How to read well and fast, and hopefully smart

Or, if you don’t like the title above, try this one: How to read a 500 page book in 30 minutes! And retain 90 percent of what you read!

That’s the come-on which led some of us to pay for the Evelyn Wood speed-reading course some years back.  It was not money well spent in my judgement, although I did discover how a few people in this world manage to pull that off.  (If your experience with that course was better than mine, congratulations.)

A friend who is an editor for a Christian news service suggested that, since I’m a constant reader, I should write a blog on the subject of reading and how to do it faster and better.  As a trained editor, she tends to read critically and thus slower than she’d like.

That hit me like the time another editor asked me for an article on gluttony.  I had consumed three large meals that day.  But I thought, “Who better than me, who knows the subject so well?”  I wrote the article and it’s still circulating the globe in cyberspace.

So, I opened the laptop with that intention.  But first, I decided to put the question to my friends on Facebook.  How to read faster and more effectively.  The answers were many, some helpful and several silly.  For instance, the latter…

–Bob recommended the Jeff Foxworthy method of “reading more gooder fastly.”

–Ken suggested, “Rd onl fw ltrs, dnt dwl on evy wd.  Dnt gv u!”   Someone needs to buy Ken a vowel.

–Luther learned to cut his reading time in one-half, he says, by turning two pages at a time.

–Danny said, “Read just the opening topical sentence of each paragraph.”

–Ted: “Read the first two sentences and last sentence of each paragraph, and move on.”  (He may have been serious, I don’t know.)

Okay.  Back to the real world.  Here are my thoughts on the subject, followed by a few insights from my son Marty which I found helpful….

One.  Just get started.  Read something every day. I suspect that most people who read poorly or slowly simply aren’t reading, period.  As with everything else in the world, what we do rarely we necessarily do poorly.

So, find a comfortable chair where the lighting is good.  Get a wire basket or something convenient in which to leave several books nearby.  If the chair is next to a table, consider leaving your Bible out on top.  That will encourage you to begin your reading session with God’s Word, before moving on to other things.

Go to the public library.  Start by browsing the display your library will have of popular books frequently checked out.  Walk out with a half-dozen books, at least two of them novels, plus a history book, a science book, and maybe one by some politician.  Do not plan to make yourself read them all.  Plan to read some of all of them, all of a few of them, and just enough of the others to decide you don’t care to read any more.

Two.  At first, don’t fret if your comprehension isn’t all you’d like to be.  Just stay with the program.  It’ll come.  If there are any magic pills in reading comprehension, I’ve not found them.  By persevering you will automatically find yourself doing some of the things we’re going to suggest below.

Three.  The goal is comprehension, not to announce the number of books you’ve completed.  A couple of years back, my son Neil announced he had read 43 books at the end of the year.  So, the next year, I kept a record of the number I had read, and announced it somewhere, probably on Facebook.  But that felt rather egotistical and I haven’t done it since.

If you have to go back and reread something two or three times before you grasp it, don’t rebuke yourself.  Just do it.  The comprehension will come more quickly as you stay with the program.

My friend the editor has trouble reading fast because her eye has been trained to look for errors.  I’m recalling a part-time job I had once typing bills of lading for a trucking company.  They were not at all interested in accuracy.  Speed was everything.  Errors didn’t matter; just spit it out.  However, I’d been a secretary for years, where 100 percent accuracy was the standard.  I hated that job, and soon gave up on it and found other work.

Four.  When reading novels, you will eventually learn what to skip. Some novelists delight in giving complete and detailed (read: meaningless) conversations between characters.  Most of this can be skimmed and some of it skipped altogether without losing anything of value.  Some authors want us to know that the wind whipping through the trees rustled the elms, rattled the maples, and whirred the pines, while the squirrels darted from one to another.  Once you see the paragraph is simply describing the atmosphere or the texture of the curtains or the aroma of the coffee, scan it and move on.  I’ve noticed women authors love to describe the clothes characters are wearing and what they are eating.  Skip both.  (My wife Bertha has something to say on this.  “I don’t like to skim over those things.  I want to savor the description or the aroma.”  As one who teaches English literature, she would!)

I said to a friend who had sent me his novel to review, “On page 45, you go to great lengths to describe the layout of the room, even to the design of the doors.  I kept waiting for the rest of the story to show how and why that was significant.  It wasn’t.  So, it should have been edited out.”  A book is not a high school term paper where padding is an attribute.

If the writer or the editor does not edit out meaningless details, most readers will do it for them.  This should be a cardinal rule for writers: Don’t waste my time.

Five.   When opening a book, read the cover synopsis.  Check out the contents or chapter titles. See what this author is trying to do. Read the introduction.  At this point, you should know something of where you are going.  That will enable you to read more briskly from the first, without trying to establish what’s going on.

Six.  Ditch the perfectionism.  Sometimes you’ll read more quickly than at other times.  Some writings are so dense, only the most gifted can breeze through them.  Decide if the book is worth the trouble.  If it is, stay with the program.

At the moment, I’m laboring through the Personal Memoirs of President U.S. Grant.  Originally, they were published in two volumes.  Modern printings of that fascinating book combine the two. But the result is smaller print and jam-packed pages.

In Grant’s book, often one paragraph will fill an entire page. That is difficult on the eye, but if the book is worth the trouble–and this one is–the reader adjusts and goes forward. Soon, you learn what to scan.  (Detailed troop movements, discussions over the number of troops involved in a battle, or disputes over numbers of fatalities, I skip.)  I love Grant’s anecdotes and personal glimpses into historical figures and familiar places.  As I write, just this week we drove through the Port Gibson, Mississippi area where Grant’s forces spent time preparing for the onslaught against Vicksburg.  All around Port Gibson historical markers dot the landscape saying Grant used the plantation home here as his headquarters, Sherman’s forces crossed the river nearby, or a company bivouacked under this tree.  Crossing the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, the high bluffs still stand as a memorial to the ordeal the Federals had in taking this town.  Being familiar with these places makes the reading of a difficult book much easier.

Seven. Don’t hesitate to make a decision about a book.  Either that reading further would be a waste of time, or that you’ve read all you need from this book, or that you will lay it aside and come back at a future time.  As a rule, I’ll give an author 100 pages.  If he/she hasn’t captured my interest by then and I decide that I care nothing about how this turns out, the book is history.  I’ll return it to the library, donate it to the library or Goodwill, or swap it at the local used bookstore.  If the book turns out to be trash or insulting and I bought it, I’ve been known to throw it in the garbage.

At this point, my son Marty–a constant reader–will finish the article with his own thoughts.  (He left them as comments on Facebook, but I find them most helpful.)

After years of reading novels only, one day Marty went into the library and walked out with a half dozen non-fiction books. That was a game-changer, he says.  Here is the result:

“You learn not to be afraid to glance ahead, or just skim, or just find the chapter you want–or to quickly realize this is NOT a book you want to waste any more time on!  Fiction seems different somehow, but it’s really not.  I found it easier to learn to read multiple books at once, and quickly by forcing myself to read non-fiction.”

He continues, “I guess we all pick up speed-reading tips here and there.  Learning to see the shapes of words instead of letters–and to use peripheral vision to fill in gaps between main words. That really sped me up once.  Something like ‘Let your eyes hit main words on the left side of the line, then the right side, then the middle,’ and before long you only need to look at one or two words to ‘read’ the entire line. Then glancing at four words you can take in an entire paragraph.  Not always helpful when reading a fiction thriller, but very useful for weeding out the unimportant filler in so many books.  And you have to work at it, when the goal is to read fast today.  I get slower when I forget to try.”

“The point about shapes of words really struck home with me when I read a study pointing out how much more quickly drivers can recognize a street sign when it is printed in Lettercase, rather than UPPERCASE, as is too often the case.”  (Marty used a word I’m not familiar with, lettercase.  I looked it up.  It means a combination of lower and upper case.  So, instead of saying bridge out ahead, the effective sign says Bridge Out Ahead.)

I hope my friend finds this helpful.  I suspect she will decide she’s doing as well as the rest of us are!







3 thoughts on “How to read well and fast, and hopefully smart

  1. Great advice, however sometimes we miss some very good stuff by skimming. Several writers will stick explanations where you least expect to find them. Example WEB Griffin, military historical fiction specialist. The names of several of his characters are priceless. Example Lt. Colonel Jack NMI Stecker. It seems that the good Colonel’s father and his wife named him Jack. When he entered the military he had to have a middle name; since he didn’t have one, the Army gave him one NMI ( no middle initial). Therefore his military record was identified as
    Jack NMI Stecker. So his friends called him Jack NMI. Every book in which the reputed Light Colonel appear and even in social circles ….. he was Jack NMI. In several scenes in WEB’s books one would miss the humor etc of not being privy to Jack NMI. !

  2. Thanks for the overview perspective. I appreciated that you did not try and come up with one speciic way that “I needed to read quickly”, but, instead kept it with a few suggestions or ideas.

    I feel that I too read fairly quickly and use a variety of some self-taught and some studied methods, but it is a variety of tools all depending on what kind of reading I am doing. I must admit that I do not agree with the “do not announce the number of books you are going to read” idea as being egotistical as I see it only as a goal, and I make many of my personal goals public for accountability purposes. I enjoy taking part in Good Reads yearly book challenge. My goal this year is again 150.

    Bottom line, thanks for a good post. I also like your last name.

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