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

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

Chapter 8. Getting Out

In This Chapter

• What’s your exit strategy?

• Look for the golden nuggets of information

• Think and question while you read

• Watch for turn signals

• Remember this is a marathon, not a 50-yard dash

As you learned in Chapter 7, reading any piece of nonfiction straight from word one to the very last word is typically not the most efficient or effective strategy. (For fiction, however, it is the best strategy, as you’ll see in Chapter 10.) By taking advantage of cheat reading, including reading first sentences, the “getting in” part is pretty easy (see Chapter 7 if you need a refresher). Now your decision is whether it’s time to “get out,” or if you need to go back and read some more information. After all, why read everything all the time if you don’t have to?

What do I mean by “getting out”? I mean knowing when you’ve found all the information you need from your reading. When you have, you can and should get out and move on to something else. In this chapter, I offer several reasons why you might want to “get out” of the reading, and give you options how to do it.

Skimming, Scanning, and Skipping

One obvious way to get out quickly is to use any speed reading strategy that puts you into the higher-speed gears. In addition to those you’ve already been introduced to in earlier chapters, two more overdrive gears are called skimming and scanning. Many people think skimming and scanning are the same thing, but they’re not. Their purposes are actually quite different.

Skimming: A Quick Filter

Skimming is looking for general or main ideas. For example, when you read a newspaper, your eyes typically skim the headlines looking for a general article of interest. You might also skim a chapter or report to get a general understanding of what it’s about. You probably also skim the menu of a restaurant you’ve never been to before to see what they offer.

Speed Secret

Consider cheat reading “deliberate” skimming. Deliberate skimming is intentionally looking for the writer’s outline and getting a general overview by following the text in the order the author intended. Haphazard skimming, on the other hand, has no rhyme or reason as to where your eyes go, providing you with bits and pieces of disjointed information. Deliberate skimming is more effective and efficient than haphazard.

Skimming should be used when …

• You’re being introduced to a new topic area.

• You need to review material you’ve previously read.

• You already have a lot of background knowledge about the topic.

• You want to understand the big picture, or main ideas, first before delving into the details.

• You want to get the essence without all the details.

• You have a lot to read and only a small amount of time.

For the average speed reader, an effective skimming rate ranges from 800 to 1,200 words per minute. Edward Fry, the author of How to Skim (Cambridge University Press, 1963), believes that skimming can be done effectively at this speed with 50 percent comprehension. From my experience performing skimming drills in my classes, people aren’t too comfortable with 50 percent and aim for more at this speed.

Your hands are very helpful for skimming as they quickly pull your eyes down the page looking for general ideas. Some of the most useful skimming hand strategies from Chapter 2 include the following:

• Z Pattern

• S Pattern

• Point-to-Point

• Open Hand Wiggle

Here’s a quick skimming exercise for you to try:

1. Choose one of the shorter articles from Appendix B you haven’t read yet.

2. Take only 2 minutes to deliberately skim the article.

3. Use your preferred skimming hand method and follow the format in Chapter 7 for cheat reading.

4. Write down what you think the article is about on a separate piece of paper.

5. Calculate your words per minute by dividing the number of words in the article by two.

How did you do? Is skimming a method you’re comfortable with? Remember, this skimming strategy is meant for when you only need the main ideas.

Scanning Is for Finding the Right Answer

Scanning is looking for something specific. Your eyes scan a newspaper looking for the specific baseball scores from the previous night. You scan the financial pages looking for a specific stock and its current market price. You scan when looking for someone’s name in a telephone directory. (Can you imagine trying to skim a telephone directory looking for one specific name? You might never find it!)

Your hands are also helpful for scanning as they help keep your place as you go down the page. It’s almost as if when your hand drags down the page looking for just one thing, your mind says no … no … no … no … and then yes!when you finally land on what you’re looking for.

Some the most useful scanning hand strategies from Chapter 2 include the following:

• Left Pointer Pull

• Center Pointer pull

• Double Pointer Pull

• Blank Card Method

Try this scanning exercise:

Using your preferred scanning hand method, turn to the “Tattoo Pioneer: Shanghai Kate Hellenbrand” article in Appendix B and count the number of times you see the word tattoo or any other word with tattoo in it (e.g., tattooed). And yes, the word in the title counts! (The correct answer is provided at the end of this chapter.)

How did you do? Are you comfortable with scanning? Remember, this scanning strategy is meant for when you are looking for specifics, not main ideas.

Speed Reading Partners: Skimming and Scanning

You probably use skimming and scanning together often without realizing it. For example, you use both strategies when looking at a web page you’ve never seen before, first figuring out generally what it’s all about (skimming) and then looking for some piece of specific information (scanning). Restaurant menus are also good places to use both strategies. You first skim for the kinds of food offered and then scan for the food you’re most interested in. Legal contracts should be skimmed first to see what main topic areas are included and then scanned to find the details specific to the contractual agreement. Textbook chapters can be skimmed to find the writer’s outline and main ideas and then scanned to get the answers to the questions at the end of the reading.

Speed Tip

Many people think they’re skimming material when actually they’re scanning, and vice versa. This confusion is natural, but I hope this section clarifies the word usage: skimming is looking for general ideas; scanning is looking for specifics.

Skipping: Always an Option

Depending on your reason why and what you’re reading for, after a quick skim, you might find that you don’t need or want to continue reading. As you’re reading, you might realize that you already know what you’re reading and decide to skip that section. Sometimes you might just find you’re not interested. I hereby give you permission to skip anything you’re reading for these reasons!

When you learn to use your eyes, brain, and hands effectively with these strategies, you’ll be able to breeze through a lot of information quickly and accurately. So the next time you open a newspaper, magazine, text, or other material, think about breezing through it by skimming, scanning, or skipping, according to your reasons why and what for.

Finding the Golden Nuggets

American filmmaker and novelist Nora Ephron once said, “I always read the last page of a book first so that if I die before I finish I’ll know how it turned out.” Although I don’t recommend routinely ruining a good story, Ephron’s thinking is smart in that she wants to get the good stuff—fast!

What Ephron calls “good stuff,” I call golden nuggets. Golden nuggets are those bits and pieces that, when you read, make you think Ah-ha! or Wow, what a great idea! or Gee, that’s interesting. Sometimes you find just the thing to help you smooth over a rough relationship with your spouse or help you feel confident asking for a raise. You may find a room design that’s perfect for your new apartment or a workflow process worth sharing with your team. The good stuff is there; you just have to find it!

The true science of “getting out” entails quickly finding your golden nuggets. You already have many fabulous strategies to help you do this:

• Knowing your reason why and what you are reading for

• Cheat reading

• Using hand and card pacers

• Skimming and scanning (or skipping!)

Looking for golden nuggets saves you time and keeps you alert while reading. Remember Chapter 6, where I introduced you to the idea of setting time and page goals? Keeping in mind your desire to find golden nuggets helps you reach your time and page goals.

Speed Secret

Someone once told me that when you read, you’re getting the collective knowledge of someone else’s universe. What a privilege this is! If you think of reading as an opportunity to benefit from someone else’s perspective and life experiences, and if you can find their golden nuggets, you are that much richer. The great ideas and thoughts you glean from reading help you navigate life in ways you probably couldn’t have done on your own.

Thinking and Questioning While You Read

“Woman gives birth to 300-pound baby!”

“Aliens found working at meat-processing plant!”

You’ve probably seen headlines such as these on tabloid covers while waiting in the supermarket line. How do you react to them? Maybe your face starts to screw up, your eyebrows scrunch together, and your eyes narrow. You may even grunt, shake your head in disbelief or amazement, and/or smirk. Maybe you just roll your eyes and move on. Whatever your reaction, you’re probably also thinking, whether you realize it or not, could this be true?! Don’t believe everything you read!

Speed Secret

Reading is an event of thinking cued by text, according to college professor Dr. Joe Vaughan. There is no right or wrong thinking, just a personal interpretation of what you read.

All readers should have this healthy skepticism. In essence, being skeptical means you stop reading and begin thinking about what you already know about the subject based on your background knowledge and beliefs. As you read, you mentally ask yourself, or the author, questions to help you decide what you want to believe and how you want to react.

This mental questioning is essential for truly effective reading. You might ask questions like these:

• What is the author’s background, and what gives him or her the experience to write about this?

• What are the writer’s motives for writing this?

• How old is this information? When was it written?

• Is this truly a fact or an opinion—a personal conclusion based on the author’s experience?

• How does this match up with my knowledge or experience?

• What do I want to believe?

By constantly thinking about what you’re reading, why the author wrote it, and how you’re reacting to it will keep you mentally involved and active in your reading process. Those who read without this mental questioning lose out on the best of what reading has to offer.

Everyone Has an Opinion

If you ask 10 people who perform the same job to read the same piece of material, you could come up with 10 varying interpretations of the same information. This is because people’s beliefs are created from their base of background knowledge, and everyone’s background knowledge is unique. This is one likely reason why readers who participate in book clubs get into heated discussions about the meaning of what they’re reading. It doesn’t mean you are right and others are wrong. Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion.

Connecting with an Author

Have you ever made contact via phone, letter, or e-mail with an author whose writing you are either very interested in and/or take issue with? I don’t recommend you do this with every author you read, but making that connection is a great way to solidify your comprehension, retention, and interest in the subject matter.

If the author responds, that communication also adds to your background knowledge, which helps you better read and understand future material on similar subjects.

The next time you’re reading something you have a visceral response to, ask your brain a few questions and/or engage with the author. It helps you feel more confident in your ability to comprehend your material and trust your brain.

Summarize with Tellbacks

On the road to getting out, you can perform a powerful comprehension exercise called tellbacks. When you do a tellback, you solidify the information you read into a personalized summary and gauge your level of comprehension. Tellbacks can be quite helpful and build your confidence so you know whether you’re ready to get out of your reading or if you need to stay in longer.

Do tellbacks as soon as you finish reading. You can come up with bullet points or retell the author’s outline. You can say your summary to yourself, another person, your cat or dog, your mirror, etc. You can write down your thoughts, say them out loud, or record them on a tape/digital recorder to have for later review, if needed. You may feel awkward the first few times you do tellbacks, but the more you do them, the more effective and efficient your brain will become at assimilating and consolidating the information you read. Your solid comprehension will enhance your retention and build reading confidence and competence for quickly getting out.


A tellback is a verbal or written summary of something you read. In effect, the comprehension part of the One-Minute Timing exercise and the 3-2-1 Drill, when you write down or say the points you remember, include tellbacks.

Follow the Signal Words

In every type of material you read, there are signal words—just like a car’s turn signals—that help you anticipate a change in direction or what’s coming next. If you become aware of them and intentionally look for them, signal words prove to be incredibly useful for directing where you go when reading.


A signal word is like a reading road sign: it indicates where you are or where you are headed. In reading material, signal words are conjunctions or words that join phrases, sentences, or paragraphs.

Your car’s turn signals indicate whether you’re turning left or right. Signal words offer a few other directional choices:

• Additional information

• Sequence or order

• Reasoning and explanation

• Reversing thought

• Example/illustration

• Summary or conclusion

Speed Tip

Signal words are particularly useful for note-taking because they provide strong clues as to what’s important to write down.

Review the following list of signal words under each type of direction. You’re probably familiar with most of these words already. Being aware of them helps you understand where the author intends the reading to take you.

Additional Information

Sequence or Order

Reasoning and Explanation

Reversing Thought


Summary or Conclusion

When you see one of these signal words, you may decide you need to pay more attention to a certain passage or that you don’t need to read more at all and can get out.

Spot the Organizational Pattern

When we talk to others, we most often relate events in the order they occur so our listeners can follow our thoughts and don’t become confused. In writing, authors present their ideas in organizational patterns so the reader will understand and follow along. If you can identify the organizational pattern, you’ll follow the author’s thoughts better and more efficiently, increasing your chances of getting out sooner.


An organizational pattern is the author’s plan of action for getting his or her thoughts across. If you can identify it in your reading, you will be able to anticipate the order in which the material will be presented.

Study the following list of some of the more common organizational patterns, from the easiest to identify or most common to the least common.

And the Results Are …

Most times, you can get out fast using skimming, scanning, or skipping strategies. Sometimes you may choose to stay with the reading for the long haul, reading it all because your reason why or what for reasons dictate. Maybe you have a test and have no choice but read it all. Or maybe you’re just plain interested in what you’re reading! Whatever the reason, use the speed reading strategies that you’ve found work best for you so you’ll get out quicker. The best way to know which are best suited for you is by experimenting with them and timing yourself.

Choose to either do a One-Minute Timing exercise or a 3-2-1 Drill in Appendix B. Consider warming up your eyes using the Discipline Your Eyes Exercise from Chapter 3. And be sure to document your time on the appropriate time chart in Appendix C. Use your preferred speed reading methods—remember the pacers, too! Track your scores.

The Least You Need to Know

• Getting out means using effective reading strategies to make intelligent decisions about when you find what you need from your reading.

• Skimming, scanning, and skipping are three options for quickly understanding the main ideas, finding specifics, or skipping it all together.

• Golden nuggets are the good stuff you find when reading.

• Always be a little skeptical of the author’s motives or content by thinking and asking questions.

• Tellbacks are comprehension summaries that help you build reading confidence and competence.

• Locating the author’s signal words and following the writing’s organizational patterns gets you out quicker, with good comprehension.

Scanning exercise answer: The number of times the word tattoo or any version of it appears in the “Tattoo Pioneer” article is 49.