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

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

Chapter 10. Speed Reading Books and Magazines

In This Chapter

• Things to think about before reading

• Reading magazines and nonfiction books

• Finding the structure of your reading

• Why fiction should be approached differently

Do you read your favorite magazine the same way you read a technical report? Do you approach a novel the same way you would a textbook? Hopefully, you already naturally use different strategies to deal with each type of material.

In this chapter, I focus on some common kinds of reading materials and provide methods and suggestions for how to best approach each.

Before You Read Anything …

When approaching any reading material, you need to consider a few important issues. Although I’ve talked about them in other parts of the book, let’s review them here:

• Type of material

• Your level of background knowledge

• Your reason why and what for

• Your reading speed

Reading material takes many forms: nonfiction books, magazines, newspapers, academic textbooks, fiction books, standardized test passages, cookbooks, computer manuals, and on and on! If it can be written, it will be printed and read. Each type requires some individual strategies to make reading faster and more effective. In this chapter, I cover some of the more common reading materials, namely nonfiction books and magazines.

Imagine the sports buff who reads many different types of materials but only reads about one subject—sports. While reading the daily sports section of the newspaper, several monthly sports magazines, and an occasional sports biography, he might appear to be an avid reader, but in effect, he has narrowed his focus to just one topic.

Truly efficient and effective readers read widely on a variety of topics as well as materials that enhance their base of background knowledge. And you know the value of background knowledge is priceless, right? The more you have, the easier it is to read faster with good comprehension. It also enables you to read varied materials with greater ease.

Speed Secret

By reading widely, you have more interesting things to discuss when with your friends and colleagues. Try to remember this when you come across some seemingly daunting material. It might not be as intimidating as you previously thought.

No matter the type of material you read, having your purpose in mind, or the reason why you’re reading, enables you to get what you want from the material and focuses your attention on meeting your needs. So if you’re quickly reading the morning paper, you might only do a skim because getting the general or main topics is sufficient for your purpose. If you’re reading for academic learning purposes, you might read using a highlighter, focusing your attention on areas you might be tested on. Having a purpose narrows your focus, no matter the material.

If you read every piece of material using the same reading speed, you’re doing yourself an injustice. You either waste your time or expend more mental energy than you need to. People who are technically trained—accountants, engineers, researchers, and the like—have been conditioned to read slowly because most of the information they read is very detail rich or seemingly unfamiliar. This doesn’t mean that they should read their favorite magazine the same way they read a professional document, but many do.

Remember, you have a proverbial reading stick shift, and you can learn how to use all the gears and know when you can shift into and out of them at will.

Speed Tip

If you’ve been reading this book straight through from the beginning, you might want to return to Chapter 1 to quickly refresh your memory about the reading gears. Remember: repetition is a powerful key for learning!

Nonfiction Book Chapters and Magazine Articles

For any problem you have, you probably can find one, if not many, nonfiction books claiming to offer the solution. And for any interest or hobby, you can probably find a magazine dedicated to it. Nonfiction book chapters and magazine articles are in many ways the easiest materials to read, for a few reasons.

For one thing, they’ve been professionally published, which means an editor has reviewed the materials and made changes so the text is as easy as possible to read with good understanding. The editor often also checks to be sure the author’s main ideas are located in the first sentence or two of the paragraph. Compare that to documents you receive from co-workers and friends, who may not be well-trained writers and free-write more than anything. Those can be hard to read!

Also nonfiction book chapters and magazines are written in outline form. When writing, a nonfiction author typically starts with an outline and then fleshes it out. Whether you identify the outline or not, this type of writing makes the finished piece more easily understandable for the reader.

And most nonfiction books and magazines offer a table of contents, or outline. This tool is invaluable for quickly locating the articles or chapters of interest while weeding out those you don’t need.

Similar but Different

In addition to similarities between nonfiction book chapters and magazine articles, some differences are worth noting. These differences, as outlined in the following table, are important when choosing the kind of reading material you want to speed read and spend your time on.

Nonfiction Book Chapters Versus Magazine Articles

General Reading Strategies

Both nonfiction book chapters and magazine articles are presented similarly, so it makes sense that you approach them similarly. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Look over the table of contents. Do this slowly for the book; you can go quicker for the magazine articles. Keep in mind that this is the outline of the reading material. In addition, for the nonfiction book, consider speed reading the preface or other preliminary information.

2. Highlight or circle the articles or chapters of interest.

3. Choose which topic you want to read first and turn to it in the material. You don’t have to go in order!

4. Cheat read the article or chapter using any of your favorite faster-reading strategies.

5. Decide whether you need to read in more detail. If so, go back, looking for the detail you missed. If not, get out and move on to the next article or chapter of interest based on your highlighted table of contents.

Don’t feel obligated to read the entire magazine or book. Remember your reason why you’re reading, and read only what fits your needs.

My Method for Speed Reading Nonfiction Books

Over the years, I’ve developed my own method for reading nonfiction books. It basically gives the reader permission to not read all the material and read only what’s of most value. Here it is; feel free to adapt it to suit your needs:

1. When choosing a book to read, I look at the font the book is printed in and the width of the columns. If either is too small or unappealing, I immediately put it back on the shelf. My eyes don’t need to suffer when I read!

2. I look over the cover matter. Remember the old adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover”? Well, publishers hope their covers will sell their books so they make them as attractive and colorful as possible. I’m often skeptical about the quotes others provide about their impressions of the book; after all, have you ever seen a quote on a book cover like, “This is the worst book I ever read, don’t buy it!”? If the book appears to meet my interests, I continue. If not, I don’t. There are plenty of other books out there to choose from.

3. I skim the front matter, including copyright date (how old is the information?), author biography (is he or she qualified?), and any introductory material (why was the book written, and how is it set up?).

4. I turn to any page in the book and read a paragraph or two. If I like the author’s writing style, I continue. If not, I seriously consider not reading it. My time is too valuable to waste on poor writing.

5. I look over the table of contents. I like an easy-to-read, somewhat detailed table of contents. If it’s comprehensible and laid out well, I keep going. If not, I consider not continuing. I read only as much as I need.

6. If I have read or cheat read the chapters of interest and several other chapters are yet untouched, I leave them untouched. Just because the author wrote it doesn’t mean I have to read it. As long as my reasons why and what forare met, I can confidently close the book and place it on my shelf and say “I have read you.” I feel good about the time and energy I have spent. I am done.

Speed Tip

Some publishers say that a book is simply one great chapter with a dozen other filler chapters. If this is true, then your job is to try to find the one great chapter. If you find it, read it first—it’s like eating dessert first!

Speed Secret

Attention all travelers! Many airlines offer interesting audio options as part of the in-flight entertainment on longer domestic or international flights. You may also get your own personal entertainment television screen located on the back of the seat in front of you to choose a program of interest. Ask about this the next time you fly.

Shake Hands with Your Textbooks

College students pay a lot of money for their textbooks, and most have no idea what’s in them—except for what the professor asks them to read. Imagine that there are answers to the chapter questions in the back of the book but you never knew it. Imagine you were using a textbook in computer science class that had a copyright date of 5 or more years ago. Something tells me you wouldn’t be learning about blogs or any other recent computer-related developments.

I encourage students to shake hands with their textbooks—greet them as a friend— before starting the class. After all, you two will be spending lots of time together! It takes just a few minutes and can make learning from the reading material a whole lot easier. All it entails is looking at a few things to see what information and resources are included:

• Look for the copyright date. This is usually found just before or after the title page and tells you how old or recent the material is.

• Read the front matter, including the preface, the author biography, information on how to read this book, and anything else you find interesting.

• Review the table of contents to see what’s covered and the order it’s presented.

• Look at any appendixes. Does the book feature answers to questions or supplemental information useful to know about? Does it include charts and graphs or tables? Be aware of the resources available in the text.

• Note if the book includes a glossary, index, and/or bibliography.

• Note also if any digital resources are available with the textbook. Does the book come with a CD? Is there an associated website with supplemental information, test banks, etc.?

If you take a little time at the beginning of the semester to get to know your text(s), you can feel comfortable when you’re reading and studying the book(s) later.

Speed Tip

If you haven’t taken advantage of the books-on-CD (or books-on-MP3) trend, now is the time to do so! Many educational conferences create audio versions of the speaker sessions. Many commercial nonfiction books are available on CD in libraries and bookstores. If you’re an avid business book reader, check out Executive Book Summaries at It offers 20-minute synopsis of recently published business books you can purchase in print (PDF) or in audio CD or MP3 format. Consider these as an option, and equal in benefit, to reading.

Structures Found in Nonfiction Books

Knowing how the information in your book is structured helps with your reading speed and especially comprehension. Books can be structured in many ways. The following table lists some common examples.

Common Structures Found in Nonfiction Books

Speed Reading Study Material

Study material is usually academic or business in nature. Speed reading when studying is possible as long as you know you should keep your reading speed contained in the lower gears (between 200 and 600 words per minute) for most learning tasks.

Let’s assume you’ve already read the material once, maybe took some notes on it, and are now reviewing for a test. Here are some tried-and-true study strategies to help you get the most out of your study time:

• Be sure you understand the material before studying it.

• Study a little each day to capitalize on the repetition-over-time concept.

• Read the chapter summary to refresh your memory about the chapter contents.

• Review any vocabulary words and their definitions.

• Review the questions at end of the chapter or make predictions about what questions might be asked on the test.

• Break the chapter into smaller sections.

• Cheat read, performing tellbacks specifically reciting the main points and supporting details.

• Pay attention and intend to remember what you’re studying!

Speed Reading Technical Material

I covered how to speed read technical material in Chapter 5’s “What About Technical Material?” section and Chapter 7’s “Approaching Technical Material” section, so be sure to turn back there if you need a refresher. In addition to that information, let’s go over a few more tips on how to best read technical material.

First, and probably most important, understand that technical material is often written in a linear fashion—perfect for cheat reading. It makes the material easy to take notes from and easy to refer to again.

Here are some other smart considerations:

• Read more in the field to familiarize yourself with the acronyms, vocabulary, and topic jargon.

• Break the reading into smaller parts.

• Take short, frequent breaks (remember you will remember firsts and lasts more than middles!).

• Be sure you’re sitting up at a cleared-off desk or table with minimal distractions.

• If have a lot to digest, read for a maximum of 2 hours (giving yourself short, frequent breaks) and then power nap for 20 minutes, if you can, to give your brain time to assimilate the new knowledge.

• Perform frequent tellbacks. (Remember tellbacks from Chapter 8?)

• Use an underlining hand movement like Long-Smooth Underline or Short-Smooth Underline (see Chapter 2) instead of a faster one.

• Anticipate your reading speed to be between 400 to 1,000 words per minute, maximum, when using speed strategies on technical material.

Speed Secret

What about speed reading newspapers? See Chapter 14 for more information on reading these.

Speed Reading Fiction

For many, reading fiction seems easier than reading nonfiction. And rightfully so. Reading a story is much easier for the brain to follow than nonfiction because it can “see” the setting, “hear” the characters, and “feel” the emotions, just like real life. At times, there’s nothing more pleasurable than getting caught up in a good book. With the frenetic pace of day-to-day life, you get to slow down and shift your brain into another world. Great mental therapy at a paperback price!

There are, however, several challenges to reading fiction. But once you’re aware of and adept at dealing with them, they can make your pleasure reading experiences even more satisfying.

Choose the Right Book for You

Has a friend ever given you a book, saying it was the best book he or she ever read … but you can’t stand it? Have you ever started a book, found it not engaging, but refused to start another one until you suffered through that one? Both situations can be made easier by a little fiction previewing and attitude checking.

Fiction does not have an outline like nonfiction, but you can check out a few things to determine if it will be a good read or not:

• Font Is the print too large or small? Find a book your eyes like.

• Author’s style After reading any few paragraphs inside the book, do you like the author’s style? If not, you may be frustrated and your comprehension challenged.

• Length Is the book too long or short for the time frame you have to read?

• Subject Are you really interested in murder mysteries or just reading it because your friend recommended it? Reading widely is good to do; suffering is not.

• Perspective If the book doesn’t grab you after the first few chapters, consider letting it go.

Keep Track of the Characters

Probably the most challenging part of any story is keeping track of the characters, especially if there are a lot of them or you only get to read a little every few weeks. To reduce your frustration and enhance your character memory, consider taking notes.

Your notes could be as simple as writing the characters’ names on an index card with who they are and their relations to others. It could be more involved (especially for school assignments or when reading literature), like designating a piece of paper or large index card to each character. As they are introduced in the story, write their name on top. Write descriptions about the character, including their relationship to other characters. Include examples of what they say, what they do, what other characters say about them, and what the author says about them.

Speed Secret

Some people say they’re glad they stuck it out and read a book they weren’t all that interested in, but many more endure feelings of guilt and inadequacy for not being able to get into it. Move on; there are many more books in the world meant for you to read—enjoyably!

Be Aware of the Basic Elements of Fiction

You can expect to find certain elements in every short story, novel, or play. By knowing they exist, you can look for them as you read. If you’re a student reading literature, you might want to take notes when you come across these areas because they are typically the ones you’ll be asked to know about for a test:

• Title A clue pointing you toward the theme of the story.

• Setting The time and place.

• Point of view Spoken either in the first person (a character serves as the narrator) or third person (a narrator outside the story).

• Conflicts (part of the plot) Problems that change the belief systems or lives of characters involved.

• Climax and resolution (part of the plot) The moment in the story when the character makes a decision that leads to the ultimate resolution of the conflict.

• Ending The final words of a story.

Speed Tip

The next time you watch a movie, see if you can identify the elements of fiction in the story. Once you recognize them, you’ll be more tuned to seeing them again and again.

Use Speed Techniques

When some people learn the tools for reading faster, they get concerned that they’ll be forced to read fiction fast. Just because you know the strategies doesn’t mean you are locked into using them all the time!

Remember that you have the controls over what speed you read. If you like to savor the writer’s descriptive style, you might want to slow down. If you’re an action seeker, you can use key words or thought chunks to quickly read over the description and then slow down when you get to the dialogue. You decide how fast or slow you go.

Choose the Best Place to Read

There are no hard-and-fast rules about where to read fiction, but because most people read fiction for pleasure, not for school or work, they pick a comfy place and settle in. Remember to bring along something to drink (if allowable; some libraries and other places don’t allow food or drink) so you don’t have to get up for a while! And enjoy!

If you happen to read mostly nonfiction, experiment with reading a novel once in awhile. Your brain will thank you!

And the Results Are …

Now’s the time to check in on your reading progress. Do either a One-Minute Timing or a 3-2-1 Drill found in Appendix B. Remember to warm 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.

The Least You Need to Know

• Before reading anything, consider your reason why, your reading speed, your level of background knowledge, and the type of material.

• Nonfiction books are similar yet different from magazines. Magazines are like reading mini-book chapters.

• When reading nonfiction books, read the valuable stuff and leave the rest.

• Fiction doesn’t have the nonfiction outline, requiring you to be able to identify the basic elements of fiction to provide its structure.