This is part 2 of the series “How to read more and remember what you read” We left off discussing the three components of reading more: Time, Concentration, and speed. In this post we’ll focus on Speed.
Reading Time: 8 minutes
For as long as I can remember I’ve been obsessed with books. When you realize how much you want to read it’s natural to want to increase your reading speed.
Some people obsess about this part, but speed is only one of three components of reading more. Remember, reading more is broken into Time, Concentration, and Speed. (See “how to read more and remember what you read part 1”)
What affects reading Speed?
Concentration. We already talked about some techniques to improve your concentration so you can read more (See part 1 of the series). We need to mention it again because concentration also affects reading speed. The more you avoid distractions and multitasking the faster you will be able to read.
Writing style. Some books are just poorly written; the author is disorganized, uses words that are too technical, or fails to keep you engaged. That’s going to slow you down.
Type of books. One of the biggest factors affecting reading speed is the kind of books you read. Nietzsche’s Thus spoke Zarathustra reads differently than Harry Potter. There is nothing wrong with the genre of books you choose, the point I want to make is that some books are more complex and are slower to read than others.
Familiarity with the subject. Related to the type of books you read is your familiarity with the subject. If you already read five books on a subject the sixth one will be faster to read. You are already familiar with the principles, terms, and theory of what you are reading and no longer have stop as much or work as hard to understand the information. But if you are reading a subject you know nothing about it will take time to internalize the ideas.
Technique. Reading is a skill, it takes good technique to do it right. If you want to increase your reading speed you will have to improve your technique. Here is where speed reading comes in. The good news is that it doesn’t take much practice to see improvement.
Increasing your reading speed
Read, Read, Read. The first way to increase your speed is to read more. It’s natural to become more efficient at what we do often. Reading more will increase your reading speed, especially when combined with proper technique.
Like most avid readers I turned to speed reading thinking it would be the solution to my ever growing list of books to read. There is much controversy on the subject so before I give you my perspective I will explain what speed reading is, what is not, and the experience I had with it.
What’s speed reading?
Speed reading is a collection of techniques to make reading more efficient. The concept is based on a few sane principles: having precise eye fixations (Fixation: when your eyes stop to get the input), reading more words per fixation, reducing the time of each fixation, and eliminating subvocalization (Subvocalization: hearing the words in your mind as you read)
How fast is speed reading?
Speed reading ranges from a few hundreds words per minute to around 1200. In some cases the speeds reported are much higher. The current world record is 4251 words per minute. (On a Harry Potter book)
There are some other categories of speed reading which practitioners claim can get them speeds of 40.000 words per minute and higher. We won’t even dignify such nonsense by discussing it here. All you need to know about this is to stay away from it.
How do I learn to speed read?
There are great articles and books on how to speed read. Instead of writing a half decent guide I’m choosing to link those sources here so you go straight to quality training.
- “Scientific Speed reading: How to read %300 times faster in 20 minutes” (Article) By Tim Ferris
- “The speed reading book” by Tony Buzan
- For spanish speakers: Curso definitivo de lectura rapida de Ramon Campayo.
There are also apps and software to learn how to speed read but I haven’t used any so I won’t be recommending or mentioning them.
Does it work?
In my experience, yes. The techniques do help you read faster.
Is it worth it?
To a point. I practiced for a few weeks and significantly improved my reading speed. The problem was that with time, practice became more demanding and results slow down -Just like in most skills- So when I felt comfortable with my technique and speed I stopped. I didn’t want to be a “speed reader” or read fast, I just wanted to read faster.
If you just want to improve your technique and read faster then practice speed reading but don’t obsess about it. There’s a difference between wanting to run properly, and wanting to become a professional sprinter. It’s important to know what you want with speed reading so you don’t get lost in it and spend hours learning to read faster when you should be spending them reading more.
Remember: It’s not about reading faster, it’s about reading more, speed is only one component. Don’t learn to optimize something you won’t do. If you don’t read, learning how to read at twice the speed won’t help. You will still NOT read at the same speed.
How much should I practice?
15 to 20 min a day for a few weeks should be enough to see good results. You won’t read 1200 words per minute but you will increase your reading speed. When you feel good about your speed you can practice only every few days to maintain the skill.
Criticism of speed reading
Critics of speed reading say it makes reading tedious and lowers comprehension. They are partly right, but this is temporary. Just like in learning any skill, the initial practice is difficult, hard to enjoy, and many times makes you worse than you were before. It takes time to make a new skill less conscious and get good enough to start enjoying it. You are basically re learning to read. Can you remember learning to ride a bicycle? You kept losing balance, falling, and not going anywhere. You couldn’t enjoy riding the bike or go anywhere because you were still learning.
What should you look out for?
People who have tried speed reading and then criticized it are likely to have made one of the three following mistakes. Avoid them and you’ll make speed reading work for you.
1. They didn’t stick with it long enough. The techniques have to become second nature before you can focus completely on the book again and not think of the way you are moving your eyes or how fast you are going. It takes practice. If the techniques are not unconscious your focus will be divided and you won’t enjoy or understand as much what you are reading. You would be essentially trying to multitask.
2. They practiced on books they were interested in. You should practice speed reading on books you don’t care about until you get used to the techniques. Why? Because the goal at this point is to develop your reading speed, not to read the book. Imagine someone trying to learn speed typing while writing a novel. They would probably complain that the novel didn’t turn out too good and that they didn’t enjoy writing it. Shocking.
Once you internalize the techniques you won’t be thinking about them anymore. You will be able to apply them on all books without affecting your comprehension or enjoyment of reading.
Remember: Don’t obsess about speed reading techniques when you are reading what you want to read. Leave the speed reading practice for practice time with practice books until the skill becomes unconscious.
3. They didn’t Practice often. No skill can be developed without practice. Ideally you should practice every day or every other day for about 15-20 min. Minimum practice should be three times per week, if you space it out more you’ll lose some gains in between sessions and practice will be less effective.
Sometimes Skimming is considered speed reading. It is Not. Skimming happens when you are not reading the entire text but only selected sections. You jump from paragraph to paragraph, page to page, or chapter to chapter only reading a few lines to get a general idea of the material. When you skim you are not reading faster, you are reading less. There are only four instances where I would recommend skimming a book. Understand: Skimming is a tool for reading not a way of reading.
1. The book sucks. I give books a good chance of gaining my interest, but if they don’t I put them away or skim the rest. I skim just in case there is something worth looking into -there usually isn’t-. You don’t have to read every word of a terrible book just because you started it. If you were waiting for someone to tell you it’s ok to do it here it is: you are allowed to skim or close an awful book even if you are 10 pages away from finishing it. You only feel guilty until you read the first few pages of the next book, I promise.
2. The ideas in the book are diluted. This happens often, specially on business books. The author had one good idea that could be discussed in 10 pages but wanted to make a book out of it. These books are full or redundant talk, excessive stories, and endless examples. Unless I’m looking to be entertained or the stories and examples are exceptionally good, I’ll skim the better part of the book.
3. Priming your mind for the material. This is the most valuable benefit of skimming. The idea is to skim the chapter you are about to read (or the entire book) before you read. This will spark your curiosity and attention as well as give you a general structure of what’s ahead. We learn better when we have an idea of what we are about to learn and when we have a strong interest in the subject.
I chose to include skimming as a tool for reading faster for this benefit. Priming your mind for the material you are about to read will help you understand it faster. Ideally, you want to get an overview of the entire material before reading it. Look at the book contents, skim the chapters and then go back to read the book.
Obvious Note: Do not do this with fiction books, you’ll ruin them.
4. You are familiar with the subject. When you know about the subject you are reading it’s likely that you will come across repeated ideas. You can skim these sections and move on to what you think is valuable and new.
A final note on speed reading and reading speed.
Your reading speed should be flexible. It’s good to have a rhythm, but you should feel free to slow down, speed up, or stop if you want to. Being too rigid on the technique will make reading miserable. Remember: the goal is to read more, reading faster is only part of it. If trying to speed read is making reading annoying I rather you don’t do it. It would be counterproductive. You might learn to read faster but you will read less.
Here we conclude the “How to read more” part of the series. In the following posts we’ll cover “How to remember what you read” and other reading topics. Stay tuned.
Put your new reading skills to use, see here 5 Great books to improve your skills and achieve mastery
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