You don’t have to speed read: Tips for reading better

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It is a well known fact that you have to read in order to write. Rarely can someone be a successful novelist without drawing inspiration from their own favorite novelists. Also, your writing tends to take on the style, in part, of those writers and texts that have most influenced you. Maybe you are not where you want to be in this regard. I know I’m not. I missed out on a lot of books that were required reading for my friends in their youth, and it’s easy to be intimidated by your literary friends who seem to have read every book there is.

But you don’t need to panic or sell yourself short. Most of us have read more literature than we give ourselves credit for. In our busy, hustle-bustle lives, we tend to forget what we have actually accomplished on the side.

Sit back for a second and try to think of the last few books you read and, most importantly, what you learned from them. Specifically try to think of any novels you have read that you can remember and write down your impressions, even if it’s just a few words on a notepad.

In your writing, consider to what degree you want to imitate the style of these great writers you have already read. This will get you on the right path toward being a better reader. Why? Because being a better reader is not about skimming hundreds of books in order to look smarter than your friends.

Rather, it’s about what you learn and what you gain along the way. As someone with an academic background in literature, I can’t stress this enough. It’s not about the quantity of your reading, but the degree to which you think actively about what you have read.

With reading, you don’t just set it and forget it. You need to chew the material and consider its different sides. This may be more true with some texts than others, but it’s almost always necessary to some degree.

It depends on your personal goals. Classic works particularly lend themselves to critical reading — that is, active reading in which you take notes or keep a journal of your own thoughts. Classic works have stood the test of time and often represent milestones in the course of history, philosophy, literature and many other areas of learning. Knowing what you think about them and what you, personally, have learned from them can be a tremendous resource for you as a novelist and as a person in general.

But even less highfaluting books may need to be read critically, especially when you are trying to become a novelist yourself. Take the novels you read for entertainment. If you plan to write such novels, there are many questions to consider in your personal response:

  • What can I learn from the style of this author?
  • How could this novel have been written better?
  • Even though this novel is mainly a thriller meant to sell to a general audience, are there any deeper elements? What values, literary and otherwise, shine through? Is there a moral to the story?

So just to recap, it is important to understand your response to a work, not just to have read it. I know that for me, personally, I have read many things that had very little lasting effect on me because the content went in one ear and out the other. For me, the best way to keep this from happening is to write “reading responses,” that is, my initial thoughts about a book. I keep these in notes on my computer, and I simply create a new note or add more to an old one whenever an important thought about a book enters my head. You may choose to do this on physical paper or a notebook, but there are many note-taking apps that you can use for this as well. I use standard plain text editors for the most part, but I have also used Evernote, Apple Notes, Notability, Scrivener and Ulysses.

Practical methods for streamlining your reading success

However, while quantity is not very important, consistency is important. If you stop reading for very long, you’ll be out of a good habit before you know it. If your reading habits have dried up lately, consider what reasons may have caused this.

  • Do other duties get in the way? If so, what can you do to carve out time for yourself and your personal growth, including reading time?
  • Do you lack the motivation? If so, what don’t you like about reading? If it’s the content, have you ever considered reading a different genre, author or subject area?
  • Are you having trouble knowing where to start? Then ask friends and relatives what they are reading. Use sites like Goodreads to see what people in your social circles and around the world are reading. Really, just start somewhere that seems interesting. There is no “wrong decision” for what to read first, as long as you are thoughtful and at least somewhat critical in your reading.

Some practical ways to read more include:

  • Read during breakfast and/or lunch.
  • Listen to audiobooks while driving, such as long commutes or business travel. One good resource for this is Audible.com.
  • Read on your smartphone or other mobile device. Since you already have it with you, it’s a good opportunity to squeeze in a little extra reading.
  • Make a small, manageable goal of at least 15 minutes of reading per day. This way, no matter what, your reading never completely comes to a halt. Just 15 minutes a day can lead to surprising results. It’s like filling a bucket with drops: It seems insignificant but adds up more quickly than you think.

The key to being and feeling like a better reader is to make these types of small tweaks to your routine. Just pick one or two changes to make. It’s always tempting to download libraries full of books and promise to read them later. Instead, set your sights to a realistic level so you will actually be able to carry through with action.

Don’t be fooled by the hype on speed reading that is currently making the rounds online. While certain, modest methods for increasing your reading speed can be helpful, the best things you can do to be a voracious reader are, first, actively reflect on what you read and, second, make one or two small changes to help streamline your daily/weekly reading routine.

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