abstract the ideas which the author has encoded through the medium of language takes a great degree of focus and impulse control. Not only must readers focus, but so too must readers ensure their level of background knowledge is up-to-date with the writer. When someone innocently wanders into neuroscience literature, they are often perplexed and dumbfounded by the terminology found therein; and so much more effort is required of them to then learn both the terminology and the main notions being put forward within the text. Or worse yet, there are writers who invent their own systems and terminology and then rely on those inventions to talk abstractly; in such cases, readers do not even have the luxury of a commonly agreed upon word-set or dictionary, and so must carefully study the definitions spread throughout the text they are reading. 

Much greater is the effort put forward by those who read the notes and rambling of another; for those who write the notes and ramblings already understand the language in which they have been written down. 

But, as said already, there is another domain wherein writers have a much heavier burden. 

A writer requires ideas and creative inspiration. In order to begin writing a book, usually a small or large sense of inspiration is required, which is not easy to come by. Some writers read endlessly to find inspiration, while other writers hike around nature. In comparison to the reader, who sits comfortably in their chair or on their couch, the writer has a much more demanding task at hand. 

In addition to that, writers must spend countless hours refining and organizing their ideas. Seldom do ideas come in neat, ready-to-go packages. 

Writers must organize ideas into coherent essays, writers must organize a table of contents to be coherent, and writers must decide which ideas belong together and which ideas belong in other books or essays. Even when ideas fit together before the fact, a rare occurrence indeed, the task of refining an idea is likewise a challenge.

Not many ideas come in a flawless form. Perhaps we have an idea about the nature of discontent, and so we write down that idea; only to then find the next day many imperfections and blemishes in that idea. Here, a novice writer attacks themselves, claiming themselves to be entirely inadequate, but an experienced writer knows well that refinement of ideas is inevitable. We always find flaws and imperfections in our ideas; even when we are writing out the idea, we develop improvements.

We make improvements in how the idea is to be presented; we refine precisely what the idea makes reference to; we remove unnecessary and cluttered abstractions; and we ensure the idea is rigorous and meaningful. These are all efforts which fall upon the shoulders of the writer, not the reader.

So there are clearly asymmetries in effort between the writer and reader, but those asymmetries in effort appear in different domains of effort. Both readers and writers have their own efforts to make, if books are to be written and read.

Now what are we to then make of all these asymmetries? Are these asymmetries acceptable? Or should we attempt to remove them?

To me, many of these asymmetries seem fine. They seem built into the activities of reading and writing, and in many cases compose the essence of those activities. I am uncertain what reading and writing would even become without these asymmetries.

Though we should clarify, not all of the asymmetries mentioned are permanent. They vary in intensity, degree, and skew all the time. Writers who write clearly can make the asymmetry of understanding skew in their direction, as opposed to the readers direction, at times. Only because some writers do all the hard work of reading their works, and then making simpler and more clear the presentation of their writing.

Still yet the asymmetry for voice can change as well. Sometimes the voice of a reader can become dominant; for example, when a writer produces a biographical work, the subject of the biography has a stronger voice than the writer. And so, in such a case, assuming the subject reads the book, the reader’s voice is on par, if not louder than, the writer’s voice.

Which means, again, not all asymmetries are permanent. Some can change, some cannot change. 

One thing is for sure, however, and that is asymmetries are always going to manifest in reading and writing. These two tasks overlap heavily, and that overlap manifests in books. But the interactions with and contributions to books are still different; for only some overlap exists between reading and writing. Readers, after all, want to read, and writers want to write. That should not be forgotten when considering the asymmetries in books. 

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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