The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Speed Reading (2008)

Part II. Get In, Get Out, and Don’t Go Back

Chapter 9. Don’t Go Back

In This Chapter

• What “don’t go back” means

• A look at memory

• What makes us forget

• Documenting your keepers

You got in Chapter 7 and got out in Chapter 8. Now, how do you not go back? We can look at this concept in two ways: (1) you seek to understand enough of what you’re reading and have embedded it into your memory banks so you feel satisfied and have no need to go back to it, or (2) if you need to go back—for a test or project, for example—you’ve already identified the important parts and only have to do a quick review.

Speed reading is really about two things: increasing your words per minute and reducing your time spent on reading materials. By using a combination of understanding how your memory works and employing targeted note-taking strategies, you’ll find your need to go back limited, which saves you time. And when you do go back, it will be for a specific reason.

How Your Memory Works

Some people have impeccable memories and can remember the tiniest details from years ago. Other people can hardly remember what they had for breakfast when they get to lunchtime. We’re all human, and humans have memoryissues. And here’s the kicker: the human brain is programmed to forget! In order for it to remember, you have to actively pursue the information to harness it for future use.


Memory is the mind’s ability to retain learned information and knowledge of past events and experiences, coupled with the ability to retrieve that information and knowledge. It could be a short-term memory, which ranges from 5 to 8 seconds to 1 day or 2, to long-term memory, which is what comprises our background knowledge.

In a nutshell, to create a memory, your brain goes through three processes:

• Acquisition

• Retention

• Retrieval

All three phases happen all the time without your conscious knowledge. But becoming conscious of the process and making it intentional can greatly enhance your memory.

Grab Hold of Information

Acquisition is the first memory stage, when your brain is exposed to and absorbs information. To absorb information, you need to …


Acquisition can be defined as the ability to come into possession of a skill or knowledge.

Pay attention! Nothing goes into your brain unless you pay attention. (When you use speed reading strategies, you’re forced to pay attention.)

Think about the future, or more specifically, when you’ll need the information again. If you have this in mind and have a system for remembering or finding it again, you’re more apt to absorb it now.

Attach personal meaning to the information. Although everything you read is registered in your brain, only those things you attach personal meaning to will be easily remembered.

Engage in collaborative learning. You’ll absorb and remember information better when you talk about it with others.

Make the information your own. If you want to remember a definition, it’s easier to remember if you put it into your own words.

Preserve What You Find

Retention is the second memory phase, during which you keep the absorbed information in your head. If you haven’t absorbed the information in the first place, you can’t expect to retain it! In order to achieve retention, you need to …

Create order. When you were young and first learned the alphabet, you probably repeated the letters in order so you could remember all 26 letters. Order is easily found in cheat reading; you find the writer’s outline, an organizational scheme your brain can easily follow.


Retention is your ability to recall or recognize what has been learned or experienced.

Associate the information with something you already know. Remember the discussion of the importance of background knowledge earlier in the book? When you already know something about something, it makes it easier to add something new!

Use repetition over time. This is probably the most useful way to retain information. Students who cram for exams by repeatedly memorizing information over a short time frame, usually a day or night, are not doing this correctly. Although they might remember enough information for the exam the next day, they don’t retain the material much longer than that, which means they have to restudy for the final exam. If instead, students reviewed the information a little each night for a week or more before the exam, they would have retained the information longer and stronger for future use.

Think about repetition this way: say you meet your friend Joshua for lunch once every 6 months or so. You talk about each others’ families, work, and hobbies. You enjoy the conversation and are happy to know him. You return home that evening and summarize for your spouse what you and Joshua talked about, providing just the highlights and omitting the nitty-gritty details that aren’t important to the summary or that you don’t remember. Three months later you run into a mutual friend and you tell them you had lunch with Joshua. You search your brain for any information you can provide about what you talked about over lunch, and most likely, what you remembered is drastically reduced compared to the night you talked with your spouse. You probably remembered those things that were most important to you—his child got into his or her college of choice (but you don’t remember which college it was), Joshua ran his first marathon (but you don’t recall his finish time), and he changed jobs (but to where you don’t remember!). You remember the essence of the lunch conversation but not all the details. You may even remember where you met but not what you ate.

Now let’s say after your lunch with Joshua, you meet up with him again on the baseball field for your sons’ baseball practice. This provides you with more frequent exposure to Joshua and the opportunity to follow up on your lunch conversation. You revisit the information and learn that Joshua’s daughter got into the University of Vermont; he is now training for another marathon and wants to beat his first time of 3 hours, 10 minutes; and he now works as a financial analyst at an insurance company. Because you had experienced repetition with Joshua over time, your memory is now solidified.

If you want to remember something you read, find a way to review the material again shortly after reading it, talk to someone about it, or be exposed to related information soon after. However you can arrange for doing the repetition will be time well spent for retaining what you read.

Teach others. To remember anything, you must first understand it. And to teach anything, you need to first understand it. So finding ways to teach others what you’re reading about helps you retain the information.

Speed Tip

Remember tellbacks from Chapter 8? Performing brief auditory summaries of what you read solidifies your understanding and enhances your retention.

Combine similar information into groups. Thought chunking (see Chapter 4) is a perfect example of this. Instead of reading one word at a time, you can read groups of words that form a thought in the same amount of time, creating more meaning for your brain. Your brain likes to process meaningful groups of thoughts and information instead of one word at a time.

Speed Secret

When creating folders in your paper or on-screen filing system, think about what category the information goes in and combine categories so you have larger categories. The less segmentation your brain has to endure, the better it remembers.

Find the emotion. It’s a fact: we have stronger memories for things we experience that elicit a strong emotion, either positive or negative. People who have won a competition, experienced their own wedding day, or had a spectacular meal in a five-star restaurant can tell you in excruciating detail about that event. The same is true for those who went through a nasty divorce, got a flat tire on the highway in a strange city at the dead of night without a flashlight, or failed the last course they needed to graduate. All elicit emotions that regular day-to-day life doesn’t.

Works of fiction are often rife with emotions and can, therefore, connect to your memory more readily. Nonfiction often doesn’t carry this inherent emotional quality, so you must create connections between the material you’re reading and your own emotions to help the information stick in your memory.

Write it down. This is useful for the retention and retrieval stages of memory. Let’s say you want to remember to call your best friend on her birthday. It’s 2 weeks away, and you make a mental note that you want to make this call. Maybe a week later, now 7 days before her birthday, the thought resurfaces and again you make another mental note about the birthday phone call. Now it’s 3 days before, and again the thought resurfaces. You tuck it away in your head and expect it to come up on the day you want.

Unfortunately, unless something happens specifically on that day to remind you of your friend or you hear someone singing “Happy Birthday,” most likely you’ll forget to make the call on the exact day. You’ll probably recall the memory the next day or two later.

If you wrote down the thought and stuck it in a place you would see or be reminded of more frequently, such as on your calendar, or your to-do list for that day, or on a sticky note posted by your phone, your chances of remembering are greatly increased.

In my house, when we run out of a food item, we immediately write it down on the weekly shopping list. If we don’t, there’s a very high probability we’ll forget we needed to replace the item and would only remember when we looked for the item again, typically after we went food shopping for the week!

What does this have to do with remembering what you read? You guessed it—write down what you want to remember! And put it in a place you will see again and review it.

Salvage the Memory

Retrieval is the final memory stage, when you take out the information you’ve stored in your long-term memory. It’s been suggested that long-term memory is permanent, that nothing is forgotten; only the means of retrieving it is lost.

I am a native English speaker who studied Spanish for more than 10 years and even had the privilege of spending a summer in Madrid, Spain, speaking with native speakers. I used to write 10-page papers in Spanish and read Spanish novels with comprehension. Fast-forward 25 years. Today, I know I have long-term memory for the language, but because I haven’t had the opportunity to use it in my daily (weekly, monthly, or yearly!) life, my Spanish became rusty. I know it’s all stored in long-term memory and I feel confident that if I took another Spanish course, read another Spanish novel (with a Spanish-English dictionary next to me), or spent some time in a Spanish-speaking environment, most of what I learned would come back to my conscious memory.


Retrieval is your ability to bring stored information into consciousness. It’s like a (search and) recovery mission for your brain.

So how do we retrieve memories? Here are a few thoughts:

Go back in time. Cue your brain by mentally going back to the time or place you were reading. This may trigger a clearer memory.

Get in the mood. Try to re-create the same emotional state you were in during the acquisition phase.

Use all your senses. If you can re-create the experience as you remembered it, it will be easier for you to retrieve the material stored in your memory.

Look back at what you’ve written down. When you write down things you want to remember, remembering to look at what you wrote is important!

Speed Tip

When reading, taking short, frequent breaks helps your retrieval because you have more firsts and lasts than middles.

Remember that meaningful material is stored more accurately. You’ll remember things that have personal importance for you, so find something that matters in what you read so you can remember it better.

Capitalize on the firsts and lasts. This is where we remember firsts and lasts more than we do middles. If I asked you to go to the store to shop for 10 items, and I told you what the items were but you didn’t write them down, you’d probably remember the first 2 or 3 items and last 2 or 3 items. You’d mostly forget the ones in the middle.

Factors for Forgetting

You can’t expect to remember everything you read and recall it at will at any time. Forgetting is part of being human. Forgetting isn’t usually permanent unless you didn’t acquire the memory in the first place. It may be a temporary failure of retrieval where the memory is momentarily unavailable and accessible later. You’ve probably experienced this, when some bit of information is on the “tip of the tongue” but you just can’t recall it right now. You eventually will remember it, but maybe not when you want to. For me, it usually comes up hours or days later out of the blue.

What causes us to forget things we read? Here are a few common conditions:

• A lack of attention while reading

• Interference or distraction while reading

• Lack of interest or motivation to remember

• Not understanding what you read in the first place

• Not enough background knowledge

• Not enough repetition over time

• Not enough sleep (You need sleep to recharge your mental battery.)

• Stress


Forgetting refers to the loss of a memory. Often, the failure to retrieve a memory reflects not “forgetting” or loss per se, but the fact that the memory was not stored well in the first place.

If any of these factors exist, the possibility of not going back increases—or simply said, the need to go back increases.

Speed Tip

Scientists at Stanford University have discovered that the brain forgets trivial information so it can more easily store and retrieve important information. Forgetting not only helps the brain conserve energy, it also improves short-term memory and recall of important details. So the next time you berate yourself for not remembering something, remember that forgetting sometimes helps you remember!

The Ebbinghaus Curve of Forgetting

Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) was a German psychologist who pioneered an experimental study of memory and discovered the forgetting curve and the learning curve. He studied memories by teaching himself lists of nonsense words and then studying his retention of these lists over periods of hours to days. What he found is documented on the Forgetting Curve, whereby …

a. Most forgetting occurs very soon after learning and continues with no review or rehearsal.

b. When meaningful material is used and exposure is repeated, the forgetting curve is not so steep.

c. With more review and rehearsal, the forgetting becomes less.

d. With even more review and rehearsal, memory becomes solidified.

The Forgetting Curve shows that humans tend to halve their memory of newly learned knowledge in a matter of days or weeks unless they consciously review the learned material.

Ask anyone 60 or older about memory, and most people will admit theirs doesn’t seem to be as sharp as it used to be. As early as our 20s, we begin to lose brain cells a few at a time and our bodies begin to slow down production of the chemicals our brains need to work. As we age, this makes it harder to recall stored information.

Speed Secret

Your distant memories aren’t usually affected by aging, but your recent memory may be. For example, you may forget names of people you’ve recently met or even what you did last weekend. For reading, this means you may have trouble remembering what you just read! These are (unfortunately) normal changes.

When you’re young, using repetition to learn things is quite possible. However, as you age, this no longer works. Instead, to remember, you need to capitalize on your background knowledge and make more associations from what you’re reading to what you already know.

Here are a few more things that might help anyone at any age remember better:

• Write things down.

• Follow a set routine.

• Keep a detailed calendar with all your appointments and special events.

• Put frequently used items, like car keys and umbrellas, in the same place every time.

• Repeat a person’s name when you meet new people. Also make some mental connection about their physical features to someone or something you already know.

• Mentally go through the alphabet to help trigger the memory of a word you’re trying to remember.

The better you remember, the less often you’ll need to go back.

Help the Best Stand Out

At times, reading something once—or cheat reading it first and then reading in detail—is not enough. Students frequently need to return to their reading material to review information for tests. Businesspeople need to return to previously read documents to retrieve information for meetings or reports. Chefs return to cookbooks to reference recipes. Expectant moms frequently return to pregnancy books to see if what they’re experiencing is normal and to find out what’s coming next.

So the idea of getting out needs to include how to locate the useable information again. The whole idea is to avoid rereading everything again and to have your keepers stand out.


A keeper is a new idea, typically some piece of information, you want to remember. Keepers should always be written down, looked at again, and/or used for future reference.

Writing on/in the Material

From kindergarten all the way to high school, many students use books issued by the school system, and students are instructed to not write in them. This makes sense for the school system because it can reuse the books for many years, saving tons of money. After high school, however, most formal learning courses require you to purchase a textbook or another workbook, some of which are designed for you to write in. Some people feel funny writing in books because they’ve never done it or for some other reason they can’t bring themselves to write in their material.

Whether you like to write in your material or not, I encourage you to think about doing it. Marking your material is like marking your memory, which creates a visual association for your memory to anchor to. You might remember that you wrote something about that in the margin, on the right-hand side, in blue ink, the three key points … oh yeah, now I remember!

Speed Tip

You can write in any reading material you purchase for your own private use, but only if you think you’ll need to look at it again to find your keepers. If you don’t think you’ll need to go back, don’t waste your time writing notes, highlighting, or creating marginalia (more on this in later sections). Remember why you’re reading and decide whether taking any form of notes is necessary.

Use Color

Highlighting key ideas is very effective in helping make your keepers stand out. It doesn’t matter what color highlighter you use; what matters is how much you highlight. Look at any college student’s textbook, and you might see lots of highlighting, sometimes with more than one color, of information the student thinks is important. Because most of the information students read is new to them, they tend to highlight way too much, thinking everything is important.

Speed Tip

Did you know they make erasable highlighters these days? When you accidentally mark a wrong passage or want to change your mind, you can just erase the highlight.

Follow this rule of thumb when it comes to highlighting: if you find you are highlighting more than 25 percent of any page, then you probably need to take more complete notes on a separate piece of paper. More than 25 percent highlighting means the material is unfamiliar or technical for you and you need a better method than coloring it to learn it.

Here are a few other highlighting guidelines to keep in mind:

• Read an entire paragraph or page before highlighting anything; otherwise, you may highlight more than you need.

• Highlight only if you know you’ll need to go back to review the information again. Otherwise, you are wasting your time.

• Highlight only key words or thought chunks, not full sentences.

Writing in the Margin

Another way to mark your keepers is to make personal notes in the margin. There is no right or wrong way to make margin notes. Some like to create a title of sorts next to important paragraphs, while others are happy to write cryptic keywords or phrases that only they understand.

Levenger, a catalog company that specializes in “serious tools for readers,” has created its own “Helpful Marks for Readers for Masterly Marginalia,” which I’ve reprinted here. Levenger is the only formal source I’ve found that provides more creative and interesting options than what I have for readers.

Speed Tip

If the margin of your reading material isn’t wide enough for the notes you want to write, use Post-it notes to extend the page width.

Re-Creating the Structure

In graduate school, I took a psychology class, which was a new experience for me. The concepts and content were quite foreign, and we always had a chapter to read. If I used my highlighter, I’d have very yellow pages, between the new vocabulary and the details I thought were all important. I’d end up rereading almost everything when I reviewed for the test.

Instead of highlighting, I decided to cheat read the chapter first—in effect re-creating the author’s outline. This gave me the big-picture ideas that were to be covered in more detail inside the paragraphs. I then used that structure to write my notes.

I’m partial to taking Full Notes, a method based on the Cornell Method of Note-Taking, originated by Walter Pauk, a professor at Cornell University. When using this method, in a nutshell, you divide your paper into two parts by drawing a vertical line down the page about 3 inches from the left edge of the paper. The left side is for main ideas, and the right side is for the details and explanations. The idea is to be able to cover up the right side notes and use the left side concepts to trigger the memory of what you wrote on the right. The following figure shows a sample way to write Full Notes.

Speed Tip

If you have a large amount of reading to do, say a 30-page textbook chapter or a 10-page contract, split it up into mini-readings or sections. You’re more apt to follow the author’s outline better if you break up unfamiliar material into smaller chunks.

Another way to document your structure is to create a mind map. Mind maps, developed by Tony Buzan, a leading authority on learning techniques, are an effective method of note-taking and useful for generating ideas by associations.


A mind map is a hand-drawn diagram used to represent the ideas in a reading and arranged around a central topic. It’s used as a study aid to see a writing’s structure.

To make a mind map, start in the center of a blank piece of paper with the title or main idea of the reading, and branch ideas outward in all directions, producing an organized keyword structure.

On a mind map, begin in the middle and follow the thought threads from the main ideas out to the details.

One more way to re-create the structure: when you’re finished reading a book or an article, write an abstract of the material to summarize the main idea(s). You can write it on the material itself, on a large sticky note attached to the material, or a large index card, or you can type it into a document, whatever works best for you.

For most reading tasks, cheat reading is enough, but when more understanding and memory building is required, you have a few other options.

Taking Notes Outside the Material

Sometimes I pull out great keepers and consolidate them in one place in a book, usually on a blank page at the front or back of the book, so I can review just my keepers without flipping through all the other pages. Often I include the page number where an idea is located in case I want to read more about it later.

This is a huge timesaver when you want to review an article’s or a book’s contents in a targeted way. It sure beats rereading it all!

Speed Tip

If you think you’re going to take a lot of notes from a piece of material, you might want to purchase a copy so you can write in it and have it on your shelf for reference whenever you want.

Post-Its, Dog Ears, and Tear Outs

If you often write in your material but borrowed something from the library or a friend, take notes on a separate piece of paper instead of writing in the borrowed material. I have a friend who, when reading a library book, writes her notes on Post-its and attaches them to the page the material is found on. When she’s done reading and has to return the book, she removes the notes and resticks them onto notebook paper in the same order they appeared in the book, sometimes referencing the page number in case she needs to go back to it. Each piece of paper has the name of the book written on the top, and all the pages are numbered. She then files the pages away in a folder based on the content.

Sticky notes can also be used as flags or index markers on magazines and books so you can quickly locate usable information.

The oldest method for “marking” keeper material is via dog-earring, or turning down the corner of a keeper page. If you practice this strategy, you may have found that many times the ears perk up all by themselves, making it impossible to find that elusive page or the ears aren’t big enough to find again.

Speed Tip

Consider purchasing a set of multicolored Post-it flags. You can write a few words on these and place them on the edge of important pages for easier referencing.

Instead of dog-earring, try clipping or tearing out. This makes sense for magazines or newspapers when you find a keeper and don’t need to save the remaining material. The key with these is to organize them in such a way that you’ll be able to find what you need later. (See Chapter 14, where I discuss the LATCH method.)

Of course, if you’ve borrowed the material, don’t rip out the pages! Use one of the other methods outlined in this chapter.

Taking Notes on Fiction

Reading and tracking characters names, events, and symbolisms in works of fiction can be quite challenging, especially if there are a large number of characters. One way to keep track of it all is to create note cards or separate pieces of paper for each character. On these notes, add the following:

• Description of who they are

• Who they’re related to

• What happens to them

• Any significant quotes

• What role they play in the plot

• Any symbolisms

And the Results Are …

Throughout this chapter, you’ve learned more about how memories are acquired, retained, and recalled and what options you have for documenting your keepers for later review.

It’s now time to check in on your reading progress. Choose to either do a One-Minute Timing or a 3-2-1 Drill found in Appendix B. Consider first warming up your eyes using the Discipline Your Eyes Exercise in Chapter 3. While you read, use your preferred pacer method. Be sure to record your progress on the appropriate charts in Appendix C. When you’ve finished tracking your scores, try your hand at highlighting or margin noting what you just read. If you’re really feeling ambitious, try documenting the author’s outline using Full Notes. Remember to put the main ideas on the left and details on the right.

The Least You Need to Know

• Get in, get out, now don’t go back—unless you have to!

• Building a memory requires three steps: acquisition, retention, and retrieval. Being aware of them helps build stronger memories.

• Forgetting is a natural part of remembering.

• Repetition over time is the best way to retain a memory.

• There are many ways to document your keepers so you can easily save time when you go to reference the information later.