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January 28, 2020

The art of speed reading

I have a folder on my computer desktop entitled Reports to be read.  It’s full of reports that I know I should read but also know in my heart that I never will. And then there are all the reports that I know I must read but struggle to get beyond the executive summary and the conclusions. Too much to read and not enough time is a common enough problem. A solution to this conundrum might be to change how we read. Interesting suggestions on this for overstretched local councillors from Local Govt Information Unit. 

Miranda Smythe. 

In May last year, a friend of mine was elected as a first-time district councillor. When I asked her what she had found to be biggest challenge in her role, she immediately replied that it was the unexpected and unremitting amount of material she was expected to read.

From my own experience of helping members to develop their reading effectiveness, I know that this is not an untypical response and many of you will be emitting waves of empathy.

Reading is often described as a “hidden skill” because we absorb so much written information without noticing it. There are few studies which have been able to evidence how much time each day the ‘average’ person amongst us spends reading, although one American survey (apologies for not being able to find a UK-based equivalent) carried out by CNS News in 2018, claimed that Americans spent an average of 17 minutes each day reading, versus 163 minutes watching television. What they didn’t factor into this calculation is that even watching television involves processing on-screen text.

Of course, there is a major difference between reading and seeing. True reading involves the conscious decoding and processing of visual information whereas seeing means just running our eyes over words. Many of us will have let our gaze run through a document and, after putting it down, have thought: “Do you know, I haven’t taken one word of this in!”.

Even those of us who have been reading quite happily and competently for decades can develop our reading skills and you may find some of the following ideas useful.

Develop a reading strategy

  1. Maximise your Circadian rhythm: when you can, plan to read complex information when you are at your perkiest and most absorbent.
  2. Read regularly so that your reading file does not build up and become unmanageable.
  3. Be realistic about how much information you will be able to take in at one sitting. It is better to read little and often.
  4. Book an appointment with yourself in your diary so that you ring-fence a specific time for the study of major documents, eg. committee papers.
  5. Avoid leaving the reading of important documents to the last minute as it can be difficult to process information when under pressure.
  6. Prioritise your reading: work out which documents are most urgent and/or important and choose these first. If you are not sure which are most significant, do a quick skim.
  7. Choose your reading place: avoid reading in bed in favour of sitting upright in a chair, with a decent reading light.
  8. Choose your reading environment so that you are not constantly interrupted.
  9. Background music can be conducive to concentration. Some research suggests that orchestral or acoustic music can work best.
  10. Preview the structure of a document before diving into read it. Look at its Contents page and skim through its major chapter/sub-headings.
  11. You don’t need to read in the order the author has prescribed.
  12. Remember that it can be better to read a document twice, quickly than to read it once and slowly.
  13. Vary your reading speed within a document. If you are familiar with an area, or if it is less relevant/important, then skim over it. Slow down for key passages which contain new or important. information.
  14. Remember that you are reading for information: you are not proof-reading so learn to ignore rogue apostrophe’s(!)
  15. Dry documents may benefit from being read in shorter bursts, with more active highlighting and note-taking on your behalf.
  16. If you experience “reader’s block”, read on and see if you can back-fill. If the passage is pivotal to your understanding, sleep on it or ‘phone a friend.
  17. Summarise each section within a complex report before moving onto the next part.
  18. Use an eye guide to reduce eye strain and speed up your eye movements.

Using an eye guide

Although our brain and eye are designed to work together, our eyes are not always able to keep their place. It can feel natural to run a finger along the bottom of each word to guide our eye and many of us would have done this as children.

Using an eye guide is the fastest and most effective way to immediately increase reading speed. Many people report a dramatic 50% immediate increase in speed, just by running a stick under a document’s text.

The best tool to use is a chopstick because it is long and pointed, without the ability to write. At this stage we are reading for speed, which means that we are not interested in highlighting or taking notes.

To use your chopstick:

  • Hold it at its longest length so you don’t have to constantly move your hand.
  • Start at the beginning of the text, and read at your normal speed, moving the chopstick under the line of each word as you read.
  • Allow your eye to follow the stick.
  • As your eye becomes ‘calibrated’ to the speed of the stick, gradually increase its pace.
  • Keep following the pointer and go at its new speed, not at your natural eye speed.
  • Once you are in tune with the stick again, move it slightly faster.
  • Keep repeating this until you hit your optimum speed.
  • When you see short bullet points or lists, run your stick down the middle (your brain will re-stitch them into the right order).
  • If a paragraph has just one or two words on its last line, just run your stick backwards and, once again, your brain will re-order them.

Skimming a document

Skimming is a technique which will enable you to gain an immediate overview of a document’s key points, without committing yourself to a full read. Whilst it doesn’t replace a detailed study, you will have an impression of the writer’s intent.

To skim a document:

  • If it has a list of contents, run your stick down this
  • Then read major headings, plus any sub-headings in the order you find them
  • Read the first part of each paragraph, stopping as soon as you have isolated its main point, so that you are effectively jumping from the start of one paragraph to the start of the next paragraph.

Once you have skimmed the document for its main messages, serpentine your eye through the text in a snake-like shape, looking for any key words or pieces of information you didn’t spot when you carried out your initial skim.

By employing a good skimming technique, you will find that you can reduce your detailed reading burden quite considerably.  There will be a decent percentage of materials which cross your desk where a high-level overview is fit for purpose.  Based on the main points within the document, you can now judge whether you need to go back and read it in more detail, or whether you can file it away for future reference.

If you do need to read the document again and more carefully, you will not have wasted your time as your initial skim will have provided you with a good, contextual overview of the paper’s key points.

Careful reading and SQRW

Reading for detailed comprehension requires a different technique and will usually involve a slower reading speed. It is recommended that you continue to make use of your chopstick so that your eye can keep its place within the document. The stick will also help to reduce eyestrain. SQRW is a four-step strategy for reading and analysing written information. Each letter stands for one step in the process:

Skimming, Questioning,  Reading, Writing


To skim a document, follow the advice provided earlier in this Blog. Make sure that you read the contents page and any introduction or summary before you dive into its body. Take time to examine any visual information including pictures, tables, maps, and graphs and read the caption that goes with each one. Once you have a feel of the document’s key points, you can make a decision on how best to approach your reading. This may mean choosing to read the document out of order or selecting certain sections to return to later for careful study.


As you skim, develop questions that you need the document to answer. A clever trick is to turn every heading into a question. For example, if you were reading a planning document which has a heading “Impact on Street Scene”, your questions might include: “What is the impact on the Street Scene?” and “What analysis of current Street Scene was carried out by the author?”

Questions give you a purpose for reading and help you to stay focused on the reading assignment. You will not usually need to form questions for the report’s introduction, summary or conclusion. Use the “five bottoms on a bed” model to build your questions:


Now that you have your questions, read the document to find the answers to your questions. As you do this, you may decide you need to change a question or turn it into several questions to be answered. Stay focused and flexible so you can gather as much information as you can. You may find that some of your questions are not answered. You can make a note of any omissions and these may form points for questioning or scrutiny.


Write each question and its answer in your notebook. Re-read each of your written answers to ensure that they are legible and contain the important information needed to answer the question.

Reading from your tablet or computer

Although many people say they prefer to read from a piece of paper, the modern trend is to deliver documents electronically. This means that we are spending more time reading from computer, tablet or phone screens.

Whilst some of us miss the kinaesthetic experience of holding or annotating paper documents, the major issue of “e-reading” tends to centre around eye fatigue. When we work at a computer, our eyes have to focus and refocus all the time: they move back and forth as we read and are constantly reacting to minute changes. Unlike a book or piece of paper, the screen adds contrast, flicker, and glare, which challenge our eyes, which is why it is so important to take a break every 15 minutes or so.

Screen brightness and background tint

A simple fix is to decrease the brightness on your device’s screen to the lowest setting you can, based on your reading environment. This will allow you to read with more comfort.

Dedicated e-readers which have “ink” screens are specially formulated to reduce light emissions and are designed for prolonged reading, but if you are using a tablet or computer, it is worth looking through the settings to see if you can change the background tint to something more sympathetic. If you are reading a Microsoft Word document on a computer or laptop you can change its background colour by clicking on “Design” and then selecting “Page Colour”.

Some tablets, and Apple iOS and Google Android mobile telephones, have a built-in blue light sensor which reduces the impact a screen’s glow on the brain’s production of melatonin.  You can choose to have this setting automatically applied within the hours you specify, eg. between 10.00pm and 8.00am.  The control for this will show as an option within the device’s settings, usually under “display”.  Apple refer to this as “Night Shift”.

Document layout and typography

If the document you are reading is long and/or complex and you are able to change its formatting, you might consider making a number of changes before you start reading. This takes less than a minute to do and will make your reading experience more comfortable and effective.

Reformatting can include:

  • Changing the document’s font to one which is easy to read on-line, eg. Arial
  • Enlarging the font size to whatever size works for you
  • Changing a document with a justified right-hand margin to a ragged, uneven one
  • Making margins larger, so that the text is not so broad on the screen.

On a PC/laptop, all of these formatting changes can be made in one go. In Microsoft Word, once you have opened the document you want to read, press the “control” and the “a” key at the same time.  This will highlight the whole document. You can now easily change its font, font size and margins. For PDF files, if you don’t have access to an editing programme where you can make these adjustments, you may be able to copy and paste the text into an editable Word document.

Reading distance and conditions

The distance you sit away from your computer matters. Ideally your eyes should be a bit further from the text than in comparison to reading from paper. Work on the basis of your eyes being 50 cm or 20 inches away from the screen. If you want to read faster, then you should read from slightly further back so that you have more text in your field of vision.

Proper lighting conditions are also important and there should be enough background light in your room. If you are sitting behind your computer in the dark, there will be a big contrast between the screen and its surroundings, which will cause your eyes to tire quickly. This will slow your reading speed and cause your eyes to strain as they compete with the difference in light levels.

Although it may feel intuitive to read from a tablet in “landscape” mode, it is usually better to hold the device upright, particularly when reading reports and business documents which are usually formatted into “portrait”. You can also take the same approach when using a hybrid laptop/tablet

Using a pointer

In the same way that a chopstick can be used to improve reading from paper, the same stick can also be used to guide your eye across the screen of a tablet. Some tablets are supplied with an e-pen, which can double as a highlighter.

On a desktop or laptop PC the mouse can be used for keeping track while reading from computer screen. To do this, place the mouse at the start of the piece of text you want to read. Press the left or right-hand mouse button and then drag the mouse across the line of text. The mouse will then highlight the text which keeps your eyes moving. This will improve reading speed and minimise eye strain.

Scrolling text can waste time and distract your attention, so to reduce the need to move a document around make use of the full screen mode when you are viewing a longer document. A larger sized monitor can make reading faster and more comfortable, so if you carry out most of your reading on your main PC, you could consider trading up to a larger screen when you next upgrade.

In summary

The ability to absorb information quickly and accurately is such an important skill and I hope that this short introduction to speed reading has provided you with some ideas on how to make the reading you do as part of your councillor role easier and more productive.