By January 19, 2008 Read More →

The Truth About Speed Reading

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How important is speed reading in today’s information overloaded world? What do the experts do to read faster and retain more? In Little Guide To Your Well-Read Life: How To Get More Books In Your Life And More Life From Your Books, Steve Leveen writes about the truth about speed reading.

Key Take Aways
I read a lot of information every day, on the job and on my own time, whether it’s books, blogs, email, sites or feeds. If there’s a better way I’m always looking for it. Here’s my key take aways:

  • Don’t let your eyes limit you. I didn’t realize how limiting your eyes could be if you don’t train them. A while back, I bought a product called EyeQ: Read and Process Faster in Just 7 Minutes (Package Edition, and I took it for a test drive. It’s purpose is to improve your reading speed by improving your eye speed. I was already a fast reader, but by using EyeQ, I became very aware of where and how my eyes slowed me down. I was surprised by how quickly the training exercises improved my reading speed. I love the fact the program shows you measurable improvement in your reading speed. It feels more like a video-game than training.
  • Focus on comprehension over speed. Assuming your eye speed isn’t limiting you, the next gate is your mind. What’s the point of racing through a bunch of material if you don’t understand it?
  • Use focus and priority over speed. Carve out what’s important. There will always be more information than you can possibly read. If this approach is good enough for the experts, then maybe this is actually the proven practice for more effective reading.
  • Be flexible in your pace. At work, I have to parse a lot of email to get down to the actual points that matter. I do that in books, blogs and sites too. I selectively slow down or speed up, based on purpose and scale. If I have a lot of email, but I’m time-boxing my results, I set a faster pace. If I’m researching a topic and I have to hack my way through the information jungle, I set a faster pace. If I’m reading for leisure, I soak it up all in good time, at whatever pace feels good.
  • Slow down for the good stuff. Slow down for the "ah-has" and fully absorb the impact. Savor the good stuff.

Speed Reading Then and Now
Speed reading seems like it was more of a fad than an approach, if we take a look back in time. 

Leveen writes:

"In the Space Age ’60’s, speed reading was seen as a scientific way to train people to cope with the ever-increasing amount of information. Yet today, in our Information Age, you don’t hear much about speed reading. You can still find Evelyn Wood training sessions, but they have withered from six-week courses to one-day seminars. What happened?"

Speed Just Isn’t That Important
Just reading faster isn’t going to cure information overload.

Leveen writes:

"It turns out that speed just isn’t that important. It is no magic cure for information overload. You can increase your speed, even dramatically, but pure speed is only part — and not the biggest part — of reading well."

Don’t Let Your Eyes Limit You
Your comprehension or thinking speed is the ultimate limit, but don’t let your eyes be the bottleneck.  You can train your eyes to speed up.  Once your eyes are no longer the bottleneck, then it’s down to your thinking speed.

Leveen writes:

"By the time Mortimer Adler revised How to Read a Book in 1972, he had to respond to what he termed the ‘fad’ of speed-reading courses. He agreed that they are useful in letting your reading speed be limited by your mind and not your eyes. By simply using your fingers together as a pointer and disciplining yourself to read in this fashion, he wrote you can read twice or three times as fast. Speed reading, says Adler, can improve elementary comprehension — that is, what a book says. But speed reading can’t help you understand what a book means. That says Adler, is controlled by your thinking speed, not your reading speed. Go ahead and take a course, he allowed; it won’t hurt you. But it won’t help you much either."

What The Experts Say
It’s hard to find professionals that read for a living that say that speed reading made a difference for them.

Leveen writes:

"Speed reading is no more likely to make you a good reader than the ability to run quickly will make you a good tennis player. None of the professional readers I’ve interviewed – editors, writers, publishers, booksellers, book reviewers — believed that a speed-reading course made any difference for them. In fact, a surprising number said they consider themselves slow readers (although this is obviously a self-assessment). Only two people I’ve interviewed, both attorneys, reported that they profited by a speed-reading course. They use their skills today mainly for reviewing lengthy legal documents."

The Far Away Look
Rather than focus on speed, focus on the impact and savor the “ah-has”.

Leveen writes:

"When you think about it, aren’t some of the most important moments in reading, whether for pleasure or for learning, when you stop and gaze off with that faraway look? At these moments, your reading speed slows to zero, but your understanding soars. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, ‘The best of a book is not the thought which it contains, but the thought which it suggests just as the charm of music dwells not in the tones but in the echoes of our hearts.’"

Photo by Jayel Aheram.

8 Comments on "The Truth About Speed Reading"

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  1. Jeremy Day says:

    Hi J.D.,

    Good article. I have to admit that I read it in about thirty seconds. I speed read because I can and because I am looking for the real take away points.
    You are right, speed reading is not useful unless you know how to read critically as well. And if you know what you are looking for. Most people just read for entertainment value anyway, so speed reading is of no use to them.
    At least the lawyer example was good. Many business people speed read as well. Especially executives. I can imagine why people such as editors and authors don’t speed read. They need to be meticulous about their work. In that case, it is ok to read slow.

    Cheers,
    Jeremy

  2. Vanessa says:

    I suck at speed reading! Absolutely suck. In the end, I end up having to re-read everything so I just don’t bother anymore.

  3. JD says:

    @ Vanessa

    At the end of the day, what matters is effectiveness. If reading fast, gets in the way, then yeah, find the pattern that works for you.

    For me, I have to process so much information every day that I had to find faster ways. What’s worked is asking questions first then hunting quickly for answers.

    What doesn’t work for me is passive reading. Whether I read slow or fast, I end up daydreaming and have to go back and re-read lots of time. To focus, I always have to ask at least one questions … even as simple as, “what’s going on?” ;)

  4. Richard Phillips says:

    I also don’t see the point in speed reading novels, which 99% of people read for entertainment, not information. There’s even less point in speed reading poetry or demanding philosophical texts. Self improvement gurus (with an obvious vested interest) like Tony Buzan extol the benefits of being able to read at 1000+ words per minute but I think this is for the superficial or those who want to feel good about themselves by winning competitions etc. For example, one doesn’t read War and Peace for its information content but for other things like characterisation, the story, the ideas etc. Speed reading a great and complex novel is like gobbling down a 6 course gourmet meal in two minutes, a waste of time. Woody Allen once said he tried his hand at speed reading War and Peace and all he could remember about it at the end of it was that it was about this bunch of Russian people in the early 19th century.

  5. J.D. Meier says:

    @ Richard

    I agree. It always starts with, what do you want to accomplish?