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September 6, 2013

Speed reading rocks, so why don’t we all learn it?

September 6, 2013
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The best day’s training I ever did was a speed reading course, offered by DFID (I had a short stint there about ten years ago). It helps mespeed reading every day – when was the last time you could say that about a training course?

The first part of the course covered what you normally think of as speed reading – reading faster. When you read unaided, your eye jumps backwards and forwards, as well as up and down between the lines. By simply using a guide (a pencil, or one of those plastic coffee stirrers) and moving it under the line as you read, you can double your speed without missing content (we tested ourselves at the beginning and end of the day, and it was true).

But you have to concentrate really hard and take regular breaks, and you have to avoid saying the words aloud in your head (which slows you down). Since then, I have occasionally tried it, but it hasn’t stuck.

The second part of the training seemed less significant at the time, but has had a much bigger impact: how to approach a document. Unless you’re reading for pleasure, you should not just assume that you start at the beginning and read through to the end. The document has to earn your time.

That means

  • First read the exec sum or abstract.
  • If that looks interesting, read the introduction and conclusion. You then make a judgement either to stop, or go deeper.
  • If you decide there’s more to extract from the document, read the first and last paras of each section or chapter.
  • And if they still leave you hankering for more, read whole sections or chapters (but probably not all of them)
  • In the last resort, for something really special, read the whole document.

The time saving (with minimal loss of content) is amazing. And if that sounds brutal, a Vatican official who seemed to have read everything once explained to my friend Fran Equiza that his secret is to assume that any document has only one main idea, and once he has found that, he stops reading.

But if lots of people read like this, there are some important implications for writers as well as readers:

  • Make sure that all the important content is in the exec sum or abstract. For exec sums that includes any killer facts or significant graphics. It’s amazing how often this is missing – especially in abstracts, which often merely say what topic the paper is going to cover, not its main findings.
  • speed-readingMake sure the introductory and concluding paras of a chapter or section act as mini-exec sums. This may clash with another purpose of introductions – to lure the reader in by starting with some startling fact or human colour. I guess it depends on whether your target audience is normal people (reading from the beginning until they get bored) or extractive wonks, reading like me.

Anyone working in development has to absorb a lot of information (how many times have I heard people lament that ‘they haven’t got time to read’?), so why isn’t speed reading part of our basic training?

Any other thoughts on the pluses, minuses and nature of speed reading? Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it and here’s a promising looking online course.

And in case anyone feels affronted, can I just say that if I’ve ever reviewed your work on this blog, I have of course read and cherished every word…….

6 comments

  1. Good post!

    Big fan of speed reading. Tony Buzan’s Speed Reading book offers a great step-by-step guide plus exercises to get your eyes adjusted to taking in greater “visual gulp”. It helped me lift my speed from 250wpm to over 800wpm within weeks. Like any muscle, you need to keep working on it until it becomes a habit.

  2. I’m lucky (I guess?) that I’ve always been a naturally speedy reader; my Dad used to test me, and not only on my speed but how much I’d taken in. Speed reading is taught to people like councillors and MPs as a matter of course, I had plenty of opportunities to go on courses when I was a Cllr.
    The second part of your training is something that was taught on my MSc programme with the OU, particularly in our introduction and thesis modules. It is an incredibly good way to sift through the mountains!

  3. How interesting. Since childhood I have always read novels using a book mark under the sentence, and have always been a very fast reader of novels. I have always wondered why I can’t read academic work so quickly – but never connected it to the book mark! I’m going to pull a book mark out and try the other suggestions for tackling the pile of papers in my “to read” pile!

  4. Having given up — through no fault whatsoever of its own — on a book about aid in Haiti after renewing it twice (!) at the Library, this post is extremely timely, I have to say. Am searching for a coffee stirrer as I write.

  5. Great post – I am an English as a Foreign Language Teacher, and it’s rather difficult to explain to native speakers how they do something they’ve done all their lives.

    All I’d add – there are two ways of speed reading. “Scanning” is when you quickly drag your eyes across the page to get the gist of the text. “Skimming” is when you have a particular piece of information in mind that you are looking for, and that involves more sort of word spotting. Being aware of the ways of reading helps you to be more productive, when you know -why- you are reading.

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