How To Skim a Book with Skill



“He has only half learned the art of reading who has not added to it the more refined art of skipping and skimming.” — Arthur James Balfour

If you want to read faster, you need to know how to skim.

If you don’t know how to skim, you waste a lot of your time and energy, and you end up buried and overwhelmed by information.

Skimming helps you extract the most value in the shortest amount of time.

Skimming is not for every scenario.  For example, it’s great for emails, reading on the Web, researching, studying, etc.  It’s not something you use for pleasure reading, where you want to wallow and absorb yourself in the material.

In college, one of the classes I took was How To Study in College, and the book,  How To Study in College, was filled with fantastic techniques for learning more in less time.

The author, Walter Pauk did a great job of breaking the art of skimming down into actionable techniques.

If you already know how to skim, then this should be mostly a refresher, while calling out some finer points, and giving you names for specific techniques.

The Workhorse of Reading is Skimming

Skimming depends on your purpose, and it can help you do a lot of the heavy lifting.

Pauk writes:

“Both students and business executives report that the workhorse of reading is skimming. 

Covering many speeds and uses, skimming can range from just fast reading to searching, which could hardly be classified as reading. 

Whether to use rapid reading or searching – or anything in between – depends on your purpose.  Tailor skimming to your purpose; otherwise you’ll waste time.”

Technique #1. Searching for a Needle in a Haystack

Where’s the needle?

Find it with skimming.

Pauk writes:

“If you want to find specific information (name, date, word, or phrase) in a textbook or article, searching may be used because it is recognition, not comprehension, that will give you the answer. 

To ensure that your eyes to not lover the word or fact you seek, concentrate on it, keeping it in mind as your eyes run over the pages. 

Concentration will trigger your mind to pick it out of the sea of words

Once you have located the specific word or fact, pause and read at a normal rate the sentence or paragraph surrounding it to make sure, through context, that you have found what you were looking for.

When using the searching technique, if your time is short, resist the temptation to read the whole article. 

What you may really be doing subconsciously, is putting off studying. 

But, if you do have time, follow your curiosity and finish the article. 

It may not help you on the next exam, but the knowledge gained will give you an edge and contribute to your general wisdom.”

Technique #2: Looking for Clues

When you sleuthing around a sea of text you need to look for hints or clues.

Pauk writes:

“When you are seeking specific, information but do not know in what words the information may appear, you may use a slower searching method. 

In this case, you won’t be able to anticipate the exact words, so you must be alert for clues, which can appear in various forms.

In this kind of searching, you must infer the answer.  For example, after reading an article about Paul Bunyan, a legendary giant lumberjack and folk hero, a student was asked a question about Paul Bunyan’s birthplace. 

The answer was Canada, yet nowhere in the article did Canada appear. 

The answer had to be inferred from a sentence that stated that Paul Bunyan was born at the headwaters of the Sta. Lawrence River. 

Because the student discovered on a map that the headwaters are in Canada, she could answer the question.

When you are looking for clues, try to guess the form in which the information might appear

When you believe you have found the information you want, go back and read the paragraph to make sure, from context, that it is exactly what you seek.”

Technique #3: Getting the Gist

How quickly can you get the main idea?  That’s the idea behind getting the gist.

Pauk writes:

“Sometimes skimming may be used to get the gist of a book or article.  You can use this technique to find out whether a book pertains to the topic you are working on. 

To get the gist, read both introduction and summary rapidly, as well as paragraph that have topic sentences indicating that the paragraph contains important data.

This skimming method can help when you have a term paper to write. 

After you have looked through the card catalogue and have made a list of books that seem related to your topic, get the books and look through them to eliminate those that are not pertinent and to keep those that are. 

Obviously, you would waste time and energy if you attempted to real all the books on your list.

To get the main idea of each book, look at the table of contents or select  a chapter with a title related to your topic and skim it for the outstanding ideas.”

Technique #4: Overviewing a Textbook Chapter

By reviewing the main structure of the content within a chapter, you can usually find the most valuable information pretty quickly.

Pauk writes:

“Overviewing may be done to attain various degrees of comprehension.  In most cases, this type of skimming calls for understanding captions, headings, subheadings, and portions of paragraphs well enough to locate key concepts.”

Technique #5: Skimming to Review

Review the whole to remember the parts.

Pauk writes:

“Skimming also can be used to review for an examination or for a recitation.

After skimming chapters that you have previously read, studied, and notes, for effective study you should pause from time to time and try to recite the main concepts in each chapter or summarize the chapter

After finishing a textbook chapter, always review to understand the chapter as a whole, like a finished jigsaw puzzle.”

Pardon the play on words, but hopefully you can use these techniques to skim your way to the top.

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