Beyond Speed – How to Read Smart

Read Smart

After writing my popular article on speed reading, I received a lot of comments from people who wanted to read faster. But reading faster isn’t the whole picture. If you want to get more information with less time, you can’t just pick up the pace. You need to read smart.

If I gave you several thousand pages worth of books on a type of snail in the South Pacific and you read it quickly, does that leave you better off? Unless you are a marine biologist with an interest in mollusks reading those thousand pages was probably a waste of time. It doesn’t matter how fast you can read if you aren’t reading anything important.

Here are some methods I’ve found when buying books to help eliminate the junk and read smart:

  • Popularity – Although I wouldn’t say popularity is a universal measure of quality *cough* DaVinci Code *cough* it does help filter out a lot of crap. A great book might not be popular but if it is on the Amazon bestseller list it usually isn’t complete garbage. Don’t use popularity as your only filter, but it is one method.
  • Subjects that Interest You – I only use popularity for about 20-30% of my books. The rest I often pick through simply searching for a subject that interests me. This means I get specific, if you narrow down your subject of curiosity enough you can usually get a book that matches. That means don’t search for “Fitness” when you want “Beginners Running.”
  • Use the Library – Books aren’t expensive, I can get several weeks worth of reading from Amazon for less than a hundred bucks. But often once you buy a book you feel obligated to read it, even if it is drivel. Economists call this a sunk cost. Get books from the library so you don’t feel guilty leaving it unfinished.

But how you get books is really the least important aspect of reading smart. I’ve read few books I could say were complete crap. Most had at least a few interesting ideas. The best had great ideas densely packed into the pages and the worst had one or two within three hundred pages of noise.

The first way to start reading smart is to start cutting out garbage. Remember, time is short, information is limitless – read what you need. Here are some tips I use to cut down on the amount I read while preserving the best information:

  • Know When Not to Start – Trust your instincts of the book based on the first fifteen pages. I know they tell you not to judge a book by its cover, but if a book is great it usually shows itself within the first few dozen pages.
  • Know When Not to Finish – There is nothing wrong with putting a book down that you were halfway through.
  • Speed Read – Speed reading isn’t about going faster, but controlling your tempo. Know when to speed up and when to speed down. I often reread slowly really good ideas and blur over things that don’t interest me.
  • Skip Chapters – Sometimes the book has interesting ideas but has chapters that don’t interest you. If you are reading a book on starting a business for the web company you want to setup, skip over the section on franchising. If the upcoming sections look awful, just skip ahead a chapter to see whether it turns around.

The second way to read smart is to utilize the information you want. You’ve spent a lot of effort filtering out the junk, you might as well use the gems. Here are some tips I use to help emphasize good ideas:

  • Use a Highlighter – Use a highlighter to reinforce ideas you want to remember. I’m very stingy with the highlighter because it does slow you down, so only the important stays.
  • Stop Reading and Think – One fault of great books is that they have so many ideas you end up losing them trying to intake too much. Whenever I cross a threshold of new ideas in my head I put the book down and think.
  • Applications – When you hit a good idea, ask yourself how you can use it immediately or in the near future. This makes the idea more memorable and more useful.
  • Connections – Sometimes good ideas are disguised. When you read something you find interesting but isn’t relevant to you, think again. Ask yourself how topics from one subject can enhance your understanding in another.

These techniques for reading apply mostly for non-fiction. If you just want to read a book to be entertained, don’t worry about highlighters and skipping chapters. But if you are reading a book because you want the information it contains, don’t just read fast, read smart.

Image courtesy of flickr.

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  • Lodewijkvdb

    I was a very slow reader when I started training my speed reading skills. I’m fair now, but I’m not done training yet. Now looking at this post, my smart reading skills weren’t that bad at all…thanks 🙂

    Oh, and I deliberately slow read my fiction books. I like to get sucked in by the language, and really experience the words and the text. And for good fiction books…you don’t really want them to end as you enjoy it so much. Speed reading would be so detrimental to my fiction experience…

  • Li Wei

    Hi Scott,

    I agree with your points, especially the ‘stop and think’ bit. I’m just wondering what you think about re-reading books.

    Personally I’ve always wanted to read some books again (they’re just too full of good stuff to catch the first time), but never came round to it.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    As for re-reading books I usually don’t do it. But I do refer back to different sections of a book to re-read to strengthen my memory.


  • Zoie Brytin

    Great little article. Enjoyed this and another one thoroughly. Thanks

  • mc

    (Re-reading) is great; Drill it for speed training, never underestimate the ability of reading faster, the more you do it, the more it becomes an exercise to picking up words faster, speed is something to get use to drilling over (it’s lot of practice) I use to sight words faster than comprehension for years hoping 1 day it’ll match up -results wasn’t possible. So I had to do it the traditional way using my (comprehension!-with-speed) that’s important & just gradually working either -up the speed –OR– by (Re-reading) the text very fast further & further outwards through the text, I’ve practiced Speed-reading for 20 years & my whole (Face-Book) of notes is dedicated to the art, including mnemonics. -Hello Scott remember me 🙂