My 8th grade teacher had a curious process where she made us produce three book reports each quarter — three books that we picked on our own that fit diverse themes she had chosen. When we turned them in, she’d quiz us on the book. How could she quiz us though on these books that we picked out randomly, you might ask?
She read each and every book when we turned in the report over her lunch break. It wasn’t a big class, and we didn’t all turn the reports in on the same day. But she could easily go through a couple books at lunch.
It was amazing and something I wanted to learn myself. I stumbled through some books on speed reading but never really landed on success until I took an Iris speed reading class when they had a Groupon.
I’ll share a few big tips and ideas I learned there, but it won’t substitute for taking a day long class like I did and going through the exercises.
The biggest lightbulb moment for me in speed reading isn’t faster reading but better skimming.
Afterall, most books and material are filled with fluff. Good ideas separated with a ton of sentences you don’t need <- A great case-in-point. You didn’t need that second sentence. The first one was enough. Damn, I did it again.
When I first get a new book I’ll read the periphery of the thing. The back summary, the insides of the covers. Next, I’ll look over the Table of Contents looking for things like “How’s this book broken up? Is it like three parts with three big ideas, or 27 chapters each with a unique point?”
I want to learn as much about the thing I need to devour beforehand so I know what I’m about to do.
Next, I read the first page of the intro, and then I’ll skip right to the end, and finish the last page of the book. Yes, you might ruin any suspense you were hoping for, so if suspense is your goal, don’t do this.
Next, I’ll go through each chapter. I’ll read the first paragraph (two if the first is short and not useful enough).
Then I’ll go through each paragraph of the chapter and read just the first sentence. The first sentence is often the most important point of a paragraph after all:
Often in a book, you’ll have other paragraphs illustrating that topic sentence anyways.
Then, I’ll read the last paragraph of the chapter which often summarizes everything.
And I do all the above at my normal reading pace. I take my time and carefully consume those skimmed sentences and ideas.
Now I have this crazy good outline in my head of what the chapter is about, and what holes I might have in the ideas. Page 10 talked about X which seemed obvious, but later on, page 35 mentioned a story I didn’t quite understand in my skim.
So now, I’ll go through the entire chapter again but this time as fast as I can.
At this point just being a better skim reader has probably earned you 70–80% of the benefit of “speed reading”. You can go through a second read of a chapter you’ve skimmed and probably know exactly what you need to “re-read” to understand better. And you can probably do that at a normal pace and still save a ton of time.
But the other 20–30% is all about getting through words faster.
Reading as Fast as You Can
You instantly recognized a dog. You didn’t have to vocalize the word “dog”. You also don’t have to first look at its nose, then move to its eyes, then body, etc. You seem to be able to take a whole dog in with your eyes, and just know it’s a dog. But a lot of people don’t read like that.
When you were young, you likely read out loud most of the time. Mouthing each and every word. When you got older you probably stopped saying the words out loud, but many people keep vocalizing the word silently in their heads. You have to learn to stop vocalizing words as you read.
Another habit people need to break is having their eyes read each and every letter as they go along. Again, this is something we learn as young readers. We see a word we don’t know, and we look and sound out each letter until it makes sense to us.
You need to learn to just digest words instantaneously. Even better, you want to learn to digest multiple words together at the same time.
Another bad habit most of us have is rereading text purposefully or subconsciously. We skip over something and then reread it again. Tim Ferriss has found we spend about 30% of our reading time in “re-reading”. What a waste.
You need to train your eyes to work like you want them to. You don’t want them going over every single letter. You want them to fixate in fewer places in a sentence.
I remember my 8th grade teacher sliding her whole hand down the middle of the book keeping her eyes stuck there. It’s funny, because using a finger was a technique many kids use to help read but are trained to stop. But you’ll see many speed readers use a finger to read. A finger can help guide your eyes to fewer places on each line and page of a book. It can also force you to keep a pace that’s faster than you might be initially comfortable with.
A lot of this is just practice. Just like running. Get a stopwatch and start timing yourself through some examples. Get an article and figure out the word count. Skim the thing. Now, go back for a reread and get through the thing as fast as possible trying to take in as many words as possible at a time. Keep timing yourself and trying to beat your best. Use your finger/hand to force yourself to go faster.
I won’t go into an in-depth look into training your eyes to ingest more. I’ll leave that up to Tim’s article or classes like Iris.
But one thing I started doing to help train my eyes for faster word digestion: is trying to quickly read a book in a language I didn’t understand. You’ll have much less desire to try and comprehend what you’re reading, because you simply can’t. You don’t have all those same urges to reread things or sound out words.
I hope that helps. The skim reading part is what really cracked open a whole new world of getting through more stuff faster. But I don’t read everything like this. If there’s a great fiction book that I want to take my mind to another place, I read that as comfortably as I can. Speed reading for me is a shortcut to get through stuff. It might even make the book less “fun”. But my goal is often to get through piles of new books and articles out there looking for interesting needles in the haystack.
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