Remember the 1996 John Travolta movie Phenomenon? No? Well, that’s okay – neither do I. But I remember the trailer, in which Travolta gets zapped by an eerie light and wakes up with the power to read 2-3 books a day. Sure, he can do lots of other things, too, like move things with his mind. But it was the speed reading I was most envious of.
As someone who is currently drowning in his massive TBR pile, I’ve wished more than once I could become a speed reader overnight. No matter how fast of a reader you are, though, I’m willing to bet that at some point in your life you’ve wished you could read even faster. It’s an age-old dilemma for everyone, really: so many books, so little time. How can you get through them more quickly?
You might be tempted to think that if you don’t start early enough, it’s too late. But that’s simply not true, and my own reading life is proof. Last year, I read the most amount of books I ever have, smashing my previous record by ten and surpassing my goal for the year. This was partly because I made more time for reading, but it also wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t actually read faster, too.
Lots of speed reading “tips are tricks” skirt the edges of legitimacy. Things like not reading the entire page, or skipping less important chapters, are detrimental to our actual goal of enjoying more books. I’m not so interested in that. Instead, here are some tips for how to read faster that don’t require you to skimp on comprehension:
1. Skim or scan the text first.
I got The Evelyn Wood Seven-Day Speed Reading and Learning Program in high school, thinking it would solve all of my problems. When it suggested skimming all of the text first, I felt had. Doing the same work twice seemed like the opposite of going faster.
But skimming and scanning, two techniques that involve looking only for the most relevant bits of information first, will prime you for what’s to come. Since you’re already familiar with the main parts of the text, you won’t be slowed down by confusing or surprising parts when you come to them in your reading.
Keep in mind that while skimming and scanning works best for non-fiction, it can be applied to fiction too. In a novel, skim the chapter for character development, key points of dialogue, and major plot points. Then read it at a faster pace than you normally would.
2. Stop subvocalizing.
Subvocalization is by far the most common factor in slowing down our reading. It’s how most of us read – by “speaking” the words in our heads. This slows down our reading to speaking speed, which is usually around 300 words a minute. A snail’s pace!
Your eyes and brain are actually able to process words much faster. Just try this as an experiment:
By stopping that voice in your head, you can nearly double your reading pace.
If you’re a subvocalizer, getting yourself to stop is quite the trick to learn how to read faster. I’ve been trying to stop this habit for some time now. The easiest thing to do is to be conscious of it and to distract yourself somehow. You can use your finger to follow the words, listen to music, or chew gum.
3. Read phrases, not words
A similarly difficult skill to learn is how to take in phrases or chunks of text at a time, rather than individual words. But your eye span is actually 1.5 inches long, which means you can read up to nine words at a time!
Looking at every fifth word or so will allow you to take in more at once and cut down on subvocalizing. Just as with everything else, though, it will take some training to do this well. I wouldn’t suggest starting this on really important things like textbooks.
4. Quit Re-reading
One of the biggest time sucks for me while reading was that I was constantly going back to re-read sentences or paragraphs I either didn’t understand or wanted to understand more fully. I thought that if I didn’t fully catch or understand every single line of a novel or text, the entire book wouldn’t make sense.
Eventually, I realized that I wasn’t actually gaining much comprehension when I re-read. The confusing passages or words eventually made sense in context, or they weren’t necessary for my enjoyment of the book.
According to this post by Tim Ferriss, author of The Four-Hour Work Week, “The untrained subject engages in regression (conscious rereading) and back-skipping (subconscious rereading via misplacement of fixation) for up to 30 percent of total reading time.” That’s pretty significant. Let go of having to fully comprehend every single that’s being said or going on, and you’ll stop wasting time re-treading places you’ve already been.
5. Read more
As with all worthy pursuits, reading is a skill that takes time to develop. The more you do it, the better you will become. I used to think that setting daily or yearly reading goals was silly. Reading shouldn’t be a race. But I’ve found that setting goals forces me to carve out more time for reading. And the more books I read, the faster I get at reading them.
Of course, always remember that the best way to enjoy a book is to read at your own pace. While being John Travolta in Phenomenon might sound great, I’d never want to be someone who reads 1800 words a minute just because I can.
Literature is meant to be savored, and if you spend untold hours on a really great story, who cares? There will always be too many books in the world, and only so much time. Better to fully enjoy the books you really want to than try to breeze through a bunch of ones you don’t.