Speed Reading
June 17, 2004 12:46 AM   Subscribe

I love to read and am always in the middle of a book. Which is the problem. For as much as I read, I'm quite a slow reader. What is an effective technique for increasing your reading speed?

Most of the books I read are nonfiction (history books), which means I primarily want to retain information, which is part of the reason why I read slow. Reading novels isn't as bad. For example, I'm currently reading The Guns of August, paperback, with fairly small type (about 44 lines per page) and it takes me about 3 minutes to read 1 page. This seems really slow to me.
posted by MrAnonymous to Education (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I know they all sound like puff and spin, but the stuff they show you in those "How to read faster" books isn't all junk. You might want to look at your local bookstore for a reputable looking book of this sort. The problem is, however, you may begin to find reading less fun when you can just breeze through it. Alternatively, you could try getting books with better print to make reading more comfortable (and, naturally, faster).
posted by wackybrit at 1:10 AM on June 17, 2004

There shouuld be some good info here:
does anyone here have any experience with speed reading?
posted by scarabic at 1:14 AM on June 17, 2004

Response by poster: Yeah, I wasn't sure if those books/techniques were really effective or not. Most of the nonfictions books I buy are hardcover, but those can be slow as well.
posted by MrAnonymous at 1:14 AM on June 17, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks, scarabic, I didn't see that. But speed-reading seems to be discredited in that you don't retain as much. Is there a happy medium?
posted by MrAnonymous at 1:17 AM on June 17, 2004

Despite the phrasing of the question, not all the suggestions in that thread are hocus-pocus 1970s-era "speed reading." Read it through. As I recall, there are multiple techniques mentioned, including some suggestions from me that I didn't learn via comic-book mail order, but simply by trying different things over the years. I'm often frustrated with my reading speed as well.

On second glance, there's even a link to another, even earlier AskMe thread. Go nuts.
posted by scarabic at 2:47 AM on June 17, 2004

Stop reading 'out loud' in yourself. Most people I know read books in silence as fast as they would read it to an audience, they sort of mumble it to themselves without actually making a sound. Your eyes and brain are capable of reading faster than that. It takes some getting used to, but that way you should easily do fifty pages an hour without losing any of the content.

At first, you'll have a feeling that you're missing something, but that's probably because you are concentrating too hard on 'getting' everything. You don't have to reproduce a book to yourself to understand it. Like you don't have to repeat anything somebody else tells you to grasp the meaning (well, I hope you don't!).

(Also, it's okay to skip parts of paragraphs that you don't find interesting. No, really.)
posted by NekulturnY at 2:49 AM on June 17, 2004

It should however be noted that whatever your reading speed, provided you finish all books you read, you'll always spend the same percentage of your time "in the middle of a book".

(Incidentally, I consider myself a normal-speed reader and am currently in the middle of 8 books. Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
posted by fvw at 3:12 AM on June 17, 2004

As an alternative, it might be worthwhile to learn to appreciate the art of slow reading.
posted by Acetylene at 6:20 AM on June 17, 2004

I'm constantly frustrated by my fast reading speed, which for fluffy books (Terry Pratchett, Harry Potter, Michael Crichton) means that I'll have finished a book the same day I either buy it or have taken it out of the library. I'm sure that I miss important things, or don't remember the story as well as other people would. Dialogue imparts little except information to me. Hold onto your slow reading speed. It's a good thing to have.
posted by seanyboy at 6:42 AM on June 17, 2004

When reading for pleasure, the amount of time spent absorbing a page is irrelevant, no? Though it may take me longer to get through a novel than someone else, the time still "flies" as it were.

But it's frustrating when I feel bogged down while reading something that I "need" to get through. I can move along fairly fast if I skim, but that only results in my getting the basic gist of a book, not much in the way of detail.

For me, it's always one or the other - speed vs. detail. It's like the Heisenberg principle applied to literature.
posted by aladfar at 8:07 AM on June 17, 2004

There's a big difference between "speed reading" (which implies sacrificing comprehension and retention for the sake of speed), and improving the mechanics of how you read.

Ever since I was little, I'd always been a voracious, fast reader, but when I was in high-school, I had a teacher recommend me for a reading course. It didn't make any sense to me until I went through the two-day training session, where the primary focus was on improving absorption and retention. The premise was that if you improve your mechanics for the sake of improving those, then your reading speed will almost certainly improve as well, but more like icing on the cake.

After two days, not only did my tested reading speed almost double, but my comprehension and retention scores also came up dramatically. That improved ability helped through high school, college, and ever since.

It's definitely not "skimming" in any way, since average comprehension scores range around 70-75%, and mine rose from 80% to 90%. It's more things like: training your eyes not to constantly skip back up and re-read text you've already gone over; improving how wide a swath of text your eyes can take in at a glance (without having to jump from side to side); gauging your reading speed to the material at hand, etc.

Now, when I read a normal-sized paperback, my eyes tend to just move in a straight line down the center of each page. I'm also much more conscious when I'm not reading that way, and it's become second-nature to try and smooth out my eye movements as I read. It's like a good golf swing...it's something you ideally start to do intuitively, but you try to be aware of when you're not doing a good job, and you develop the ability to settle yourself into a good groove and really crank. It's almost like the whole "flow state" idea, which makes sense, since it basically a physio-mechanical skill as much as anything else.

(As an aside, those issues are taken into account in the design of many publications, and the reason why some newspapers like the NY Times or Washington Post have much wider text columns than a tabloid like the NY Daily News or the NY Post. They do studies--or just make assumptions--to gauge how wide a chunk of text their average reader can digest without scanning.)
posted by LairBob at 8:09 AM on June 17, 2004

Response by poster: training your eyes not to constantly skip back up and re-read text you've already gone over

I do that all the time, which doesn't help at all.

Stop reading 'out loud' in yourself.

And that.

Some great tips. Thanks people.
posted by MrAnonymous at 8:26 AM on June 17, 2004

The "skipping back" thing is a big part of reading inefficiently. In the course I took, they had a kind of spring-loaded gizmo with an opaque plastic slider that you would put over the book, and you could set a speed for the bar to move down the page and force your eye to keep moving forward.

There's a lot of different approaches you can use on your own, though--one of the most effective ones is just to use a popsicle stick or an index card and move it down the page behind you as you read. Even simpler, you can just move the point of your finger down the page as a point to focus on.

It is very much like learning an athletic skill, though. If you try and consciously change how you read, you can almost certainly count on a frustrating period where being too self-aware of the process actually makes you read worse. If you can struggle through that, though, you really can reach a kind of mental and physical "flow state", that really helps in two ways. The first is that just mechanically, you're processing the page much more efficiently. Equally importantly, though, when your mind is calm and focused, you're also able to ingest and retain information much more effectively. That's where the "win-win" aspect really can come into play--despite what other people have found, I think you can also find a lot of people like me who have managed to raise their comprehension/retention and speed, without having to compromise either.
posted by LairBob at 8:39 AM on June 17, 2004

I'm gonna second one of LairBob's suggestions. I think I took the same course in high school. While the "don't skip back" theory was a big part, imo, the most important factor is expanding the amount you read at one time. Instead of reading phonetically, learn to read the shapes of whole words. Then, work out from the center. Your eyes can focus on a whole line at once. Really. It takes a lot of practice, but it is feasible. A day or two's practice and you should be able to grab at least 3 or 4 words at a time. Obviously, serifs, ligatures, proper capitalization, and proportional-width fonts make this a lot easier. You probably already do it with common words like articles and conjunctions.

I also 'cheat' a lot with the methods Seany and Neku mentioned--you'd be amazed how much time you save when you skip adverbs and adjectives and purely descriptive sentences. It's sort of the client-end version of Strunk and White's "omit needless words."
posted by jbrjake at 1:19 PM on June 17, 2004

[...] speed-reading seems to be discredited in that you don't retain as much.

Of course. You don't read fiction to memorise it (non-fiction is a different matter entirely) or even be able to recall the story several days later. How many episodes of [insert TV show you've watched regularly] can you remember in detail? One generally reads fiction to be enthralled and entertained while reading it, not to be able to remember all of the dry facts later on.
posted by wackybrit at 5:04 PM on June 17, 2004

Depending on the author, you may not read everything. I find authors make a point, then spend a paragraph or pages explaining it.. just skip over that explanation if you allready agree or understand. Your not obligated to read every word. It's like reading MeFi comments look for the important key stuff.

If only you could do this when listening to someone talk.. fast forward past the boring stuff (hope this isnt boring).
posted by stbalbach at 5:14 PM on June 17, 2004

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