The Tale of Two Reading Styles
Most college students are quick to learn the difference between skimming and reading. The former has you move your eye quickly across the page, picking up the occasional observation or idea. The latter has you actually read and process every sentence, and then try to record in your notes the salient arguments. We skim when the assignment is not too important. We read when we know we’ll later be tested on the material.
In this post, I want to teach you a third technique. One that occupies the middle ground between skimming and reading. It retains the comprehension benefits of reading while attempting, as much as possible, to achieve the speed of skimming. It’s a technique known to most upper-level humanities students; the key to taming massive reading lists without going insane. Different people call it different things. I use the term: pseudo-skimming.
It works as follows…
The core of the pseudo-skimming technique is to tackle the assignment paragraph by paragraph. Specifically, there are two types of paragraphs: important and filler. You only need to read the former; these hold the information that will come up in class discussion or make it onto an essay exam.
A general rule: the longer the reading, the higher percentage of filler paragraphs. This is good news. If you can identify which paragraph is which, and focus on reading only those that are important, you can significantly cut down your reading time without losing the important info missed by skimming.
The key is figuring out how to do this identification on the fly.
The Staggered Pace
The rhythm of pseudo-skimming is one of jogs and sprints. As you enter a new paragraph, you slow and read the first sentence. You ask: “what is this paragraph about?” If you get the sense that there is probably not much new meat here: abort! Jump to the start of the next paragraph, and ask the question again. Otherwise, stay the course, and actually read the damn thing.
There is a real art to this technique. You must intuit an answer to the importance question with a minimum of time. The more you read in the class, the better you’ll become at this. To help buff your skills, here are a few types of common filler:
- A long background story. Once you recognize the importance of the story (e.g., yet another example of the artists fighting!), you can keep aborting paragraphs until the story is over.
- Asides. If the author conducted a lot of historical research for the article, she can’t help but throw a few bits of extra information and explanations here and there. You’re not a historian. Skip!
- Exceptions. Professional scholars worry about being definitive, so they liberally sprinkle in exceptions and caveats to their arguments. If these run long, start aborting the paragraphs.
- Extra details. For a given idea, it is often sufficient to capture a few good pieces of evidence that supports it. If the author continues, in future paragraphs, with more details than you need, start skipping.
The Feel of Pseudo-Skimming
Once you catch the hang of pseudo-skimming, reading careful assignments takes on a different feel. There are relatively long stretches of you engaging the text, paragraph after paragraph, at a slow pace, internalizing the information. Then, suddenly, you are bounding from topic sentence to topic sentence, skipping paragraphs at a rapid rate. Wait! An important point! The pace slows again. And so on…
It may take a while to master this technique. But once you recognize the motivating idea — even for important readings not every paragraph needs to be read — you’ll find that the most beastly assignments suddenly seem a lot more manageable.