Anne Jones, the six-time world speed reading champion, who reads at an average of 4700 words per minute (that’s about19 times the speed of the average reader who reads 250 – 300 words per minute) has just finished reading Go Set a Watchman in just 25 minutes and 31 seconds. That’s her fastest record as of yet. On a prior occasion, Jones read Dan Brown’s Inferno in 41 minutes, and on another occasion, she read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in just 47 minutes. These astonishing speeds have led many to speculate that Jones was born with a special talent for speed reading, but she has said in an interview that she’s developed her skills through specialized exercises and practice.
Just like Jones, the ability to read more and process ideas in less time is a goal many of us strive after. College students, lawyers, professionals, researchers, and even the occasional reader want to develop that ability. But, in addition to increasing reading speed, readers also want (I hope) to increase their reading comprehension since there is no benefit to merely reading more information faster.
Accordingly, we’re interested in developing our reading fluency, and in this article we’ll explore a few methods to do that.
1. Read like a Detective
Speed reading should be reserved for the books and articles that you want to read for information. That’s where your aim is to find the major themes and ideas of the text as quickly as possible. As such, using this technique for leisure reading will not do you much good. You don’t eat your favorite ice-cream as quickly as possible and neither should you read your favorite novel as quickly as possible, unless like Jones, you’re doing so for a competition.
As far as reading for information is concerned, you’re attitude to the text must be like that of a detective. Your goal is to search for necessary and relevant information like a detective searches a crime scene for evidence. Accordingly, you need to read with these exact questions in mind:
- What’s the problem or issue the book is trying to address?
- What’s the context of the issue or problem?
- What’s the author’s solution?
- Is the solution convincing? (optional)
These questions will be your bread and butter as well as your guide for getting pretty much all the information you need about the book or article you’re reading. You’re not trying to re-invent the wheel and read the article or book word for word. You want to get the biggest bang for every minute invested in reading, and these questions will do that for you.
2. Be Prepared for Unfamiliar Topics
The speed at which you can read certain things depends to a large extent on how familiar you are with the topic you’re reading about. For example, I read philosophy material at a much faster rate than the average person because I dedicated 10 years of my life studying this field. On the other hand, it takes me much longer to read books about astronomy than it takes a person who is well-versed in that area. So your reading speed will vary depending on your experience as well as the nature of the work you’re reading.
However, there are tools to help you overcome those obstacles.
Find reviews. The internet is filled with reviews and you can probably find one for each book you want to read. And if you find good ones, then you’ll have access to a treasure of information about your text including its purpose, main ideas and its strengths and weaknesses, and that’s pretty much all you need. This information will also be very useful to you when you get to the actual text because, through the review you’ve read, you’ve become familiar with the general structure of that work.
- Tip: if the book is available online in Word or PDF format, press Ctrl-F to open the find bar (it will be at the bottom of the page) to search for main ideas. For example, you can type in words like “thesis,” “argument,” “prove,” “in summary,” “conclusion,” “solution” or any other relevant term and press enter. The find bar will then take you to all the pages that have those keywords. This makes it even faster to find exactly what you’re looking for in the book.
Now, if you can’t find reviews, then you should do three things in the following order:
- Scan. This is the first stage of the process and you should go through the page of contents, the main introduction or foreword of the book, and lastly you should take note of the titles of each chapter.
- Skim. This is the second stage, and here you want to skim each chapter with the purpose of finding the ones that have the most substance (the main idea of each book tend to be in one or two chapters at the most, the rest is fluff). Moreover, pay particular attention to the introduction and conclusion of each chapter and try to form a general impression of the voice of the author, writing style, as well as the way the author sets up the issue he is working with.
- Read for Key Ideas. By now, you should have a good sense of the overall aim of the book and you’re also aware of the author’s strategy. Your focus here is to find the key elements that move the author’s claims forward. That’s where you MUST slow down and zoom in on the important parts. Take necessary notes, and be done.
This is, in fact, the very approach that I’ve used in my graduate school years and it allowed me to finish two master’s degree and three years of my PhD including all of my coursework in five years. It usually takes no less than 7 years to do that. Read my story to know more about what else I did during those 5 years.
- Tip: Read as though the author is speaking to you to convince you of the thesis of the book. The more engaged you are with the author as a real person as opposed to a dead poet, the more active your reading will be and the faster you will get through the book.
3. Good and Bad Speed Reading Habits
Most of the articles on the internet tend to highlight, in one way or another, the bad habit of sub-vocalization. This refers to the reader’s speaking or saying the words in her head as she’s reading. Now, I’ve thought about this problem and here’s what I discovered: if you have to monitor yourself to see if you’re “saying” the words in your head, then you’re probably saying the words in your head. However, my advice is, read until you get in a flow state and you’ll be in good shape. Don’t worry about sub-vocalization, chances are you’re not doing it anyway.
A good habit that I encourage you to practice is meta guiding and it’s simply the practice of holding a pen or pencil and using it to guide your eyes over the text in order to move the eye faster. I particularly benefit from using this technique when I am in the final stage of reading (see above) as I can underline main ideas and write quick notes if I need to. However, I don’t use it for scanning or skimming. I don’t find it’s useful to do for those stages.
Finally, make reading a habit. Don’t rely on uninterrupted blocks of time to read. Instead of wasting 20 minutes waiting on a friend, get your book out and read a few sentences. Today you can download books to your phone, tablet, laptop, and even your apple watch (just kidding). Read about my Seed Planting Technique to help you get even more done in less time.