How to Gain More Than You Invest in Reading

Are you really reading?

You may have found yourself in a position something like this before. You have a book that you will be quizzed over in your next college literature class, only your chums convinced you to hit the big party at the fraternity the night before. Or maybe you just fell asleep reading it.

Next morning, mind fuzzy and hungover, you thumb through James Joyce’s Ulysses in an hour, over Fruit Loops and strong coffee. The book reads like an elaborate joke written for hungover college students.

Still, maybe you remember a detail or two and get a couple points you wouldn’t have received on the quiz otherwise. You gained something. Not much.

I’ll confess to having just an hour to prepare to teach The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway, which I had somehow not yet read, to a chipper group of 60 college students. Luckily, it’s short.

But, suppose your boss tosses you a 50 page white paper that you need to report on in 20 minutes.

Regardless of the circumstances, you do a lot of different kinds of reading from emails to biographies, and your brain adapts to the needs of the situation (or not). The more skilled you are as a reader and writer, the easier this adaptation becomes.

Reading with a purpose

A spectrum of reading exists, from the challenging to the simple, and I’ll mention just a few here to give you some context before I share some tricks for adapting your reading style. You change your reading depending on your purpose and how much time you have:

  • Critical: the serious, methodic, and evaluative. Aims to retain, learn, enter a dialogue, assess.
  • Serious: the studious, attentive, and focused. Intends to learn but not necessarily assess or evaluate.
  • Strategic: the quick, planned, and purposeful. This is the kind I’ll describe in more detail. You don’t actually read the whole piece, which makes it different from the next kind.
  • Speed: the super fast and systematic. You can take courses that teach you how to do this various different ways successfully.

Just to reassure you that I’m not taking you down a path to madness, check out this quote and who said it:

Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.

Albert Einstein

So my aim here is to provide you with tools to allow you to adjust your reading rate depending on the circumstances.

Strategic reading

You can do strategic reading at various rates depending on how much time you have. This is the coolest quality: you can adapt on the fly. Here are the steps:

  1. Note how much time you have and how long the piece is. This lets you know how to pace yourself as you go through the process. You may even decide you need to skip some steps.
  2. Look at the title and quickly decide what you think the writing is about. You can spend more or less time with this depending on your constraints. Guess what you think the paper will do given how long it is and what you think the title means.
  3. Quickly scan the first paragraph hunting for a thesis statement. Thesis statements capture the whole paper in one sentence. Most writers use them, and they provide a method for you to begin categorizing the information. If it’s hard copy you might underline it. If you can, take a moment to really process and remember the meaning of the thesis.
  4. Flip to the end and read the concluding paragraph closely. This should begin to help you start drawing concepts together and making sense of them.
  5. Back up to the beginning, and read through all of the headings (if the writing has them). Again, this is providing information to help you categorize. Also, look at all of the pictures and read the captions, as authors often include key information in graphic form.
  6. Return to the start, and read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. This will almost guarantee that you hit the topic sentence, which will provide the gist of the content of the paper.
  7. Take a minute to run through the whole paper in your mind. If you have time, jot down a summary sentence in your own words that captures the most important ideas.

One of the most important concepts you should remember is that these steps are flexible. If you have relatively little time, move through them quickly.

So, let’s say you only have 15 minutes for a 20 page paper. Try doing 1-6 quickly. Maybe there isn’t time for that, try 1-3 or just 1 and 6 (if you’re really short on time, just read the first sentence of each paragraph rather than the first and last).

I hope these tips help you glean from your reading the information you really need. They saved me in college, and I think you’ll be surprised by how useful.

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