Books have always been an important part of my life as long as I can remember. As a boy, Sunday afternoons between church services were dedicated to my favorite Louis L’Amour books. The challenge each week was to see how many of his novels I could read in the five to six hours between services. In the beginning one was easy but I knew I could do better. By the time I was 16 my record was nearly three but I could never get through those last couple of chapters.
That love of reading has continued through my life, I’m never without a book nearby and now read around between 15-20 books a month plus track and read around 100 blogs daily.
Nearly daily people ask me how I read so much and so quickly. While I’ve studied speed-reading, photoreading and a number of other methodologies for reading quickly but I don’t follow any one specifically. I’ve simply developed a process that works well for me that took the best parts of the systems I’ve studied and combined them with what now amounts to nearly 40 years of practice.
The inevitable question is can I teach you how to read the way I read.
Well, maybe, it depends on you . . .
I’ve demonstrated how I read to a number of people and their reading speed always increases but I don’t think knowing a system without being willing to practice very consistently for at least 12 – 24 months. By practice it is my belief that in the beginning you should endeavor to read 1 – 1.5 books a week and build to one a day if possible.
Depending on why I’m reading, how important specific retention is to me and whether and how accessible the information will be to me in the future determines whether or not I use every technique completely. I’ll also separate how I read books from how I read blogs and other online material and the tools I use.
Books (Non Fiction)
Here are a few premises that make reading faster and more effective for me.
- My goal is to eliminate sub-vocalization. I don’t speak or hear the words in my head as I read, this is a key to reading quickly. As you practice you’ll see that you don’t need to say the words at all to understand what you are reading.
- I read with a highlighter in hand (I mostly read on my ipad using the kindle reader which makes reading faster for me and I always have my finger handy to highlight.
- I have a notebook or paper handy to jot down key ideas that come to me as I read, to write down page numbers that contain key points that I highlight and for the last part of the process if I really want to nail the retention.
- I use my finger to keep my eyes focused on the lines I’m on and to create the pace at which I read. In the beginning I moved it under every word of every sentence, I now move it down the center of the page moving back and forth about one to two inches, that is enough for me to see the who sentence and maintain speed.
- There is no requirement to read every section or every word of a book, in fact, the more filler words and conjunctions you can skip over the faster you read.
- If the book sucks, I don’t read any further. Sometimes I just pick bad books with good cover copy and I feel no obligation to finish.
- When reading fiction if paragraphs don’t grab me I skip them, if I miss something I go back, I rarely do because I’m still scanning the page.
The first step in my process is to read the table of contents and the index if it is available. I’m looking for big ideas, key concepts and things that make me curious so that I can connect those dots when I see them in the book. I’m also scanning for page numbers just to have them in my mind as a secondary reminder. I then move to the introduction and I scan it, my goal is to spend no more than 10-15 seconds on the page. Finally, if I’m reading on the Kindle, I quickly read all the highlights. I spend a little more time with these as many people have found them important so it gives me a little deeper insight and tips me off about what is coming when, it also helps connect the dots from the table of contents and the index. Again, I’m looking for key ideas, the promise of the book and getting a sense of what to expect and look for as I read.
Step two is that I begin to read. If you use the Kindle, there are hundreds of free kindle books you can use to practice right now. I always start at the beginning of the book unless it is apparent that it isn’t relative to me. Now I know you may be thinking I might miss something important and that’s possible but I’ll figure it out quickly enough and go back. If however the first chapter of the book is introducing new ideas and concepts then it is important to start there.
I read in a very specific was, I turn to the page, I soften my focus and try and keep the edges of the page in view while keeping the printing on the middle of the page in focus. This allows my mind to take in all the words on the page. This is an idea that I got from photoreading, I’m pre-reading the page. I allow big ideas or thoughts I picked up from scanning the index well up and draw my eye and attention to them. I then go to the top of the page and using my finger move down the page as quickly as I comfortably can taking in the sentences and ideas. Again, I spend about 10 seconds reading each page. If I read an idea I want to dive deeper into, I highlight the area so I can come back to it.. My focus is to quickly, smoothly move through the material, marking as I go. If I find a core idea that I feel is really important I’ll jot a single word or two in the margin using the highlighter or a pen. I continue until I’ve completed the whole book. A 180 page book will take around 35 minutes to complete including the scan of the table of contents and index. It can take up to 40 minutes if you read the highlights in Kindle.
The third step is what I call the deep dip. This is where I deepen the knowledge. I quickly move through the pages and find the areas I’ve highlighted or areas I’ve written in the margin. I read the end of the paragraph before the one I highlighted more deeply, I’m looking to see if it holds any key to the idea, if so I’ll read more of it. I think read the paragraph that I originally highlighted and continue to read a little more slowly until I get to a point where the idea changes. I then immediately move to the next section that is highlighted. This scan of the book may take 20 minutes. By the time this is complete I have a good understanding of the book.
The fourth step is to review the index one last time and look for any keywords or ideas that you feel you need to look into more deeply and go to those pages and read. If not, you are finished with the reading.
The fifth step is to spend five minutes writing down the most important ideas from the book and for me this is the really powerful part. Write down an immediate application of each of the big ideas you’ve written down. This helps me deeply integrate the knowledge and incorporates the key ideas into my thinking. These five minutes must be spent immediately upon finishing the book. I have a Moleskine notebook that I use for these key ideas from the books I read as I like to keep them all in one place and be able to go to them when I need inspiration. I like the Moleskine because it becomes a hardback book that I can shelve as I fill it up and keep a library of key ideas from books I have enjoyed. I like writing them down on paper but I then take a photo of each page and store it in Evernote so the content of the photo is searchable and so I have access to the data anywhere, anytime.
Reading blogs and other online material
My process is very similar to reading books except that most of the online material is conveniently broken into segments with headlines and sub-headlines. When I click the link, I look at the headline, subheads, and the first, middle two and last paragraphs to determine if I need a deep dip into the material or if I got enough material from the dip. For those longer articles and to increase my reading speed further I use a reading speed improvement program called Outread, for now it is only available on the Iphone and Ipad which are the devices I use to read on primarily.
For articles that I want to do a deeper dive into and from which I will save pieces of information, I save those to Pocket. I only spend the amount of time necessary to decide if they are keepers or not, then I save them. My goal is to group material for faster reading later. I will then read them using Outread and rather than highlighting, I simply copy and paste key ideas and sections into an Evernote note. I follow the same process of jotting down the big take away from the article and the clips and then combining that with an application Using the combination of reading strategies and cutting and pasting into Evernote. I’m able to read all I want.
Because I end up posting a lot of material to social media, I also have a note that I save links and clips to that are specifically for social media. I also include an idea with the link, article or clip with the context of what I want to post on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. This really isn’t part of my reading strategy but it is such a significant part of why I read blogs especially I felt like I should include it.
The final question is always “what about fiction?” I don’t read as much fiction as I once did and when I do I still read it quickly, especially if it is really good. I don’t like to wait, I want to know how it turns out. But because I’m a writer, I read all the words. In addition to the story itself, I’m looking for how words are used, how phrases are turned and how plots are developed. I will read a 300-page novel in 90 minutes to two hours. I don’t write down my takeaways at the end, I simply stop reading, relax and think about the story I just read. For me reading fiction is a not at all guilty pleasure and I love the feeling a great novel or piece of literature leaves me with. I don’t need the notes -I just had the experience.
So there you have it, my process for consistently reading 15-20 books a month and up to 50 when I'm really motivated plus thousands of pages of online material a month. I hope you’ll find it as useful and enjoyable as I have to be able to read quicly. My encouragement to you is to play with these techniques, combine them with things you’ve found that work for you and start practicing. Make the changes or additions you need to make to improve and develop the perfect system for you.
If you’ll take the time and invest the effort I’m confident you’ll reach your goal of reading at a pace that is meaningful to you, just like I did in my early twenties sitting in a foxhole reading Louis L’Amour and in a six hour shift getting four books in, all those Sunday’s finally paid off and they still are a lifetime later.
UPDATE: As I thought about this more, there is one key idea that I didn't include. Learn to be a good reader before you worry about speed reading. Develop a strong grasp of reading, language, and love of reading before you worry about speeding through. The purpose is not just to crank through books in my opinion, it is to be able to consume the material in a way that is meaningful, retentive, and retrivable for later use, particularly in the case of non-fiction. So, focus on being a good reader first, then work on speed.